No matter how skilled of a linguist you are, there may be times when you just can’t figure out the most appropriate way to pronounce a word, albeit some words seem to have been created out of thin air and placed into the dictionary as a legitimate, influential word used in our society. Is it Option A or Option B? Both sound reasonable when considering English spelling and pronunciation rules.
In my own experience, hearing a mispronounced word during English class as read by one of my fantastic, attentive students automatically makes me vocalize what the word should sound like. However, the words that are analyzed below required me to do some extra research on the proper pronunciation, and thanks to Dictionary.com, I can now confidently dictate the terms if asked.
ASK. The typical pronunciation is [ask], but some people may pronounce this word [aks], as in: “Swing the axe to cut the wood.” This phenomenon is known in linguistics as metathesis, which refers to the switching of two continuing phoneme sounds. But is it wrong? Well, not necessarily. It was pronounced as [aks] by Chaucer when Middle English was spoken centuries ago, but the word became properly changed to [ask] due to English spelling standardization. And since we are no longer living in the past, we must adapt to the current spelling rules. Somewhat obvious I suppose...
MISCHIEVOUS. Proper pronunciation is [mis-chuh-vuhs], while some people add another syllable to the word which becomes [mis-chee-vee-uhs]. The spelling mischievious was considered to be standard in the 16th to 18th centuries, but today it is regarded as non-standard.
GIF. Have you seen this cute little word around in cyberspace? It actually stands for something more complex than it sounds: Graphics Interchange Format (thus, GIF). These are either animated or still bitmap images and are all the rage in today’s tech world. There are two pronunciation options (no one will likely say G-I-F). Would you prefer [jif] or [gif]? The creator of this term encourages the pronunciation to be [jif], with a soft g, but both are legitimate to use. Choose wisely when talking to an expert GIFer or you risk being corrected.
HYPERBOLE. My friend walks slower than a snail. If you ever watched a snail move, you’ll know that this statement is quite exaggerated to emphasize speed (or lack thereof). It’s a hyperbole! I think it’s the –bole part of the word that stumps people. There are three pronunciations that I’ve heard before: [hy-per-buh-lee], [hy-per-bowl-lee], and [hy-per-bowl]. One is more proper than the others: [hy-per-buh-lee]. But looking at English spelling rules, all might seem acceptable. An interesting idea behind uncertain English pronunciation is the confusion over which language rule to follow since English borrows from many other languages.
NICHE. This word is used in many different contexts and thus changes in meaning accordingly. I have heard three pronunciations of this word used in conversations: [neesh], [neech], and [nich]. In fact, the ch still remains the [tsh] sound, unlike the word cache where it is pronounced [kash]. The preferred pronunciation in American English is [nich], while British English speakers prefer [neech]. The American English pronunciation was adapted from the French term.
SHERBET. Now I can order one of my favorite desserts at an ice cream parlor with confidence without fear of being judged for incorrect pronunciation. Sherbet is easy to eat, but not as easy to pronounce. I have heard this word pronounced in many flavorful ways: [shur-bert], [shur-bay], [shur-bit], and [shur-bet]. The syllable stress has been heard on sher- or –bet for each variation. There should be no /r/ added to the second syllable as many English speakers are accused of doing, and the proper pronunciation is [shur-bit] or [shur-bet] with stress on the first syllable sher-.
MEME. Doe, a deer, a female deer… Ray, a drop of golden sun… Me, a name, I call myself… Far, a long long way to run (and the song continues back to doe). Wow, these lyrics bring me back to my childhood days. But now is the tech age where we have words like meme that bring up images of the hugely popular Grumpy Cat with subtitles such as “My blood type? B negative” and “The problem with some people is that… they are still alive.” But how do you tell your friend about the awesome new meme that you came across when surfing the web? Do you say [mee-mee] as in “It’s all about me!” or [mem], the French pronunciation? Maybe you shouldn’t say either or you will just receive strange looks, since the proper pronunciation is [meem]. If you are curious, the word meme comes from the Greek word mīmeîsthai which means “to imitate, copy”.
So… have you been pronouncing these words correctly all along?