English Pronunciation Does It Really Matter That Much?

Word cloud of South African English words


South Africa is a diverse linguistic community that’s not only influenced by its eleven official languages, but by a multitude of international languages spoken in the country. From IsiZulu and English to Shona and French, you are likely to hear more than two different languages in the country. As a linguist, this is a beautiful thing and makes South Africa a wonderful place to look at linguistically, as there is much to appreciate.

However, English has hegemonic power in the country and is used, rather incorrectly, as a marker of things such as intelligence and class by many people. Interestingly, only 8.3% of the country’s population consider English their home language. Regardless of this, pronunciation of words in English seems to raise an ear at times. While conducting an interview on 702 Talk on Tuesday night during the Karima Brown show, Aubrey Masango pronounced the word “enquiry” incorrectly, which left some listeners touched on Twitter.

@BraAubrey Normally you don’t put a foot wrong but please do not support the American ruination of all culture including the English language. In English we pronounce ‘inquiry” to rhyme with “wiry”! Dapper and wiry, like you Aubrey!— Michelle Nel (@MichNel) June 25, 2019

When it comes to how words are pronounced, most linguists would not be too stressed on how words are said, unless they are prescriptivist. As is often said in South Africa, “there’s no master of pronunciation.” However, Michelle remains touched by Aubrey’s pronunciation. Many people will tell how their names have been mispronounced. My surname, Mashiyane, is quite an easy one to pronounce but even I have been subjected to variations of my surname. However, names are a touchy issue and the concern that Michelle had, had to do with a general word (a noun). In the case of words, should we be overly concerned with their pronunciation? 

Prescriptivism is overrated & redundant, especially in a diverse linguistic community such as ours. I’d like to see you pronounce all African names right. Forget words.— Lawrence Mashiyane (@Lawrence_queer) June 25, 2019

As a linguist, I am not so concerned with pronunciation as I am with spelling because while spelling has to uphold standard orthography, for example in South Africa we use British English spelling orthography, the same cannot be said about spoken language. Spoken language cannot be so simply given a standard, especially in a diverse linguistic community like South Africa. Even if standards exist, they cannot be so simply inforced. 

I say this because, how far does it go? If we have standard pronunciation rules for English words, the same should apply for all languages that occur within South Africa’s borders and that is not the case. We’ve heard many pronunciations of the words like Nkandla during that time in our lives and even more variations of the word Nkalakatha (because the white Afrikaans community is still stuck in a time where this song by Mandoza is a hit).

If statistics were to come out to say words are pronounced incorrectly more than they were pronounced right, I would not be shocked because a lot of people are not concerned about it and a lot of words are mispronounced in the English language many lists are published online of top 10 words you‘re probably saying wrong or something like that. 

The reason we can go on living with mispronunciations, of common words is because most of the time, we know what we’re talking about. In a basic sense, we understand what is being said to us because of context and co-text (a linguistics term). Context is the overarching topic and co-text is the words surrounding the word in question that helps with getting meaning. This is best described using homonyms (words that are spelt the same and sound the same but have different meanings).

For example, the word bank could mean the place where you go to deposit money or the side of the river where you sit and relax. How you know which bank is being referred to is through context and also, generally, common sense.

If someone says “I’m going to the bank”, this may be ambiguous because we don’t know which bank” but if the speaker follows with “to withdraw money”, we know precisely which one. When it comes to mispronunciation, it is a different situation because we are not necessarily presented with a homonym or homophone but an error. So, how do we still understand what is being said then?

For that, we have to get into a little bit of psycholinguistics. As humans, we are able to interpret a number of allophones of the same words. To understand what allophones are, one needs to first know what phones (or phonemes) are. A phoneme is an individual sound in a word, the /b/ in bake or ball, for example. An allophone, then, is the multiple ways in which the individual sound can be articulated. In other words, the /b/ sound will not be articulated the same in every word in existence. It some words the sound is emphasised and in others, it’s softer. 

With this in mind and how we use context to understand what words may be meant in particular situations, to understand and sometimes even anticipate what someone may say, we use our different memories to retrieve words. This is why, even when words are mispronounced, we tend to always know what is being said to us.

Language, is a tool that we use to communicate and this, at the end of the day, is what we intend to do. If we get the context right and take into account our ability to recognise allophones, pronunciation should not matter that much. Especially seeing that pronunciation can be influenced by accent, which can be influenced by many things.

This, honestly, is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Linguistics, Psycholinguistics and how humans interpret speech. However, what is the take away from this is that the point of language is to communicate and to do so most effectively. Misspelling a word can change the meaning entirely – for example, spelling ‘exiting’ as ‘existing’ or ‘prostituted’ instead of ‘prosecuted’ can change the meaning and create confusion and sometimes. However, mispronunciations do not tend to have meaning-altering consequences because it is one thing to say something differently and another to say something else entirely by mistake.

Lawrence, I make a real effort with African names. I can say Letlhogonolo, for example. I get grumpy with people who say Nonshle when they mean Nonhle. I have a musical ear and ALL mispronunciation offends me.— Michelle Nel (@MichNel) June 26, 2019

While it is cool that Michelle wants to be able to pronounce all words correctly and attempts to say African names correctly, to expect every to prescribe to such an endeavour is not only problematic when it is rudely imposed onto other people, but also erases linguistic diversity. I, for one, do not want to live in a monotonous society where everyone says everything the same.

Featured Image Via South Africa Gateway