Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Schwa Goes Here?

I have a friend who's very intelligent and extremely well-read -- though she does tend to mispronounce a lot of words. She attributes this to having a large "reading vocabularly," meaning she picked up these words from books rather than from spoken conversation. For example, she first encountered the word "epitome" in a novel. She understood exactly what the word meant...she just didn't realize that the last syllable didn't rhyme with the words "home" and "dome."

It's a plight common to many young readers. It certainly happened to me. It's been decades, but I still turn red thinking about the time I publicly referred to something being in a "state of chay-os."

I also used to refer to that column in READER'S DIGEST as "Toward More Picture-es-cue Speech."

Okay, I was an idiot.

Naturally, those types of mistakes wouldn't have occured if I'd developed better dictionary skills. Strangely, I really did consult the dictionary fairly often as a kid -- but mainly to discover definitions. I tended to skip right past the pronunication guides, with their accent marks and umlauts and those confusing upside-down lowercase e's, long before Neal Schusterman made them famous.

But even if I had become an expert at deciphering diacritics, I still would have been up a creek when trying to sound out various proper names in books.

Geoff? I pronounced it GEE-off.

Reggie? I rhymed it with Peggy.

And for the longest time, I thought that Denys, Meg's brother in the Madeleine L'Engle books, pronounced his name like the restaurant chain Denny's.

Come to think of it, even today I'm not certain how to pronounce Ms. L'Engle's name!

Why didn't she go by her birth name "Madeleine Camp" or her married name "Madeleine Franklin"?

Camp and Franklin I could deal with.

L'Engle...? Not so much. When I have occasion to say her name outloud, I usually just sort of slur and smush it together and hope people know who I'm talking about. I once heard a little kid in a bookstore refer to her as "Madeleine L. Engle," which is certainly one way to solve the problem.

Heck, I'm not even sure how to pronounce Robert Cormier's name.



Oh wait, he was French-American. Is it Cormy-AY?

The sad thing is that I've actually asked people the pronuniciation of Mr. Cormier's name and they've told me...but it eventually flies out of my head because all those other alternate pronunications have been flitting around in there for thirty years and I ultimately forget which is correct.

And let's not even get into Jon Scieszka. I just refer to him as "the Stinky Cheese Guy" and everyone knows who I mean.

As I said, I know I'm not the only one who suffers from having a better "reading vocabulary" than "spoken vocabulary." I've already told you about my friend who is the epitome of a good reader and bad pronouncer.

Are you also in this boat?

I'd love to hear what words you learned incorrectly from the books you read as a child. Did you ever embarrass yourself by repeating them in public? Do you sometimes mispronounce them still? Please send your own examples to me, Peter Sieruta -- which is pronounced Sir-oo-ta.

Nah, even that's too hard to pronounce!

Just call me the "Collecting Children's Books Guy." I'll know who you mean.


Nancy Werlin said...

I'm guilty of too many mispronunciations to count. I still do it, but here are a couple from my youth:

- From a biography called HELEN KELLER'S TEACHER, I learned that everyone in Annie Sullivan's family had died of something I called TUB-ber-cul-is.

- When things are a mess, they were AW-ry.

- Patronize (short a) versus patronize (long a). Once I got these mixed up in front of my freshman English teacher. At Yale.

Nancy Werlin

Anonymous said...

I'm one of you, too. But can I remember any examples? Of course not. Proper names are the worst. Scieszka however I can pronounce - it is spelling it that gets me.

Andrea said...

Here are two of my favorite websites for pronouncing authors' names:

(where you can hear recordings of authors pronouncing their own names)

(hilarious article written by the Stinky Cheese Guy!)

Andrea said...

Oops.. second link got cut off, so I've tinyurled it.

Anonymous said...

I did the "epitome" mispronunciation as well. I also never bothered to learn how to say "abattoir" in college, but I still used it in a poem, then had to read it out loud in class, and I ended up looking pretty stupid.

Kim Laird said...

Heck, my last name is only 5 letters, and has lots of vowels, but people still mispronounce it. Unfortunately in a way that makes me cringe. And unfortunately, with L'Engle, I read a comment from her that made me cringe, due to her snobbishness, but which enables me to answer your query about her name. Apparently it is pronounced LENGLE. The apostrophe is there for decoration not as a guide to pronunciation, from what I can figure.

Here's a question for you, one that I could not answer, and it is verbatim from my requestor:

"Do you happen to remember a book:

* With a mouse

* Name 'o mouse something like "Eekity Squeakity"

* Perhaps with a broken tail...

(he says it is not the Squirrel Nutkin tale by Beatrix Potter).

Cathy Reeve said...

