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Standard Pronunciation of English?



     The proposal for a standard pronunciation of English has produced quite a response. Les Robinson writes:
     "I wish I could respond with a positive suggestion to your call for a new standard pronunciation of English. Even Webster's once provided the "correct" American pronunciation of words, but it has long since submitted to the inevitable pull merely to list the most commonly heard pronunciations. I don't know how, without an American Ataturk, you can possibly regiment Americans to modify their regional speech patterns. Many southerners resent "clipped" Yankee and California accents or, at best, just laugh at them. And, of course, northerners poke fun at the southern drawl.
     When Nancy and I moved to Staten Island, N.Y., she called to have someone come out to repair our stove; when a man of Joisey persuasion came to the door about our "earl boiner," a confused Nancy said no one by that name lived here!
     While we lived there we had several English friends (who worked in New York for an English company) who spoke the "King's English," which we understood perfectly. Now, on visits to England, I still understand them but I strain to figure out what their adult children say.
     The nearest thing to a standard American pronunciation that you're going to get, I think, is what national news broadcasters speak, for I believe they are generally required to measure up to pretty much the same level of "standard" pronunciation. Perhaps your only hope is to homogenize national pronunciation gradually via English Departments, William Safire, and TV; the other side of that coin is that TV is simultaneously homogenizing cultural mediocrity with its game shows and sitcoms.
     British and American pronunciations will, in the meantime, no doubt continue to go their separate ways and not even King Canute could command them to roll back, one in favor of the other! "Foreigners" will simply still have to choose which they prefer to learn.
     You say linguists have not studied the problem of testing various pronunciations to find a clear and harmonious standard speech. Linguists don't do that sort of thing, I hear; they only measure what IS, not what should be.
     Incidentally, your many-faceted Cyber-Seminar, a brilliant extension of the old HAR seminar, is a treat and I congratulate you on its direction. You and others are always raising interesting questions and points."
     My comment: May I introduce Les to those who do now know him? As you can see, he is now emeritus and pessimistic, but still bubbling. As a young man, he was a valued assistant of mine at Bolivar House. The HAR seminar to which he refers was the seminar which produced the highly respected Hispanic American Report, which fell victim to the machinations of a department which I will not name (see below).
     He is too pessimistic about the balcanization of English, but right on the unifying role of TV announcers. But here again, comparisons are odious. Spanish TV has many female announcers, well-trained, well-mannered, and well-spoken. In contrast, their American counterparts act like salespersons who just came from the sticks. They pain me.
     Ths Spanish women have gone through a good university training. The career appeals to many young women, some of whom report beautifully from places like Macedonia and even Kosovo. The training of American women is poor in comparison. When the afore-unnamed department was sabotaging the Hispanic American Report because it was sponsored by the School of Humanities, it also engineered the abolition of the Geography and Speech departments, which also sprang from that school. English departments are concerned with writing, not speaking, and for years they were dominated by faculty who urged their students to write their own thing.
     Yes, linguists pose as objective scientists, and they urge people to speak their own thing. We propose a comparison with medicine. Just as the new trend is to promote preventive medicine as the way to normal health (which exists), so linguists should promote normal pronunciation, with linguistic hospitals for those who get an attack of Brooklynitis.
     Speakers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your Tower of Babel!

Ronald Hilton - 04/10/99


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