Pronunciation wars

Alternative subtitle: Why All the Grammar Nazis Are Wrong, but You should Learn Your Grammar And Pronunciation Anyway

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays (dare I say, all time favorite?!) is Love’s Labour’s Lost. On top of being a hilarious comedy with a subverted trope ending and puns (lots and lots and lots of wonderful, delicious puns), the basic theme is a loving lampooning of sheer intellectual snobbery, a vice of mine I hold dear to my heart.

In the play, Holofernes, a pretentious school teacher, begins to mock an equally pretentious Spaniard who has learned English, about his pronunciation:

He draweth out the thread of his verbosity finer than the staple of his argument. I abhor such fanatical phantasimes, such insociable and point-devised companions; such rackers of orthography, as to speak dout, fine, when he should say doubt; det, when he should pronounce debt, – d,e,b,t, not d,e,t: he clepeth a calf, cauf; half, hauf: neighbour vocatur nebour; neigh abreviated ne. This is abhominable, – which he would call abbominable: it insinuateth me of insanie: anne intellegis domine? To make frantic, lunatic. (Act V, Scene I)

“Wha-?” modern readers will exclaim. Who the heck pronounces debt with the actual b? Or actually says “ab-hom-inable?” (We should totally bring back that pronunciation. It just makes you sound so haughty. Try saying it out loud sometime).

This made me scratch my head, too. Is Holofernes totally wrong and Shakespeare is making fun of pronunciation Nazis or elitists at his expense, or was this actually how they pronounced words back then?

Robin Fox, in “Pronunciation: Shakespeare, Oxford and the Petty School Question,” says:

He was taking a position on a great intellectual issue of the day: the correct pronunciation of English and the classical languages. For Holofernes (“the Pedant”) English should be scrupulously pronounced as spelled. In the grammatical language of the day Prosodia should conform to Orthographia. But to such luminaries as William Bullokar, Richard Mulcaster and William Kempe, redundant consonants should be ignored, and their advice (and Armado’s practice) has prevailed.

Who knew! The history of the English language is, as always, absolutely fascinating. Still, this brings up the question — how does one act Holofernes on the stage? Should they pronounce all of his words so that the Prosodia conforms with Orthographia? Fox says:

Should he then be pronouncing words like this throughout the play? Only at the cost of being totally unintelligible.

I am, at heart, a grammarian who invokes Godwin’s Law far too often for his own good, but even I understand that language is rarely static but constantly evolving. Times change and languages change with it, and if we continue to hold to the “true” way of writing and speaking English, we would be “totally unintelligible” to anyone, thus canceling out the very purpose of language — to communicate. One could hold to the old, true rules of English (true according to their own view, in any case), but it will be a very lonely world indeed.

Still, don’t take this as an excuse to not learn the comma rules. Until we come up with something better, the basic comma rules are incredibly important and if you continue to neglect them, so help me I will start to ignore you because your text has been rendered illegible. And just like the grammar Nazis, you pose the threat of miscommunication.

And people say my writing looks like a giant wall of text.


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Filed under education, wordsmithing

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