My mispronunciation of epitome has been a family joke for years! Just as you describe, when I was an avid reader as a kid, I ended up using it in a sentence, without of course, pronouncing it correctly (thinking I was so intelligent!). I remember my parents just cracking up :)

My other mispronunciation of note was the word miscellaneous, which I pronounced something like michelangel-ous (simliar to the renaissance artist, but ending in ous).

Thanks for bringing back a fun memory!

Carol P said...

Scieszka rhymes with Fresca!

SHESH ka :)

Nikki in Niagara said...

The only one I can remember is one day I was about to cross the street with my dad as a kid. I'd be about 7 or 8 and he took my hand to hold it as we walked across and I pulled my hand away and said "I don't need you to hold my hand. I'm not inVAlid (with a short /a/) you know!" Well, he about bust a gut then told me the word was INvalid (with a schwa /u/). I still remember feeling very embarrassed.

Anonymous said...

I do that all the time, and like you, I forget a pronunciation even when I have learned it when it comes to names. I "think" someone told me that Cormier was pronounced Calm-yay, but heck if I can remember so I default back to Core-meer.

One word I learned from reading newspapers was indictment which I pronounced just as it looks--with a dict in the middle. One day watching the news on tv, it clicked that in-dite-ment was the correct way to pronounce it.

As for Nancy's patronize, I have always pronounced it with the long a, but just as often I hear others pronounce it with a short a and I chalk that up to regional differences.

For instance, I will pronounce envelope as on-velope until the day that I die. I don't know how I learned it that way but I know I'm not the only one and I suspect it is a regional quirk as well.

You would think that my last name would be an easy slam dunk, but I can't tell you how often it is pronounced like the fruit: Pair-sen. But it is definitely PEER-sen

Sherry said...

The family story is that I wandered into the room at about age ten and observed, "I feel quite melancholy today."

I didn't get quite the sympathetic reaction I was looking for since they were all snickering at my phonetic (me-LAN-cho-le) pronunciation.

Unknown said...

Everyone laughed at me when I mispronounced palidromes. How was I supposed to know it did rhyme with home and dome. I totally thought this was going to be a Schwa Was Here post and I got all excited because I just finished the second book Antsy Does Time. Even so, I am glad to be in the company of other mis-pronouncers. The worst author name for me is Phyllis Root. You would think it is pronounced like a tree root, right? Wrong. It is pronounced like rUt. Learned that the hard way when I talked to her in person. ach.

Mama Librarian said...

Mine was "Penelope" (PEN-a-lope), first discovered in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at age 8.

Ah, and "melee" (MEE-lee, if I recall correctly) in the Dungeons and Dragons manual. Thank goodness for my history-loving father who corrected me.

Bybee said...

Oh, good -- I had your name right!

My word was yacht "Yah-chitt"

I always say Cormier's name Cormy-ay.

Anonymous said...

Mel-an-chol-ee for "melancholy"

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

Oh, there are so many. I'm probably still guilty of this. here's one I remember from childhood: COMMittee (from Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing).

my only problem said...

I was privileged to hear Madeleine L'Engle speak while in I was in college. The correct pronunciation of her name is Lengle like "angle" with an L in front.

Barb said...

My most shocking one is furtive. Which I apparently never looked closely at and have pronounced fuh-YER-a-tive. Also beribboned (which I read a million times in the Betsy Tacy books and never used) was always pronounced in my head as BAR-ry-bonned.

Anonymous said...

In high school I spoke "compromise" correctly, but I read it as "COM promise." It never occurred to me the two were the same word until I mispronounced it while reading aloud in a history class. The memory still embarrasses me!

Anonymous said...

throw in ESL with a "reading vocabulary" and you get -- me in a biolgy class trying to impress the professor, raised my hand and quoted from the book, "when we re gor gi ate. I stopped because everyone were laughing too loud to hear. The teacher asked me to point at the word and he said, Oh Regurgitate.

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Great post. Thanks, Peter. Just discovered your blog. And thanks, Andrea, for the link. As a bookseller, I've ALWAYS wondered how to pronounce Louis Sachar (now I know it rhymes with cracker) and Jon Scieszka.

Of course, my mispronunciations go way back. I'm in my fifties and my family STILL teases me about the time I was 8 and had just seen Mary Poppins for the first time. Coming out of the theater, my mother asked me who my favorite character was. I answered, "AdMYral Boom," thinking, of course, of the word admire.

I also mispronounced indict (in-dicked) and deny (DEN-ee) for years. To cover my embarrassment, I've always used the excuse that I learned to read at an early age and never heard the words, so I couldn't possibly know how to pronounce them!

Anonymous said...

