Tag Archives: Kathryn Petras

English Pronunciation and the Shibboleth

Image result for pronunciation

The shibboleth is a defining trait of the English language. Defined as “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons,” the word is derived from Hebrew, circa the 14th century, and meant, literally, “ear of grain.” The word shibboleth was used in the Old Testament by the Gileadites as a test word for the Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh.

Katherine Brooks over at The Huffington Post has penned an interesting piece on a book by Ross and Kathryn Petras called You’re Saying It Wrong, a guide to 150 words that native English speakers pronounce incorrectly on a regular basis.

Examples include acai, chiaroscuro and mischievous.

Back in the day when I was teaching English to Koreans, students would routinely tell me how difficult it was to learn English, to which I would reply, “Seriously? SERIOUSLY? You conjugate verbs AND adjectives in Korean; as opposed to the one conjugation per tense in English, you have more than 20 in Korean; you often drop the subject of a sentence because, of course, it’s “understood”; you actually attach suffixes to the words in your sentences with subject/topic, object and preposition markers, which requires an intimate knowledge of grammar; you have two counting systems (one pure Korean, one Chinese-derived); you mark animate/inanimate counting items with specific suffixes; you distinguish between hoching (the person you’re talking to) and jiching (the person you’re talking about); being vague with your sentences is en vogue; and on and on and on.

The one thing I will say is that while Korean is relatively easy to pronounce for English speakers because of Hangeul’s “scientific” laws (the written portion of the Korean language, Hangeul, is actually the only extant language that was invented), English is an 18-car pile-up that’s been run over by a flaming trainwreck when it comes to pronunciation. Even as a native English speaker who has taught the language and studies linguistics for shigs and gittles, I don’t know how to pronounce certain words correctly.

For all the linguistic masochists out there like me who want to learn more about You’re Saying It Wrong, click here.


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