Verbally Illiterate

By Shamus
on Aug 3, 2006
Filed under:
Personal

I read far more than I converse, and so I may see a word in print years before I hear it spoken. More to the point: I may end up saying it before I hear it pronounced correctly. This means if my first guess at the proper pronunciation is wrong I will read it many, many times and that improper pronunciation will be deeply ingrained before I realize my error. The risk here is that if I drop my incorrect usage into conversation I risk making a fool of myself.

This happens alarmingly often.

I saw the word “meme” years ago and have typed it and read it many times since then, always pronouncing it “mem” in my head. Yesterday I saw a Wiki on memes and found out it’s pronounced “meem”. Now I wonder: How many times did I use this word incorrectly in conversation and the other person was too polite to let me know I’m an idiot?

I spent most of the early 90’s thinking “cache” was pronounced “catch”. As in, “This system has 8kb of catch memory, that’s huge!” If I had guessed that I was saying it wrong, my next guess would have been “cashay”, to rhyme with “sashay”. Saying “cash” was not obvious to me at all.

Same goes for “Chasam”. I once earned a bit of riddicule when someone caught me pronouncing it the way it looks, instead of saying “kasam”.

Some people don’t have this problem, and I don’t know how they avoid it. Are they better at intuiting words? Do they run to the dictionary every tme they see a new word?

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From the Archives:

  1. I have exactly the same problem and have made exactly the same kinds of mistakes. It’s an inherent risk of autodidactism.

  2. Bonnie says:

    I’m the exact same way! I had this problem in the past year with the word melee. It’s always so pleasant being corrected by one of your children.

  3. HC says:

    It happens all the time to me as well – that’s what one get for reading so much!

    One cure is more reading – dictionaries. Another is studying other languages in order to be able to have the right intuitions about pronunciation, since English tends to borrow pronunciation, and often inflection, when it borrows a word.

    Or, just talking until things get clarified.

  4. Mark says:

    I’ve had this problem, but apparently not to the same extent. For instance, how does one pronounce “niche.” Is it nitch, or neesh, or neech?

    At this point, the worst problems come from names – specifically foreign names. For example, I recently mentioned Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku in a conversation, but I have no idea if I said his name right.

    Also, when I read the Harry Potter books, I always pronounced Hermione’s name different in my head than it’s supposed to be. When I finally saw the movies, I was very confused. I still get tripped up on her name and I have to make a conscious effort to say it correctly.

  5. Gothmog says:

    I’ve run into this exact same problem all my life- with an added twist- I grew up in Germany (my father was a civilian that worked for the US) and attended German school from 1st through 7th grades. Because of this, when encountering an unfamiliar word, my first impulse is to pronounce it with a Germanic slant.

    I remember as a child reading ‘Richie Rich’ comics as well as ‘Archie’ for that matter – one of the characters was ‘Reggie’ and for the longest time, well into my teens, I thought you it was pronounced ‘Reggy’. In my later teens I attended an english speaking school (grade 9, I beleive) and actually met someone named Reggie (y’know, oddly enough he was a jerk too just like the comic characters… thinking back I don’t know of a Reggie who wasn’t one. Must be an universal trait or something). My mangling of the pronounciation of his name and it’s ensuing ridicule from all the jock/popular types that hung out with him was one of my first steps on the road to proto-geekdom.

    Man, I still hate that guy.

    So yeah, I feel your pain.

  6. Pete Zaitcev says:

    Aren’t you glad that it’s nearly impossible in Japanese (minus usual silent vovels)? Instead, you may not know how to read the kanji. Like in Kamichu (the cutest spoiler ever):

    KENJI: Ichi… hashi… -san?
    YURIE: Htotsubashi des.

    He remembers how to spell her name, but not how to say it.

    Russians offer a wildly varying accent, or stress. And you cannot guess how to place it, unless you remember the word. I have books where the stress is printed, almost like furigana. It’s so cute.

  7. Cineris says:

    Definitely have the same problem. I’m still partial to cache as “cashay,” and Linux will always be “LInux,” not “LinNux” to me. I think I’m generally pretty good about getting the intended pronunciation of a word (meme is meem because gene is geen) unless it’s computer jargon — You can’t depend on programmers to follow language conventions.

    The reverse also happens to me occasionally, where I can remember a pronunciation but not a spelling, even though I usually never have any problems with spelling. The word (ex., “raisin”) seems to crumble before your eyes into a series of meaningless phonetic markers, none of which correspond to the sound (“ray-zin”).

  8. ubu roi says:

    You do not want to know how badly I embarassed myself the first time I said “h’ordourves” aloud in college. Well, you may want to know, but I’m sure as hell not going to tell.

    And then there’s “resovoir” which I managed to put an extra R into. Sort of like when Captain Picard called Lt. Barkley “Lt. Broccoli” Or not.

  9. Shamus says:

    h’ordourves is a horrible word. I HEARD “oarderves” and a READ “h’ordourves”, but I was an adult by the time I realized they were the same word! I always wondered how you spelled “oarderves”, and I always wondered how you pronounced “h’ordourves”. Looks like… huh-ord-doar-vees

    Although, I am glad to read I’m not the only person with this problem. I guess I’d feel better if I caught other people doing it more often…

  10. Dan says:

    Ya your not one to go out and meet new people.