Ditto on ESL combined with huge reading vocab... So glad I'm not the only one who's struggled with epitome and awry! and Sachar is sacker? Dang, and I've been saying it like sacher, as in -torte...
Until about six months ago I called Eoin Colfer "Ian" - until a kid corrected me (not, thank FSM, in mid-booktalk).
Enid Blyton I always assumed was eh-NEED...
The worst thing is, once I learn a pronunciation rule, I keep using it to excess. After learning my Welsh friend Cerys's name had a K-sound and a short e, I cannot for the life of me say Ceres (the goddess/planetoid/juice brand) any other way.

Laya said...

"Bourgeois", in a spelling contest when I was eleven. I'd often read that word in books but thought it was pronounced "bur-gis" not "vor-zhwa." Needless to say I lost to someone who correctly spelled a less difficult word. /facepalm/

hschinske said...

When I said "eppy-tome," my brother told me loftily "An epi-tome is a little book on top of a big book." (However, he himself, some years earlier, had been laughed at for talking about the "flash fleweds" in one of the Happy Hollister books -- which were of course "flash floods.")

I also had trouble with L'Engle's Dennys (which I believe has two N's) -- I knew Dennis from Dennis-the-Menace, Denis from Nesbit's Would-be-Goods, and *possibly* even Denys, but not Dennys!

And, of course, I thought misled was the past tense of misle, and therefore pronounced my-zuld.

Helen Schinske

Daughter Number Three said...

I also thought Penelope was Pen-a-lope (in 9th grade while reading the Odyssey), despite growing up with Penelope Pitstop. Never read that one, so I didn't realize it was spelled the same way.

I was sure "detritus" was pronounced DET-trit-us until I was in my 30s. Embarrassed myself by saying it that way to an editor (and insisting I was correct). Oops.

Sean said...

Draught. For years pronounced it DROT, not realizing it was "draft."

susan said...

I was embarassingly old when I realized that the DEPEN-dable (rhymes with table) Employment Agency probably didn't pronounce its name that way. For some reason, I liked to read that sign to myself as a child as we drove past it.

Anonymous said...

Peter, you've flushed us out! Obviously no wo/man is an is-land (and that mispronunciation still makes me smile).

Are those of us who did not avail ourselves of the dictionary's pronunciation guide the literary equivalents of folks who buy new electronic gadgetry and never consult the accompanying manuals?

My husband (who faithfully looked everything up in the dictionary) still corrects my pronunciation, often, unfortunately, for words where he's corrected me before.

I just learned yesterday evening that I've been mispronouncing the first Newbery Award winner's last name for years. He preferred the Dutch pronunciation of loan - not loon, like the bird.

Caroline said...

Chaos was my word to mispronounce, when I described something as "Chay-otic" to my mother. In "Clue," I also read "Colonel Mustard" as "Colonial Mustard," but I don't think I ever said that one out loud.

hschinske said...

Oh, and I think I was married with children before I found out that merino wool is pronounced muh-REE-no and not MERR-i-no.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

deficit and sword. The first was mispronounced in college in front of my Dean of Admissions. Sigh.
Chris in NY

Anonymous said...

As I read this I am listening to a children's librarian talk about "heroes" and hero-eens".

Susan in Boston said...

sword (I pronounced the silent class as a child...soo humiliating!) and Jacobean (I read a LOT of Robert Louis Stevenson as a child).

Sword I never again mispronounced after that day, but I will probably never stop stumbling over Jacobean...

The online Merriam-Websters has an audio function that "speaks" the word, which is a fabulous idea...

Carm said...

I love this post. I still have trouble with the word assuage. :)

I remember getting a spelling bee word wrong because I didn't understand the way it was pronounced. Acknowledge... the lady said EGG-knowledge and really emphasized the EGGyness of the beginning. I was thrown for a loop! Needless to say, I got it wrong and was disqualified.

My little sister once came home from school with a library book with her new favorite flower, "beautiful or-CHITS," and I had to suppress laughter and tell her the proper way to say orchids. What a cutie!

Joanne R. Fritz said...

Can't resist adding another comment to this great post, Peter.

As someone who mispronounced words all through school, I was thrilled finally to hear one of my English profs in college mangle a word that even I knew how to pronounce properly. He was talking about the constellation Orion (it was mentioned in a short story we were discussing) and he pronounced it OR-ee-un. I laughed myself silly over that one.

I'm giving you a nod over on my blog, My Brain on Books

Anonymous said...

I've always called it the Jeopardy Syndrome as if “What is, Alex I believe it’s pronounced, ….. “

In college I had a professor who told us about how he was confused by how the “ Sux Indians” that he read about sounded a lot like the “Sue Indians” that his teacher was talking about.

I know I have a lot of these, but can’t seem to remember any right now….

catz37 said...

How about "stow-mack" (stomach). Got me as a little kid!

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