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In honor of both our present month as well as the birthday month of our late writer Tom Stern, today we repeat his classic pronunciation article first published on February 3, 2016.
Feb-yoo-ary. Febber-ary. Feb-wary. Can’t anyone around here say
It’s time to revisit dissimilation, the labored linguistic
theory that purports to explain why so many of us don’t say February’s two r’s. The online American
Heritage dictionary has the following usage note at “February”:
“The loss of the first r in this pronunciation can be
accounted for by the phonological process known as dissimilation,
by which similar sounds in a word tend to become less similar.”
Translation: the second r in February makes people
mispronounce the first r.
My first reaction was that some intellectuals with too much time on their
hands had come up with a fancy term for slovenly speech. Isn’t dissimilation merely an erudite synonym for tongue-twister? I’m not quite ready to buy all this
“phonological process” business; the simple truth is that
people generally are hurried speakers, and saying words like February takes a little extra care.
Here are some other hard-to-enunciate dissimilation words:
Asterisk The second s gets dropped, and we are left with the icky
Candidate People say the first two syllables as if they were saying
Hierarchy You often hear “high-arky,” with the er
slurred. We should aim “higher.”
Prerogative I bet most people think this word is spelled
“perogative,” because that’s typically what you hear.
Only careful speakers say the first r: pre-rahg-ative.
Minutiae Here’s a word no one says right. The traditional
pronunciation, believe it or not, is min-OO-she-ee or min-YOO-she-ee. Good
luck with that. I’ve never heard anything but
“min-oo-sha,” because “sha” is a whole lot easier
than saying two long-e syllables, one right after the other
I’ve put in enough time on this odd little topic to observe that
dissimilation has a flip side. I’m calling it “impulsive
echoing”: the tendency to irrationally add similar sounds within
words, despite their spelling. Check these out:
Ouija board If you are American, either you or someone you know says
“wee-jee.” The standard pronunciation is WEE-ja. How does ja become “jee” unless impulsive echoing is real?
Cummerbund Look at that spelling and then tell me why so many speakers add
a phantom b: “cumber-bund.”
Pundit I’ve heard seasoned public figures—hello, Hillary
Whirlwind I’ve also heard veteran TV journalists—hello, Wolf
Blitzer—say “world wind.”
Sherbet That’s how you spell it, all right. What happens when the
people who add a second r and say “sher-bert” meet the
people who drop the first r in February?
View this article on our website
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• I tried to catch some fog, but I mist.
• They told me I had type A blood, but it was a typo.
• I changed my iPod's name to Titanic. It's syncing now.
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