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Are you mispronouncing these common words?

‘Re-search’ or ‘ree-search’? ‘Yoh-gurt’ or ‘yo-gurt’? ‘Ah-gain’ or ‘ah-gen’?

When it comes to pronunciation, people love to argue about what’s right and what’s wrong. But despite the debates, is it possible to prove the validity of one pronunciation versus another? As long as people know what you mean, who cares, right?

In fact differences in pronunciation can be revealing, influencing other people’s perception of who you are, where you’re from or the groups that you socialise with.

Check out these commonly disputed words and see if you would pick the same answers as your friends or family:

 

While pronunciation may be a great source of dinner table debate, can you really pronounce a word incorrectly? Linguistics expert and senior lecturer in education at Deakin University, Dr Hossein Shokouhi weighs in.

Correct pronunciation: does it really exist?

According to Dr Shokouhi, language is a fluid entity, which means it’s in a constant state of evolution. While there may be certain pronunciations that are more popular than others, this does not necessarily make those pronunciations ‘right’.

‘Language is not prescriptive. For many linguists there is no single correct way to pronounce a given word,’ Dr Shokouhi explains. ‘Many people pronounce the same word differently due to the region they were raised in, their age and generation, social class or education.’

Of course variations in pronunciation are distinct from mispronunciation. To say ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’ or ‘arks’ instead of ‘ask’ is simply grammatically incorrect no matter how you slice or dice it (how good is your grammar? Take our quiz and find out!)

Australian pronunciation quirks

The Australian accent is a global novelty – check out this Buzzfeed video for confirmation. Even within Australia there are slight regional variations in accent and pronunciation. If you’re from Adelaide, we can bet you say ‘dah-nce’ and ‘chah-nce’ rather than ‘d-aance’ or ‘ch-aance’. Meanwhile, the Victorian town of Castlemaine (pronounced ‘Cah-stlemaine’) confuses visitors from NSW’s Newcastle (pronounced ‘New-caaastle’) for obvious reasons! (Fun fact: Newcastle in the UK is pronounced ‘Newcah-stle’). Who’s right? Who knows!

Melbourne’s suburb names can also be a pronunciation minefield for the visitor or new resident. If you’ve ever said ‘Prah-ran’ instead of ‘P-ran’, ‘Mal-vern’ instead of ‘Mol-vern’ or ‘North-coat’ instead of ‘North-cut’, you can relate.

The development of region-specific pronunciations is a slow process according to Dr Shokouhi, with more isolated communities developing more distinct pronunciations more quickly.

‘When a new word evolves, people who live in locations completely separate from each other may develop two vastly different ways of saying it,’ he says.

Our global language

Like people, language travels and many English words have their roots in Italian, Spanish, Greek, Latin, Arabic and French. This can make pronunciation tricky because applying English phonetics doesn’t work. Think of Aussie comedy icon Kim (of Kath and Kim fame) attempting to pronounce chardonnay. Or some of our favourite international brand names that no one can quite work out how to pronounce.

Did you know IKEA, often said ‘eye-key-yah’, is actually pronounced ‘ee-kay-uh’ or ‘ih-key-yah’? Or that German luxury car, Porsche (pronounced ‘por-sha’) became so frustrated by the constant mispronunciation of their brand name that they created an instructional video to help consumers get it right?

Some companies have simply given up, altering the pronunciation of their brand to suit the phonetics of the location. Korean car company, Hyundai – pronounced ‘Hi-un-day’ in Korea – is marketed as ‘Hun-day’ in the USA but as ‘High-uuun-di’ in Britain and Australia.

The long history of a word, as well as our increasingly multicultural society, can all influence its popular pronunciation. As well as increased travel and immigration, in Australia our pronunciation is being gradually impacted by the influx of American TV shows, movies, music and even Siri and Alexa. Consider the popularity of ‘advertize-ment’ versus ‘ad-vertis-ment’ or ‘sked-ule’ versus ‘she-dule’.

‘Australian English is generally closer to British English however the influence of US movies and television shows has muddled some of our pronunciation, steering it towards American English and away from its British roots,’ Dr Shokouhi says.

So why all the confusion?

According to Dr Shokouhi there are many reasons for variations in pronunciation. His top five include:

  1. Placing different emphasis on syllables: For example ‘Contra-versy’ versus ‘con-troversy’.
  2. Pronouncing a silent letter: Do you say ‘oft-en’ when you should say ‘off-un’?
  3. Pronouncing a silent syllable: Saying ‘jew-el-ry’ instead of ‘jewel-ry’.
  4. Not pronouncing a syllable: Saying ‘lib-ry’ instead of ‘lib-ra-ry’ or ‘itin-ery’ instead of ‘itin-er-ary’.
  5. Mixing foreign pronunciation with our own: Think ‘coup’ – it’s got a silent ‘p’ folks.

Learn more about studying humanities and languages at Deakin, or explore our related story: Is emoji the language of the future?

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Dr Hossein Shokouhi
Dr Hossein Shokouhi

Senior Lecturer in Education (TESOL and Languages), Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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