Metathesis in English

The term ‘metathesis’ means that when a word is pronounced certain vowel sounds or syllables are transposed, or shifted. It’s one of the more common reasons for mispronunciation of words in English. It happens because our brains often try to work out an easier, more logical or more comfortable way to say something. Even if we know the correct pronunciation of a word, it may be difficult to say it correctly. Another related reason for metathesis is popularity. Popular, but incorrect, pronunciation of a word may obscure, or make it difficult, to remember or use the correct pronunciation. But what really is correct pronunciation of a word? This may seem like an easy question, but in reality English has changed and is continuing to change. Some “correct” pronunciations of common words we use everyday are actually the metathesized versions of the original pronunciation that changed with time and usage. Watch my blog video at the link below to learn a little more and see some examples.



How Do You Know How the Letter ‘C’ Should be Pronounced?

My last post was about that tricky vowel ‘Y’. This topic leads to the question about the consonant ‘C’. Sometimes ‘C’ is pronounced as a ‘K’ and sometimes as an ‘S’. Do you know why? Do you know how to tell the pronunciation of the ‘C’ when reading an unfamiliar word? Watch my latest video to find out the answer! You will also find out why the word ‘circle’ is pronounced the way it is.

In the video I talked about assibilation. This is a linguist term that has to do with the way a sound can change. It means the sound is changed to sibilant sound. A sibilant sound is made with air flowing over the tongue and across the edge of the teeth, like the hissing sound of the letter ‘s’.  ‘C’ when it is pronounced as an ‘s’ is a good example of this process. You don’t have to understand the complicated terminology or components of linguistics to understand the concepts! You can improve your pronunciation and reading skills simply by learning to recognize a few linguistic basics, like how the vowel sound can affect a letter like ‘C’.

The Great Vowel Shift

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Great Vowel Shift was a historical event that occurred around the 15th century. The way vowels in English words were pronounced changed quite a bit, especially the way long vowels were pronounced. Linguists know this happened from a variety of sources, such as rhyming songs and poetry and the way words were spelled. Spelling is a big clue, even spelling mistakes, because often people make spelling errors that are phonetic, or according to the way words sound or are pronounced. We are not exactly sure the reason this happened, but there are many theories, including movement of the English people, political changes or even people copying speech impediments, or problems, of influential rulers. Whatever the reason, the result for us today in Modern English makes for some unusual spelling and pronunciation rules.

Change is nothing unusual in the history of the English language. For example, the ‘K’ sound was voiced in Old English, not silent, like it is today in Modern English. That is where the spelling of words such as knee, knife or knit with a ‘K’ came from. (Spelling a word with a silent letter is called an aphthong). While the disappearance of the ‘Kn’ sound is not a vowel sound that is part of The Great Vowel Shift, this dramatic change illustrates how pronunciation changes complicate the language.

Let’s look at some examples of vowel changes to better understand The Great Vowel Shift:  Home used to rhyme with gloom, ‘boiled’ used to be ‘byled’, ‘join’ was ‘gine’, and ‘work’ was pronounced ‘wark’. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic work of literature, Canterbury Tales, ‘oo’ words all rhymed with ‘food’. ‘Tough’ had a guttural ‘o’ sound that was pronounced just as we still spell it.

While some of the spellings have changed to reflect the modern pronunciation, not all of them have. Also, some pronunciations of vowel sounds were not consistent because of regional variations, and this makes it difficult to have pronunciation and spelling rules that do not contain exceptions. Even in Modern English, you will find regional variations of the pronunciation of vowels related to accents. For example in American English, there are different ways to pronounce words such as ‘roof’ (it can rhyme with ‘stuff’ or ‘booth’), ‘route’ (it can rhyme with ‘about’ or ‘boot’) and ‘water’ (it can rhyme with ‘rudder’ or ‘hotter’).

How to Speak New Jersey English

My wife’s family lives in the southern part of New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia, and this week we are here on a visit.  A popular local newspaper, The Courier Post, ran an interesting article this week on the New Jersey accent.  Since being married into the family, I have taken note of the peculiarities of the accent in this area of the United States.  My wife insists North and South Jersey are two entirely different places.  The north being influenced by New York City and the south by Philadelphia.  Since spending time here visiting, I have noticed that the accent of these two region does in fact show this regional difference. I too can now tell a South Jersey speaker from a North Jersey speaker.

The newspaper article goes into detail about the differences in pronunciation and the image a heavy accent conveys to the listener.  This certainly is true about accents in general.  Although to some degree, every speaker has an accent betraying where they learned to speak, some accents are more noticeable than others.  Accents serve as an geographic identifying mark for a person.  In the United States, although each region has variations and accents, the Midwest region is considered a neutral American accent.  So when you are listening to U.S. newscasters and announcers, generally this is the accent they are speaking in.  I had the accent-fortune to be born in the Midwest, and although I primarily grew up in the Southern United States, I learned the neutral Midwest accent from being around my parents.

Certain accents are annoying in sound to listeners that are not used to hearing the peculiarities that with come with that accent, or they convey a negative image of ignorance and lack of education. This is why some people take classes to reduce their accent.  I have taught students accent reduction when they are learning English as a second language, or if they have been taught British English and wish to sound more American.  It is not easy to reduce your accent, because it becomes a learned habit of speaking.  A person may not even notice their accent or even of those around them with a similar accent, because the human brain has the ability to filter it out.  And like my wife, who doesn’t have much of a regional accent, it can intensify when she gets around her old friends that speak with a heavier South Jersey accent.

All in all, accents provide variety and identity. They are not a problem as long as a person can be understood by those they want to be understood by.  Accents are really just a matter of taste and preference.  A heavy accent to one person, it the correct way to pronounce words to another.

If you would like to learn to speak like a real South Jersey native here are some tips:

  • “Water” is pronounced “Wudder”
  • The Philadelphia Eagles (local football team) are pronounced the “Iggles”
  • “Human” is pronounced “You-men”
  • “Crayon” is pronounced “Cran”

For more tips on other New Jersey accent regions and more words, check out the article.

Peculiarities:  Things that are different or unusual about a person or thing to set it apart from others