Book lovers have a well-deserved reputation for being, well, smart. We know stuff. We’re deep. We might be Hermione types, who like to wave our hands around and gush forth information like the fountain of knowledge that we think we are; or we might be more introverted, like Sherlock Holmes, preferring to ponder and puzzle alone until someone pulls us out of our reverie to ask a question which seems, to us, rather elementary. At the very least, nothing says scholar like that nose-behind-the-book pose. Which is exactly why so many middle-schoolers have perfected the art of hiding a cell phone inside their copies of Tom Sawyer . . . a move that Tom Sawyer himself would totally sign off on.
And yet, even though books are at the intellectual apex of the media pyramid, they can still make us look like dolts. How is that possible? Well, because avid readers, especially those who read voraciously at a young age, pick up a lot of their vocabulary visually rather than aurally. If reading happens at the expense of television, the “problem” magnifies. And because English isn’t exactly phonics-friendly, the odds that a reader will select the correct pronunciation for a word that they see much more often than they hear are slim.
Mispronouncing words isn’t so bad when you’re six or seven. At that age, everyone’s doing it, kind of like everyone’s picking their nose. No one really cares and life goes on. But it’s not so much fun when you’re in your teens, twenties, or even older. By then, it’s embarrassing, especially when you’re in a setting where you’re supposed to know what you’re talking about, and you’re around people whom you would prefer not think of you as dumber than a bag of hair.
Although I’m sure I’ve mispronounced words in public on MANY occasions, there’s one instance that stands out as especially unpleasant. It happened in a graduate seminar. I pronounced “macabre” as “mac-a-ber,” totally unaware I’d never heard the word anywhere except inside my own head. (If I had heard it, I certainly hadn’t made the connection to its written counterpart.) When the professor corrected me in front of the entire class, the irony of having butchered a word associated with death was totally lost on me.
Most readers have similar stories to tell. David Foster Wallace, in this interview, recalls the embarrassment of pronouncing “façade” as “fakade”in his first college class. And how many people struggled with the pronunciation of Hermione’s name before the movies came out? J.K. Rowling was obviously aware of the problem, because she came to the rescue by allowing Viktor Krum to ask Hermione how to say her name correctly in Book 4.
Fortunately, age and time solve a lot of mispronunciation issues. I’m not going to reveal how old I am, but I will say that I absolutely loved reading Harry Potter . . . to my kids. Years of (intermittently) intelligent conversations, movies (artsy and not-so), and the occasional
reality TV show television documentary, go a long way toward connecting a visual vocabulary to an aural/oral one. And yet, there are still words I regularly come across in books that I am not sure I have ever heard anyone say out loud. For example: “clamber.” Characters are always clambering up walls, hills, trees, drainpipes, skyscrapers, beanstalks, you name it. Look for “clamber” in the next couple of books you read; my unscientific experience is that it appears in at least half of the novels written in English for people over the age of seven. If you have ever heard anyone say “clamber” out loud, I’m curious: what part of the country, or what country, do you live in? Because it’s nowhere near me.
I asked my boyfriend (who reads mostly crime novels, which I would guess include plenty of clambering) how he pronounces the word. His answer: “klam-mer.” He reasons that “clamber” comes from “climb,” a word in which the “b” is silent. For me, the word has always been “klaym-ber.” We looked it up. And? It’s “klam-ber.” We’re both wrong. Sort of. My boyfriend’s pronunciation is listed as an alternate. So, points for him. Which brings me to a brilliant solution to the whole pronunciation problem: next time anyone criticizes the way I say something, I’m just going to proclaim with all the confidence of a Hermione or a Sherlock that mine is an alternate pronunciation, or perhaps a regional dialect. Who could argue? Wish I’d thought of that back in my graduate seminar.