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Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
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My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Sunday, April 26

Linguistic Changes

Yesterday I saw Ex Machina, the movie about AI, or artificial intelligence. No, this isn’t going to be a review of the film (I’ll save that for later), just a direction or misdirection my thoughts took based on that film. When I bought my ticket, I said I wanted to see Ex MA-kina, pronouncing it with the “k” sound instead of the “sh.” And I wondered if the young person who sold me the ticket was wondering why I pronounced it that way. I also wondered how many of those who went to see the film pronounced it as I did and how many the other way. Language is obsessively interesting in the way it keeps twirling around in ever-new dance steps, evolving, changing, whether we want it to or not. I reflected on my study of Greek tragedy wherein I learned that “deus ex machina” was a dramatic device in which a deity was lowered to the stage by a machine to resolve a conflict that couldn’t be resolved any other way. It was pronounced as “MA-kina.” And now I see that in modern dictionaries, with words like machinate and machinations there’s a trend to pronounce them with the “mash” that we see in machine. Is this trend good or bad or indifferent? Who knows? Who cares?

I care.

I’ve been involved in the study of language, especially English, for my entire life, and I’m still not certain what my views on linguistic change are. I know change is inevitable. When a language doesn’t change or grow, it stagnates and dies. Dead old Latin today survives only in the Catholic Church, and even that is giving way to English. Pronunciation is an important element of language. William E. Umbach, in an essay on etymology said, “To know how to pronounce the word correctly could give the user power over the thing or being, a principle of great importance in the exercise of witchcraft.”

Yes, witchcraft. In my memory, I carry with me incidents burned onto my psyche like cattle brands, times when I mispronounced words, and my embarrassment and chagrin at being corrected. Years ago I remember conversing with a fellow English teacher about “virility,” and I pronounced virile as “VY-ril” (like DIE-rul). She said, “Are you sure that’s how it’s pronounced?” And I, arrogantly, said yes. I found out about my arrogant error later, but to this day I cringe whenever I think what she must have thought of me in light of my ignorant arrogance. I guess she might have shunned me as though I had a virus and thought I might infect her with my “virality.”

Because my linguistic experience is mainly based on the written and not the spoken language, I made two other pronunciation gaffes that haunt me. I was conversing with a fellow English teacher about the trend of suing people or companies for almost any real or imagined harm. I said, “We’re living in a litigous (I pronounced it “LIT-i-gus”) society,” and she promptly corrected me to “lit-IJ-us.” That embarrassment led me to examine all the words related to litigation, like “litigator” and “litigate” and “litigant,” all with the hard G sound. So, why shouldn’t the adjective be spelled “litigous” instead of “litigious”? Another time I was talking about our English department having the burden of teaching young people how to read and write correctly. Yeah, you can hear it coming. I said, “We have the onus of this task,” and I pronounced it “AW-nus” instead of “OH-nus.” Again, because I’d only read this word and never heard it pronounced, I fell into this pronunciation mud puddle, and oh, was I ever quickly corrected by my peers.

Sort of in this same vein, once in one of my classes, I was commenting on a student essay in which she’d said how much she liked a current rock band, Bon Jovi. I pronounced it as in French “bone-zhow-VI,” and you should have heard the class howl. That gaffe leads me to the modern “hoe,” the word one of my students used orally to describe an F. Scott Fitzgerald character we were discussing, at which I promptly landed on him with both shoes, telling him that she wasn’t at all a whore. He didn’t respond, but he gave me a very strange look. Later, I found out that this slang expression for young people is a general female insult, describing a woman of loose character, a skank or even a slut, but not necessarily a prostitute. No wonder he felt confused by my reaction to his comment. Another language change of which I hadn’t kept abreast.

Now, back to my old fight with users and mis-users of “forté.” Almost no one today, especially sportscasters, when they speak of someone’s strength, as in “Reading putts is his forté,” pronounces it as one syllable, as in “fort.” They just love “for-TAY.” And we then lose the rich history of these two words, one derived from French and one from Italian. “Forté” (fort) and its antonym “bête noire” (literally, black beast)come from French, meaning “strength” and “weakness, or something you hate.” “Forté” (for-TAY) and its antonym “piano” come from Italian, meaning the musical directions “loud” and “soft.” My bête noire is hearing someone pronounce it “for-TAY” instead of “FORT.”

I hear almost everyone saying “err” (air) instead of what I learned as a young man “To urr is human, to forgive divine.” It makes sense that since we pronounce “error” as “AIR-er,” we should also pronounce “to err” as “to air,” but the first, or preferred, pronunciation is “to urr.” Language change, language growth, whether we like it or not. Also, the first or preferred pronunciation for “prestigious” is “pres-TIJ-us” even though “pres-TEE-jus” would make better sense in light of “prestige” pronounced as “pres-TEEZH.”

English is just loaded with curious word pairs that confuse non-English speakers: quash and squash, tortuous and torturous, principle and principal, maudlin and Magdalene, to name only a few. English is curious as well as changing. I guess that means it’s in good health instead of being moribund. I hear more and more people using “cliché” as an adjective instead of a noun, as in “To dance the Twist is so cliché today"(synonymously meaning trite or passé, both adjectives). The times, they are a-changin’, and the English language is alive and well and not even close to moribundity. I can hardly keep up with it.
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