Pronounced difficulties

Wednesday, April 26th, 2006

The late Ronnie Barker wrote a famous sketch in which he gave a speech as the ‘President of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pispronunciation’ (read it below or listen to it here) about the problems faced by people who have ‘trouble with their worms’.

I suffer from a problem like this, but it’s not because I have a speech impediment. I didn’t go to university, I studied part time while I worked via the Open University. I enjoyed this method of study, it suited me down to the ground and I had a varied, broad education as a result.
The only real drawback I found was that the text-based nature of the course meant that I learned certain things and about certain people, but not one of the most crucial and underrated aspects: how to pronounce their names.

You might think this is trivial so let me explain why I think it isn’t. The course I teach to graphic design and illustration students means we encounter several philosophers, many of them with foreign names (to English speakers, at least). Let’s take Roland Barthes for example.
How do you pronounce ‘Barthes’? I say it ‘Barts’, but I’ve heard it said ‘Barths’ and ‘Bart’.

‘Bourdieu’ offers similar problems. I know I pronounce it wrong when I pronounce it like the wine, and I understand it should be ‘Bord-you’ or something, but it’s ingrained in my head the wrong way now so I will forever pronounce it wrong.
Why is this a problem? Because I’m conscious that I may sound stupid when doing this in public.
Take Foucault, for example – when pronounced correctly it sounds rude. ‘Derrida’, although I can’t quite remember how I used to say it, I know I got it wrong. In fact, I never said it out loud for fear of looking stupid. Yesterday I heard a professor at Berkeley pronounce ‘Camus’ as ‘Ca-moo’ – another name I’ve somehow got out of saying in polite company and it’s a good job as of all the variations I thought might be right, that wasn’t one of them.

And this is the problem. Today I had a conversation with a first year student who decided to call Bourdieu by his first name, Pierre, because he wasn’t sure how to pronounce his surname. On Saturday I spoke to a second year student who couldn’t say ‘Baudrillard’ even though we’ve discussed him at length in class. And the word that everybody gets wrong? Hegemony. Hej-EM-oh-knee.

So bad is this problem that when I introduce the word in my book, ‘Visual Communication: From Theory to Practice’ I explain how to pronounce it. I think someone will accuse me of dumbing down but I take this problem seriously. Because students don’t want to appear stupid mispronouncing key words they will avoid saying them at all, and it really stifles discussion. It’s not that they don’t understand the theories these people put forwards, they just don’t know (or don’t feel they know) how to say it so out of fear of looking silly they shy away from discussing them at all. And I know how they feel.

Bourdieu pointed out that academics use language as a weapon or marker, something to distinguish those with knowledge from those without and it’s true, we do avoid plain English often for the purpose of showing off. But using a word like ‘hegemony’ to sum up a complex concept is unavoidable – imagine the amount of time it would take to discuss some things if we couldn’t wrap concepts up in a convenient word.

The trouble is, the first barrier to overcome is not necessarily knowing stuff, but knowing how to say it. And for me it’s an enormous hurdle to students who want to discuss certain things intelligently but are hampered because we never bothered to take the time to make sure they could say things properly.

I think it’s something we need to be more aware of when discussing our subjects with our students.
I’m proud of the manner in which I got my degree and MA, but I feel embarrassed because for years I was pronouncing basic terms incorrectly. Some courses give out glossaries of key terms and key thinkers – I think perhaps we should also give out pronunciation guides. I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality of student discussion went up overnight.

“I am the President of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pispronunciation. Or people who cannot say their worms correctly. Or who use the wrong worms entirely so that other people cannot underhand the bird they are spraying. It’s just that you open your mouth and the worms come turbling out in what ca say that you dick not what you’re thugging abeut. And it’s very distressing.

I’m always lewing it, and it makes one feel unbumfticoccal. Especially when one is going about one’s diddly tasks. Slopping at the slupermarket, for instance. Only last wonk I approached the chuck-out point and I shoed the gould behind the crash test the contents of my trilley. And she said, ‘Alright, grandad, shout ’em out.’ And of course that’s fine for the ordinary man in the stoat, who has no dribble with his waltz. For someone like myself it’s worse than a kick in the jack strop.

Sometimes you get stuck on one letter, such as wubbleyou, and I said, ‘Well I’ve got a tin of wupe, a wucumber, two packets of wees and a wauliflower.’ She tried to make fun of me, and said, ‘That will be woo pounds wifty-three pence.’ So I just said ‘Wobblers’, and walked out.

So you see how dickyfelt it is, but help is at hand. A new society has been formed by our mumblers, to help each other in times of excreamisis. It is bald Pitspronunces Unanimous, and anyone can ball them up on the smellyphone at any time of the day or none – 24 flowers of spray, seven stays a creek, and they will come round to get drunk with you.

The foreigners, they will be inperpetrators who will all squeak many sandwiches, such as Swedish, Turkish, Burkish, Jewish, Jibberish and rubbish. Membranes will be able to attend tight stools for heaving classes to learn how to grope with the many caplinkages of the daily loaf, which brings me to the drain reason for squeaking to you tonight. The society’s first function as a body was Grand Garden Freight, and we hope for many more bodily functions in the future.

The garden plate was held in the grounds of Benanpeliass Woodstick, and the guest of horror as the great American pip singer Manny Barrilow. It was opened by the bleeder of the proposition, Mr Dale Pinnick, Pillik, who gave us a few well frozen worms in praise of the society’s jerk. He said that in creeks and stunts that lie ahead, we must all do our nutroast to ensure that it sucks weed. And everyone visited the various stores and abruisements – the rudeabouts, thingboats and the darters, and of course all the old favourites such as the cokish eyenuts, stry your length, guessing the weight of the cook and tinning the pail on the wonkey.

The occasion was great fun, and in short, I think it can safely be said, that all the men present and thoroughly good women were had all the time.”

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