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This article on the UK’s deaf news and views website, the Limping Chicken, dovetailed with something I’ve been meaning to write about for some time: pronunciation.

It’s something that bedevils deaf people: as Callum points out in the article, so often we come across words first through their written form, which is, as any English speaker knows, not necessarily how they’re pronounced. The article and the consequent responses showed that a common theme giving trouble concerns internal elision (silent letters or syllables, as in saying Lester, not Lei-ces-ter).

Another common problem is where to place stress or emphasis in a word, which has often been my particular issue. English is a language full of stress, and thus stressful. It took me until implantation to understand that the correct way to say decade was DECK-ade, not DEE-CADE (like decayed) simply because it had never come up in conversation for me to lipread the difference.

As my vocabulary expanded during my teenage years, I recall being thrown back towards rote learning when confronted by words, often of Greek origin, which changed stress according to whether they were nouns or adjectives: democracy/democratic = de-MOH-crasee, dem-Oh-cra-tic; strategy/strategic = STRA-tee-gy, stra-TEE-gic. A pattern emerged: the central vowel changed, thus changing where the stress fell.

Stress changes too, in place names, which can be maddeningly inconsistent even where apparently similar: it’s got a lot to do with variant derivations and dialect variation in the Anglo-Saxon period and the Middle Ages. We say, for example, Gren-itch not Greenwich, but Ipswich is pronounced as spelt: Ip-switch. (Try saying Ips’itch, and there’s an awkward gap in the middle, whereas Ip-switch flows smoothly: conversely, you have that same problem with Green-which, where two separate elements jar up against each other. In Gren-itch they’re just stitched together quite easily, and even more neatly by shortening the long vowel in Green, which also makes it more emphatic.)

Hearing people are prone to similar mistakes, just less frequently, with more opportunity to pick up correct pronunciation through osmosis. My father told me a story about when it came to his turn to read aloud in class. He’d never seen an orang-utan before, in print or in the flesh, so took a deep breath and said, quite logically: orange-outan. “Don’t be stupid, boy,” said the teacher, “OH-rang-uttan”. His enduring mortification is more to do with his teacher’s response than his own mispronunciation, but it has reverberated for over 80 years. I realise now that it must have affected Dad’s own response to a verbal stumble on my part – he would gently correct me and make me repeat it until I got it right, such was his eagerness to spare me similar humiliation.

There’s a lot of stuff here to untangle here for many deaf people. It is disheartening to find that use of spoken language results in ridicule, derision, or multiple corrections. Conversely, it is generally regarded here in Britain that it isn’t “done” to correct adult speech, being impolite and unkind to draw attention to accents which are socially or regionally different. Thus it becomes difficult sometimes to learn from hearing people: unless they know us well, they aren’t always sure of the right approach. So the result may be laughter or silence, neither of which is very helpful.

I appreciate it if people just repeat the word in conversation, quietly demonstrating the correct pronunciation by keeping to the same context without further comment. For me getting it right is not just important in interacting with the hearing world: it’s a point of living out deaf awareness too. I want to enhance my lipreadability, especially in talking to late-deafened people, by giving the appropriate emphasis in the appropriate places.

There is nothing to be embarrassed about in prefacing what you’re saying with a confession that you’re not sure you’ve got x word right – candour is disarming. In a public presentation things are a bit different, but one excellent source of help is the dictionary, which is not only for definitions. Your local library should subscribe to the online Oxford English Dictionary, for which all you need is your library card number. Each word has a guide to its pronunciation, the symbols for which are explained in this handy guide. Phonetic symbols admittedly are a new alphabet to learn, but do have the advantage of visually capturing the elusive nature of sound.

Everyone has their orang-utan moment from time to time: we take a wild swing through the forest of unfamiliar words and, if we’re lucky, we survive.

St. Michael, Clapton-in-Gordano

The joys of the English language: I visited St. Michael, Clapton-in-Gordano, recently. Note the variant spellings of the surname and the word “died”. “Rector” is also not spelt how we would spell it today. This plain tombstone is a charming mix of upper and lower case letters fairly typical of provincial stone slabs.

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