Language Is a Funny Thing

Will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

I recently read a BBC article questioning whether Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle’s accent was becoming more British. Skimming through the examples proving the author’s point, I shrugged. “Yeah, probably,” I thought, “because she now lives in Britain. She’s surrounded by those speaking British English.”   As myself recalled from three years spent living in Charleston, South Carolina, after a childhood growing up in the Midwest, one picks up not only regional dialect and phrases, but a touch of an accent, while living in those circumstances. I rapidly shed my faint overlay of a Southern American accent upon my return to the Midwest, but I still occasionally find myself reaching back through time for a turn of phrase which causes my Midwestern acquaintances to double-take, such as when I declare an attractive man to be “right pretty”, or claim that someone is “no brighter than a firefly’s backside”. I do not, however, complain that a room is too “airish” (breezy) any longer, and  the memory  is still vivid of my total confusion when a Southern acquaintance referred to the previous night as “slept under blankets”. Uh, didn’t most people sleep beneath a blanket or a sheet, I wondered? It took a real twist of Sherlockian brainpower to make the deduction that, to someone for whom a “warm” day was 90°F, sleeping beneath a blanket was a rare occasion, occurring only when the temperatures had plummeted to a surprising low.

It astounds me that, in a era of instant communication, not only accent and dialects, but regional idiom, persist. Yet they do, and I find myself often either bewildered or surprised by them.

I remember sitting in the theatre at the first showing of the movie “Home Alone” and being astounded when the sleepyheads awaken to screech, “We slept in!” My reaction was a straightforward, “Huh?” To my understanding, sleeping in was something desirable; it was a leisurely Saturday morning in which one had nowhere to be and nothing important to accomplish, and just planned to putter around in a bathrobe all morning. Rolling out of bed just when one felt like it was sleeping in; waking in horror, too late for an appointment, one’s job, or a plane trip was not sleeping in, but oversleeping. These were too separate occurrences, with two separate phrases to describe them: one delightful, the other absolutely awful.

I encountered the same confusion when watching a popular sitcom and hearing a character declare that he was close with his sister. Huh again. Close with? I’d never encountered that phrase. The Midwestern reference I’d grown up with and used all my life to describe a warm personal relationship was close to.   Just as one might be described as close to an emotional melt down, one was also close to a beloved friend or family member. Next to. Beside. Near to. Dear to.

More recently, a trip to the grammar advice pages of the Web was triggered by hearing the phrase step foot. By now growing accustomed to my “Huh?” moments, I decided to research, learning that the phrase had evolved from the original, set foot, around the year 1500. Huh. 500-some years. Funny, then, that I had never once heard it until 2018. The grammar page went on to explain, though, that the use of step foot rather than set foot had become more common since the 1980s…which actually made it still strange that I had never encountered the expression during those 30-some years. I’ve grown more accustomed to hearing it, but I can’t say that I like it. It just sounds wrong to my ear.

And then there are the phrases on accident and by accident. On accident makes me grind my teeth! One can do something on purpose, intentionally, but one can only do something unintentional by accident. Even the language tutor pages agree with me on this one: on accident makes grammar purists cringe. The difference—intentionally, unintentionally—is marked by the preposition.

But those who have grown up using the expression on accident would probably not agree. We usually prefer the language forms to which we’ve been accustomed. Which begs the question, will regional idiom become more or less common due to social networks and instant communication?

One can only wonder. I will ponder it the next time I’m waking from leisurely sleeping in.

Mispronounced, Revisited

As I have mentioned before in these blog posts, there are words that I have mispronounced for so many years that the mispronunciation now sounds correct to my ears. One of these is the word piscine—which is not, as made famous in one movie, generally pronounced “Pissing”, but “PIE Seen”.  However, when I first read the word, I accidentally placed the accent on the second syllable: “Pie SEEN”. To this day, that is how I read the word.  It rarely comes up in conversation, so I don’t generally have to worry about mispronouncing it in public.  But then, anything would be better than pronouncing the word as “pissing”.

But another word, topiary, is a pronunciation Waterloo for me.  Again, since I first read the word rather than heard it in conversation, I mispronounced it, reading it as “Tow PIE Uh Ree”.  When I heard the word pronounced correctly for the first time, TOW Pee Airy”, though, I thought to myself, “Well, that just sounds stupid.”  And I have embarrassingly mispronounced it, and been corrected, in conversation a few times.  Still, reading the word topiary, I hold on to my personal pronunciation.  It just sounds right to me.

Another stumbling block for me is the word plebian.  Perhaps due to my childhood lessons in sounding out unfamiliar words, it appeared to me that this word should be pronounced “PLEE Bee An”, not “PLIH Bee An”.  Fortunately, it is one word which I can usually speak correctly, even if in my own head I hear it differently.

But there are words which I intentionally mispronounce, such as the name of the planet Uranus.  In the English language, there is simply no good pronunciation for this the name of this poor, benighted planet. It either comes out sounding like “Your Anus” or “Urine Us”, both equally awful.  So I pronounce it “You RAN Us”.  It is quite wrong—and much more pleasing to the ear.  Correctness be damned.  And while I’m on the subject of words for outer space, I have found no fewer than five different pronunciations listed on-line for the name Betelgeuse.  So, once again, despite the popular movie pronunciation, Beetle Juice, I absolutely refuse to pronounce the word that way!  It’s atrocious.  Instead, I lean toward the pronunciation, “Beh Tell Jezh.”  Far more pleasing.

Other words can rattle me simply because of growing up using local pronunciations, such as the ignorant Hoosier tendency to call the popular breakfast food an “Aig” rather than an “Ehg.” It took me years to train myself out of that slip of the tongue. Coupon will always catch me out, though.  It will forever be to me a “KEW Pon”, not a “KOO Pon.”

But the mispronunciations of some words are so common that the correct pronunciation sounds strange to most ears; witness, the word which, as I sat in Mrs. Dryer’s third grade classroom, set me up for this lifetime of persnickety pronunciation habits: mischievous.  MISS Cheh Vus, not Miss CHEE Vi Us!  The word is so commonly mispronounced that I have been called out on a few occasions when using the correct pronunciation, and (in great irritation, I might add), debated the question with my would-be tutors.  Which begs the question: If a mispronunciation is that common, is it, in fact, simply a separate way of saying the word?  Language, after all, is fluid; it ebbs and flows and changes.  New words are added; others fall out of use.  The word gif did not exist throughout most of my lifetime, and, despite the intentions of its creator, I will always pronounce it with a hard “g”, as gif, not the peanut-buttery jif.

Which brings to mind a TV documentary that I once watched far back in the 1970s. The computer era not yet having arrived, countries such as Iceland experienced both isolation and individuality.  The show’s narrator was extolling the fact that Icelandic people still spoke the language, unchanged, of their distant forebears, the Viking people.  As the narrator spoke, the video ran, displaying an Icelandic TV news announcer, reading the latest stories to his listeners in their ancient tongue.

This sent me into gales laughter. Exactly what, I wondered, was the ancient Viking word for “television”?!

The simple truth is that none of us who have either been raised speaking or who have later acquired the English language speak the language as it once existed—the English of Chaucer’s day. Within a world of instant communication, language is changing even faster than it did in the hundreds of years that divide us from notable writers such as Shakespeare.  Some of those changes in both pronunciation and usage will be sensible.  The language we read and speak will continue to evolve.

But I absolutely, positively, totally refuse to bend even an inch on the pronunciation of mischievous!