In linguist's world, it's not what you say, but how Hooked on phonetics


There are plenty of words that bug Brian Sietsema. Not the words, actually, but the way Americans tend to mangle them.

There's "pundit," which many people want to pronounce "pun-dent." Or "heinous," which Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, among others, turns into "hee-nous."

But the worst could be "specific," which often comes out "pacific."

"That's the one that really drives me crazy," says Mr. Sietsema, whose name rhymes with "Heats-ma," and whose job is pronunciation editor for the Merriam-Webster dictionaries.

"They drop the first 's' so 'specific proposal' sounds like they're making a peacemaking proposal."

While such mistakes make him cringe, Mr. Sietsema understands that the English language is constantly evolving. The English spoken today scarcely resembles the English of a thousand years ago. Some words change in a matter of a few years. There are plenty of people around today, for example, who grew up saying "vac-you-um" cleaner, rather than "vack-yoom."

"People rail about the lowering of standards," Mr. Sietsema says. "But what are the standards?"

Take the word "harassment." U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pronounced it "ha-RASS-ment." His accuser, Anita Hill, said "HAR-ass-ment," the more traditional pronunciation. Walter Cronkite was on Ms. Hill's team, pronunciation-wise, but William F. Buckley wasn't.

"There is no 'correct' when it comes to these things," says University of Maryland College Park linguistics professor David W. Lightfoot. "It's entirely a matter of social convention."

Mr. Sietsema, 31 years old and well-versed in the quirks and crannies of the English language, was in town this week to address a meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics. He was also making the rounds to promote the Tenth Edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, which was published last year.

It's Mr. Sietsema's job to check the phonetic descriptions of all 160,000 entries in the dictionary. Naturally, the pronunciations for the vast majority of words in the book haven't changed since the last version was published a decade ago.

But many others have. "Pina" as in "colada" has lost its Spanish zip and is now pronounced "peena" instead of "peenya," says Mr. Sietsema.

"Fluoride" is now pronounced "flooride" rather than "flure-ide," at least according to Mr. Sietsema and the other editors at Merriam-Webster.

But that doesn't always count for much. Take the word "nuclear." It's an impressive list of public figures who pronounce it "nukyuler."

Jimmy Carter, who as a nuclear engineer should have known better, said it that way. (Then again, he's the same guy who once referred to "Eye-talians" in a speech.) But so did Walter Mondale, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dan Quayle and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The dictionary editors couldn't ignore such a list, and they now include a rather snooty note explaining that the "nukyuler" pronunciation is now "found in widespread use among educated speakers."

"I have gotten tremendously irate letters about that pronunciation being included," Mr. Sietsema says.

Mr. Sietsema, whose name is Frisian, as in the former country of Friesland in northern Europe, studied religion as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. He realized he was more interested in languages than religion and earned a doctorate in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He delights in the nuance of English. Why is "iron" not pronounced "i-ron"? he wonders. Or, he marvels, people who look down their noses at those who say "ax" instead of "ask" probably don't realize that "ax" was the favored pronunciation hundreds of years ago.

As he travels, Mr. Sietsema keeps a pencil handy to jot down curious pronunciations. Watching television the other night, he heard Alex Trebek, host of "Jeopardy," pronounce "peninsula" the more traditional English way, "pen-in-shoola."

That incident will be carefully noted on a 3-by-5-inch card in Merriam-Webster's files, along with some 300,000 other references to English pronunciation recorded by the company's staff over the years.

There are notes culled from speeches, news reports and the newest mother lode of peculiar pronunciations: radio talk shows.

Mr. Sietsema will also take back a few notes from his stay in Baltimore, such as "kitchen zink," or "AM-blance" for "ambulance."

If the evidence piles up that most Americans have changed the way they pronounce a word, the editors will change the dictionary to reflect that.

And, of course, new words that aren't so hard to pronounce will continue to creep into official use.

One recent example is "Yo," made famous in the "Yo, Adrian!" speech in the movie "Rocky." The word has actually been used as an interjection since at least the 15th century.

Says Mr. Sietsema: "Sly Stallone was not the innovator we thought he was."

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