  11. Mark says:

    One other thing for the youngsters: if you mispronounce a word, you can always play it off like you knew the correct pronounciation but were ironically mispronouncing the word (a la pronouncing Target as Tarshay like it’s some fancy french store – similarly, pronouncing Chinet like Shinnay works). Of course, this is compounding the lie and will get you doubly embarrassed if you still get caught, but sometimes it’s worth a shot. It works up until a little after college. Not so much in the real world, though:P

  12. Heather says:

    I still think ration should be pronounced like ratio with a -shun. Stupid English language. :(

  13. Hale Adams says:

    I think a lot has to do with the people around you as you’re growing up.

    I’m the child of older parents (Mom and Dad were in their middle 30s when I was born) and my sister (my only sibling) is ten years older than I am. So I spent my childhood living in a house with two adults and one near-adult. Mom and Dad were both well-educated, and all of us loved to read, so both Linn and I not only encountered words like niche, cache, chasm, etc., in print, but also heard them being used and pronounced correctly.

    You know how parents keep embarrassing photos of you as a small child, claiming (with tongue planted firmly in cheek) that they’ll “blackmail” you with them someday? Something in a similar vein– my father was vastly amused by a memory of me from the time I was maybe seven or eight, and used the word “bourgeois” in a sentence. The hell of it, he would say, was that I used and pronounced it correctly, never mind that I was a second-grader. I think he would tell the story whenever he felt I was being a bit of a stuffed shirt (which I can be occasionally, alas).

  14. NeedsToHeal says:

    My parents are not American, though I was born in the USA. So all of the sounds that I hear relating to the English language, I learned on the streets, TV, and in school. I wasn’t blessed/cursed with siblings, so I was pretty much on my own. And there were so many words that I found in so many books that I just automatically knew the meaning, but never knew how it really sounded. I paid for it later in life though, especially with the cruel and mean kids and adults.

    I guess I need to switch from reading D&D books to the dictionary every once in a while.

  15. Marijana says:

    English is my second language. You can imagine how many words I see in print before I hear them. It’s even worse when I have nobody to talk to for like years! Then I forget words, or my tongue simply wont bend around them. So I find that electronic dictionary helps a lot.

  16. Marijana says:

    Re:12 Heather
    I still think ration should be pronounced like ratio with a -shun. Stupid English language.

    You mean it ISN’T? :)

  17. Katrani Merack says:

    I do this a lot, too. Like, with Hermione from Harry POtter. I used to say it ‘Her-mee-own’. Then there’s the time where you see it, but it oculd be two different things, and you choose the wrong one or get confused. I find this happens less often to me with other languages. Like, picking up Japanese from reading manga that keeps some stuff in the translations (honorifics, ‘neko’, ‘onigiri’, etc.) The only one I messed up on was I thought ‘-kun’ was pronounced short. Rhymed with ‘gun’. Then I saw s-CRY-ed (anyone else watch that?) and, thanks to Konami (the little girl… Not sure how to spell her name but it’s ‘Khan-ah-…’ and either ‘mee’ or ‘may’. It varied.) and Kazu-kun, I’ve found it’s like ‘koon’.

  18. Kyte says:

    Being from a spanish-speaking country, many of the least-used words I’ve read throughout the years are like this. The easiest way to not come off like a tool is to simply ask if you’re saying it right explaining that you’ve never used it in spoken form. Most people understand and are gracious enough to teach you.

  19. Thinking of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, in which our hero Sacchetti is thrown in prison by his totalitarian government and injected with a strain of syphilis that will over the course of a year’s time kill him, but that in the interim increases his intelligence to genius levels.
    There being not very much else to do, Sacchetti starts devouring the many books of varied disciplines provided for him at the prison. So (you might recognize this state of affairs) there’s a lot of book learning, but not much conversation about it.

    At a certain point, another character informs Sacchetti that he is good at everything except orthoepy, which Disch then defines properly as the art and study of the correct pronunciation of words.

    So Mr. Young: Simply work on your orthoepy, and all will be well.

  20. adamsky21 says:

    Good to hear that it happens to native speakers (and readers) as well.
    First post, by the way (from me, that is), and a cool site you have here.

  21. Nick C. says:

    You don’t know humiliation until you’ve pronounced epitome “eh pit tome”

  22. Pamela Moffat-Duncan says:

    The ones that drive me truly nuts are those who have jobs in communication and/or are constantly on television, blatantly mispronouncing second grade words. ALmonds is one (on the Food Network) from which nary a single “star” can omit the “l”. Hardly a soul can say forehead; it comes out FOUR- head, and forget omission of the “t” in “often”! I just wish someone would tell the media that there are other adjectives besides AMAZING, because, in truth, very few occurances deserve such accolades, yet one cannot see three minutes of an interview without hearing that word. Last gripe for now…We DON’T have got! Either we have or we got, end of subject. The sad part is that children are growing up listening to, and reading this poor English, writing it, speaking it. Their teachers are so ingrained with substandard garble that they accept, oftentimes even teach it. What a pity. Take care, all. Pamela

  23. Whither Canada says:

    I just realized I’ve been pronouncing meme and chasm wrong… thank goodness I’ve been going through your old posts.

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