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Pausing Over Pronunciation

islet copyA little over a year ago, I found myself standing in front of a class of almost 100 students, staring at a pronunciation conundrum. I was reading aloud a couple of key sentences from a quote on a PowerPoint slide, and my eyes jumped a line ahead and saw the word islet barreling toward me. Not a word I say aloud all that often, let alone one I have to say loudly in front of a roomful of people.

My brain started searching in a panicky way for memories of how to say this word. “Eye-let!” recommended one voice in my head. Another internal voice countered, “I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it with an /s/…”

Torn about the status of the “s,” I decided to try to turn this moment of pronunciation panic into a teachable moment. I stopped when I got to the word, and I said to the class, “How do you all pronounce that word?”

There was a noticeable pause. A few ventured, “Eye-let?” Then a couple of students said they thought they had heard “iss-let.” One student from Florida confirmed that this pronunciation occurs in Florida. Others admitted that they weren’t sure they had ever said the word out loud.

We checked a couple of standard dictionaries and found just one pronunciation: “eye-let.” So now we know what is considered standard. (That said, I’m not convinced that the pronunciation with an /s/ won’t make enough inroads in American English to become a standard variant. I’ve suggested to the editors at American Heritage that we track it on the usage ballot.)

Learning the standard pronunciation, however, seems to me not the most important benefit of the pause. We were also able to have a conversation not only about some of the vagaries of English spelling but also about the way our status as an “educated speaker” can feel up for evaluation when we hit some of these tricky words we’re not sure how to pronounce. Can we actually say, “I’m not sure how to pronounce that” without getting laughed at?

I was thinking about this story a couple of days ago because I mentioned to a colleague that I had just recorded a radio segment about the pronunciation of the word niche. He exclaimed, “That word always gets me! I am never sure how to pronounce it.” We commiserated over our shared angst when confronted with this word. Does “neesh” sound too French and too pretentious? Does “nitch” make us sound unsophisticated?

If you’re thinking “nitch” must be the new, “bastardized” pronunciation, you are wrong. Many standard dictionaries include both pronunciations.  And according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fifth edition), the current pronunciation “neesh” is a 20th-century innovation, as the word was “Englishified” (my term) to “nitch” soon after it was borrowed from French in the 17th century.

My colleague then added, “And then there’s homage! I don’t know what to do with that one either…” I agreed: there’s the issue of where the stress goes as well as whether to say the initial /h/. I added the word forte to the how-should-I-pronounce-that mix.

I get that my colleague and I both have the letters Ph.D. next to our names, which probably makes it easier to admit that you have words you don’t know how to say out loud. And it’s easier to admit being stymied by more esoteric words than more colloquial ones.

The conversation left me thinking, though, about the valuable work that can get done if we’re willing to talk about the anxiety that can come with these pronunciation conundrums and open up the space for students and others to put on the table words they’re not sure how to say—with no worries that anyone is going to question their education or intelligence if there are words more familiar to the eye than to the ear. And if anyone is laughing, it is out of relief that someone else isn’t sure how to pronounce that word.

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