In which I issue a pre-emptory challenge

I’m listening to a course from UC Berkeley called “Punishment, Culture, and Society.”  It’s pretty good!  But I’m not going to talk about it!

Instead I want to talk about the professor’s grammar and pronunciation.  They ain’t that great.  He seems to think phenomena is singular; he uses hung when pedants would say he should use hanged.  (He occasionally corrects himself on the latter — someone apparently taught him the rule — but he can’t get it right consistently.)  And here are some of his mispronunciations:

  • Peremptory comes out sounding like pre-emptory.  And the guy’s a lawyer!
  • He says maelstorm instead of maelstrom.
  • He pronounces gibbet with a hard g — like gibson instead of giblet.  And the guy’s an expert on the death penalty!

Lectures are actually a good place to come across mispronunciations.  Where else are you going to hear the word gibbet?  I actually have no idea why I know how to pronounce it (I looked it up to make sure I was right).

It’s too bad we can’t easily track pronunciation over time, the way Google Ngram Viewer lets us track print usage.  How does a dictionary writer know that gibbet is pronounced with a soft g?  How is the poor law professor supposed to figure it out, without consulting a dictionary?

A long long time ago I wrote a series of vocabulary-building books.  One of them contained the word flaccid.  The dictionaries I checked all gave the pronunciation as FLAK-sid.  But literally everyone I asked actually pronounced the word FLASS-id.  (And I asked a lot of people — I have no idea what they thought of me.)  At some point dictionaries acknowledged the existence of FLASS-id as an alternative, and this article says some dictionaries now give it as the preferred pronunciation.

It seems to me that almost no one actually speaks the word flaccid, so some people figure out its pronunciation by applying some rule or via analogy — e.g., “flaccid is formed like accident, and I know how to pronounce accident.”  Or, if they can’t figure out a rule or an analogy, they try to intuit the pronunciation through some sense of the word’s meaning — e.g., “flaccid has something to do with softness and flabbiness, so it must have a soft, flabby pronunciation.”  What’s odd is that I now hear the soft acc sound in other words, like accessory.  What’s up with that?

Back to the law professor.  The Language Wars, the book I’m currently reading, describes the tortuous path English has taken to get to its current state of spelling, grammar, and pronunciation.  In the iptivist divide, it’s descriptivist, not prescriptivist.  Who cares how you pronounce gibbet, or if you use hung instead of hanged?  No one misunderstands what the professor is saying.  And yet, I can’t help getting the impression that the guy must be a bit of a lightweight.  Wouldn’t someone who really knew what he was doing manage to align his grammar and pronunciation with current standards, however arbitrary they may be?

That’s why writers would do well to heed Rule 7.