27 December 2020

Dictionary Makers

After some of my recent philological excursions, learned readers pointed out to me that languages evolve and change. Indeed; I believe one of my pieces admitted that "correct pronunciations" are simply what the makers of Dictionaries recorded at particular times. I might have gone on to say that, if we were to take seriously the Latin origins of some of the words I dealt with, we might be compelled to ... pronounce them in "incorrect" ways!! 

Take cervical. Thus is the word commonly and 'correctly' pronounced, especially by the proculoptical classes. I suspect they do it for a wrong reason: by false analogy with tropical and topical. But these are Greek borrowings, where the recessive emphasis might be said to be protected by the Greek as it used to be pronounced by Englishnen in the 1920s. In Latin, cervice has a long I in the middle of it ... Pedantry might suggest pronouncing this word as the Latin suggests, just to show how far one is above the profanum vulgus ...

Once I was in discussion with a bright young couple Universitatis Dunelmensis who kept referring to something ... this was an informal conversation: we were not shouting at each other ... apparently called c'meen-er g'day-liker. It took me some time to realise that they were referring to the collection of Hebridean poetry called Carmina Gadelica.

Once, I was talking to a help-line somewhere in the Indian sub-continent about a computer problem. I simply could not understand what the woman was saying. I had to keep asking her to repeat ... to go slower ..."I am very old; could you speak louder" ... Eventally, with a rather strange giggle, she gave me a different telephone number to use. When I tried it, it turned out to be Alcoholics Anonymous.

Once, in hospital, a Glaswegian nurse came up and said to me (this is what I worked out subsequently) "wi' y'gi'us so'o'y' wi". I simply could not make out what she meant. After she had repeated the same unchanged succession of sounds four times, I took to smiling at her in a compliant if fatuous way. She went off ... a minute or two later, another nurse came up and rather definitely said "My colleague tells me that you are refusing to give a urine sample." ["Will you give us some of your wee"; 'Wee' apparently being Gaelic for Urine.]

My philological preferences are mainly, I will concede, the product of my on-going struggle to understand and to be understood in a linguistically fluid milieu.

12 comments:

Pelerin said...

Amused at your problem with understanding someone from the Indian sub-continent. The last time I spoke to someone who was obviously in India, I also had to keep on asking her to repeat what she had said. Eventually I was too embarrassed to continue so I told her I was very deaf and rang off.

plato said...

Oh my goodness! I understood very little of what you said in this post. But admittedly I did not look up the words I did not know as I usually do because it is the wee hours of the morning where I am and the post seemed too be of a light nature and not s0oething that I might find helpful in understanding my faith or life's deeper mysteries. But I do want to comment about the calls for computer help that are answered in India. I rarely can understand what they say either but I do not get embarrassed to ask them to jeep repeating. I did not call a number in India . The company whose number I was calling sent me there. It is not my fault I cannot understand their thick accents.
I hope all is well with you, Father. You are a treasure!

Prayerful said...

Wee is surely universal for urine (here in locked down little Ireland).

Charlesdawson said...

The example of your choice, Father, the word cervix, has more than one trap for the unwary. In anatomical terms, cervix is used simply to mean "neck", as in "neck of womb" in obstetrics/gynaecology, eg "the cervix is x cm dilated"; and in orthopaedics/trauma we have "cervical vertebrae" as in "the patient suffered a high cervical" meaning s/he suffered a seriously broken neck. These are well-known instances; there are others.

The organ Private Eye once slipped up over this, triumphantly reproducing a newspaper cutting which reported the application of a "cervical collar" (used in trauma medicine)as if it were something ridiculous or indelicate.

Greyman 82 said...

It can be rather amusing to watch American TV programmes and see where they have provided subtitles for a native British (first language) English speaker. I too sometimes find it helpful if (say) a broad Glaswegian accent is involved, but find it hard to believe anyone needs subtitles for an East Midlander or a Kentish Man (or was he a Man of Kent?)

vetusta ecclesia said...


How about the horrible mélange of Latin and French in the common way of speaking of Claustridium Difficile?

John the Mad said...

My paternal grandmother RIP was from Baillieston and I, her Drumheller Alberta (i.e., the badlands) born grandson, understood only a wee bit of what she said. The Glaswegian accent is not easily decipherable to humans not from Scotland even for Celtic Canucks.

Oliver Nicholson said...

John the Mad is clearly in need of a language course:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_Lk7qivXbw

Oliver Nicholson said...

John the Mad is clearly in need of a language course:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_Lk7qivXbw

John Nolan said...

I was brought up to pronounce 'culinary' with a long 'u'. My 1964 Chambers confirms that this is correct. Nowadays everyone makes the 'u' short, and the latest edition of Chambers only gives this version - the older pronunciation is not even given as an alternative.

Pronouncing 'lather' to rhyme with 'father' would appear to date from TV soap commercials in the 1960s, since the makers of Camay regarded the correct pronunciation as not genteel enough.

Oliver Nicholson said...

"Cervical" was clearly pronounced with a short "i" by Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. If you recall his snicker-snee "cut cleanly through the cervical vertebrae" of Nanki-Poo. But then he was only the cheap tailor of Titipu.

Little Black Sambo said...

Umbilical is another one.
(Do we tithe parsley and cummin, or parsley and kewmin?)