Saturday, 6 June 2009

From conTROVersy to CONtroversy

What Professor John Wells wrote in his phonetic blog on 4 June reminded me of what my father (aged 85 now) told me some time ago. He said that when he was a university student in Japan, kən'trɒvəsi (or maybe -sɪ in those days) was the only pronunciation taught for controversy. When I was a university student (about 30 years ago), 'kɒntrəvɜ:si was referred to as American. Today, I always tell my students the former is on the way out.

In my father’s days, teachers of English in Japan got delighted when they found an English word whose pronunciation was difficult to guess from the spelling. Thus forehead, for example, was always their source of happiness, because the knowledge that it was pronounced 'fɒrɪd was a kind of scholarly privilege they were proud to have. They chuckled with satisfaction when a learner of English pronounced the word 'fɔ:hed. They would lament the fact that what they proudly pointed out as an example of layman’s mispronunciation is now preferred by the majority of the native speakers of English. But, like it or not, language is constantly changing. That’s why it is interesting to study.

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