Wednesday, September 8, 2010

rural grammar, part ii: pronunciation

i think everyone has an embarassing story about mispronouncing a word in front of a bunch of know-it-alls at one point or another in their life. in my family there are tales about fat-i-gue and ep-i-tome.

in eighth grade i was given the the word diphthong in a late round of the annual spelling bee. being the confident speller i was and having heard mrs. avant (pronounced as southern as possible with emphasis clearly on the first syllable) clearly say dip thong, i thought to myself, "nailed it," even before the office was a glint in ricky gervais's eye. "dipthong. d-i-p-t-h-o-n-g. dipthong," i said confidently. no need for it to be used in a sentence or to wonder about its language of origin.

i started to give myself a pat on the back and make my way to the final group when i heard mrs. a-vant apologetically tell me that i was wrong and would continue my streak of never winning anything academically, athletically, or socially. well, i told myself the last part. she just told me to have a seat.

if she'd wanted me to spell diph-thong, why didn't she just say so? i spelled what she said, and since when is the h in ph silent? we don't talk on the pone or get lit listening to pish! oh that's right, it's not silent, mrs. ay-vant, eighth grade english teacher. and yes, i will take the title you stole from me even if vince young won't take the heisman he got jobbed out of.

thank you gary larson for summing up my pain.

here's the thing. i'm not sure she knew what a diphthong was, and i sure didn't. (i thought it was the kind of garment will ferrell thought that olive garden waitress was wearing in old school.) but if i had corrected her and said, "actually mrs. av-aunt, you pronounce both h's in the word," two things would have happened. first she would have told me what a pretentious little brat i was and then she would have given me some lecture about how it actually is dip-thong and who was i to question her on pronunciation. she would have been right on both accounts.

when it comes to pronunciation, beauty and everything else is in the eye of the beholder, especially in rural america. towns and counties across this fine country of ours are pronounced in ways foreign even to the foreigners for whom they are named.

ball-i-ver county to you, my friend. no
offense simon, but your revolutionary success in south america won't get you very far here.

i think pronunciation is part local accent and part our quest to incorporate all languages into english. for example:

el dor-ay-do, kansas...
think if they'd just translated it. welcome to the golden one, kansas. who wouldn't want to
go there?

buena (byoo-na) vista, virginia...
lovely view, incomprehensible pronunciation.

kosciusko (ka-zee-es-ko), mississippi...
sorry george washington's polish engineer friend, thaddeus ko-shoos-ko, but can you blame
us? the colonies weren't exactly teeming with poles back then.

we rural americans even tinker with the pronunciation of english words. i mean, why wouldn't we? there's a small town in north carolina where the thing to do on a friday night is cruise through downtown. when you look at the town's name on paper, there are four distinct syllables. when you pronounce like everyone who lives there does, there are two: rutherfordton becomes ruv-ton. don't ask me how. it just does. you can ask any sixteen year old you see on main street on a friday night provided he or she is willing to interrupt the cruise.

then there are places like belzoni, mississippi. named for italian explorer giovanni belzoni. unlike other places, locals and anyone seeking to elude ridicule says bel-zo-na. this makes no sense. english is my first language and i took 12 credits of italian in college and in neither language does an i make an uh sound.

there are also places like, oh, the state of arkansas. arkansas is a french pronunciation of a native american word that we americans decided sounded alright with us, so we kept it.

none of these, however, top what some small folks are willing to do to ensure that you spell their town's name correctly. i give you exhibit a: lurand, missisippi. exhibit b, guin, alabama, to follow after my next trip through the yellowhammer state.

there's another town i recently drove through called durant, and while there's no sign to tell me how to pronounce it, i now know it doesn't sound anything like the way nba stud kevin durant pronounces his name. i applaud these towns for their willingness to help folks like me, the son of a speech pathologist, to avoid making the embarassing mistake of mispronouncing their town's name and bringing shame upon myself and my family.

before you hop on the train and start railing on these places and these people for the "incorrectness" of their pronunciation, think about those news reporters that friend you have who just decided after spanish class one day to start trilling all his r's or that friend who took french and subsequently thought jimmy buffett was a boob for mispronouncing and misspelling his own name and that formula one needed to choose between grand priks and grahn pree and quit splitting the difference.

once you remember how annoying they were, you'll realize shakespeare was right when he talked about the rose. the v in "bolivar" might not sound like a b here, but the honoring of ol' simon is still there, so who really cares? sure things might be accented differently and syllables might be muddled together, but it gives a little character to the places we call home and is a welcome reprieve from the other places that continue to look like you could be anywhere. chances are ruvton, durant, and buena vista have something you can't find in a target, a starbucks, or a pep boys.

photos by boone, cartoon by gary larson found here


  1. Hey Brett, Found another one on Wikipedia this morning. Hope all of you are well. Best regards.


  2. Acceptable pronunciations for Louisville, KY:

    Luh-vuh (locals only)
    Lewis-ville (dead ringer you are not a local)