April 24, 2003 - Pronunciation in American English

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": April 24, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble and this week on WORDMASTER -- we answer some questions we've gotten about how to pronounce words in American English.

RS: We'll start with a question from an American expatriate in Thailand. Bob Wildman writes, "Listening to VOA helps me keep up with the current state of the American language." He tutors some students in English, so he gets a little worried when he hears things that clash with his own usage.

AA: Bob writes: "Where I come from (the Midwestern U.S.) the word 'protest' is stressed in the first syllable as a noun and on the second syllable as a verb. Ditto for words like 'combat,' 'suspect,' and many others. But I frequently hear VOA newsreaders say something like: '500 people were PROtesting outside the U.S. Embassy' instead of '500 people were proTESTING outside the U.S. Embassy.' ... Is this first/second syllable stress distinction falling out of American English?"

RS: We checked with Dennis Baron, head of the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Professor Baron says patterns of stress are indeed shifting with some pairs of words. Case in point: You can pro-TEST all you want, but often people will say "PRO-test" for both the noun and the verb.

AA: Another question -- Snowman, a listener in China, wants to know why the "p" in the word "spread" is pronounced like a "b." Professor Baron says this has to do with the nature of sounds that are "voiced" -- that is, they vibrate the larynx, versus those that do not.

BARON: "If you put your finger on your throat when you pronounce the 'p' and the 'b' sounds, you can actually feel the vibration with the 'b.' And what's happening in the word 'spread' is that the 'p,' which is without voice, it's voiceless, is picking up some voicing from the sound that follows it, the 'r' sound, and that's why it sounds to some people like a 'b.'"

RS: Here's a different example. Take the word spelled l-a-t-e-r. In natural conversation, English speakers do not pronounce it "lay-ter." They say "lay-der."

BARON: "It's almost like a 'd.' Pronouncing it with a very precise 't' sounds ... too correct."

AA: In other words, wrong. Professor Baron says this is why it's important to listen to native speakers -- whether in real-life, on radio or TV, or in the movies -- to hear how they pronounce words in the course of natural, connected speech.

BARON: "Schoolbook language learning tends to give you only a very limited slice of the language, and so the big focus on language learning now is to try to put yourself in natural language situations rather than artificial ones -- preferably interactive ones, so that you could actually be talking with a speaker of the language or writing back and forth to a speaker of the language, so that you're not simply an observer but are a participant in the interaction."

AA: "And I suppose what makes all of this harder is that there are no national, official rules for how you say 'in-SUR-ance' versus 'IN-sur-ance' or 're-SEARCH-er' versus 'RE-search-er.'"

BARON: "Exactly. We don't have an academy, we don't have a group of people who ratify or establish correctness."

RS: "The pronunciation police."

BARON: "We don't have the pronunciation police or anything like that. And as a result there's a concern to be correct, but there's also a sense that people don't want to be corrected. So it's a social issue, correctness, rather than a legislative one."

RS: "Exactly. And prejudice, of course ... "

BARON: "Prejudice can arise. There was a commercial, an advertisement [ad-VER-tis-ment] for a vocabulary improvement tape that they were trying to sell people, and the phrase that they used -- a very ominous voice comes on saying, 'People judge you by the words you use.'"

AA: "Well, not to judge you, but you said 'ad-VER-tis-ment' and yet I've always pronounced that 'ad-ver-TISE-ment' because that's how it looks."

BARON: "'Ad-ver-TISE-ment'? I would say 'AD-ver-tise-ment' or 'ad-VER-tis-ment."

RS: "Let's go on. I'm going to stop you two. (laughter)"

BARON: "And you're saying 'ad-ver-TISE-ment'? Talk about stress over stress!"

RS: Dennis Baron is a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and the author of several books. And that's Wordmaster for this week.

AA: Our e-mail address is word@voanews.com and we're on the Web at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.