American English speakers are especially tolerant of variations of pronunciation for such words as pecan, often, aunt, dog, tourist, dawn, and vehicle. Many speakers pronounce the t in often or pronounce aunt with a broad a. These variants present no problem of comprehension.
Sometimes, however, an unfamiliar pronunciation obscures meaning for the listener.
I did a listening “double-take” when I heard a promotional ad that mentioned the detective series Monk.
The announcer pronounced monk /munk/ to rhyme with wonk /wahnk/. If she’d said the word out of the context of the television show, I would not have understood what she meant.
A foreign speaker could understandably expect the spelling monk to rhyme with words like bonk, wonk, or conk, but I was surprised to hear a native speaker do it. Anyone who has been through elementary school would have heard of monks and presumably heard the standard pronunciation. Besides, the characters in the TV series all pronounce Monk to rhyme with punk. Of course, the announcer may not have ever watched the show.
This (to me) odd mispronunciation of monk by a professional television announcer is an example that language teaching in US schools has changed. Standard pronunciation is no longer on the menu.
Everyone speaks a home dialect that may or may not conform in usage or pronunciation to Standard English, but every speaker will benefit from becoming aware of pronunciation differences. If nothing else, being aware of alternative pronunciations can be an aid to correct spelling.
Here are some suggestions for learning more about standard American English pronunciation and how it has changed since the early 20th century:
1.Choose a standard dictionary of American English. For many words, Merriam-Webster includes more than one pronunciation option, but the first one given is the (current) standard pronunciation.
2. Watch old news reels from the 1940s and 1950s and pay attention to the speech of U.S. Presidents, Congressmen, and ordinary citizens being interviewed in a news story.
3. Watch feature movies made before it became fashionable for all the characters and not just the criminals and buffoons to speak nonstandard English. The Thin Man movies offer an especially broad palette of American pronunciation in the 1940s.
There’s nothing wrong with preferring a variant pronunciation as long as meaning remains clear to other speakers. Regional variations add color to to the language. Nevertheless, there is such a thing as a standard pronunciation. Speakers who want to communicate beyond their immediate dialect group will benefit from being aware of it.
Want to know more about standard American English pronunciation and its relation to standard spelling? Check out 7 Steps to Good Spelling.
Concerning the pronunciation of “monk,” I also asked my father (who grew up in Utah and is well educated) how he pronounces the word, and he pronounces it the same way. Maybe I learned that pronunciation from him, though I grew up in the South. I’ll have to ask my sister how she pronounces the word too. I agree that the pronunciation is not standard, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it uneducated. In fact, here’s something interesting I read on the Web:
“It might also surprise everyone to know that there is no ‘correct’ pronunciation given in American dictionaries. The pronunciations given tend to be the most common pronunciations among educated speakers, but dictionaries do specify in their front matter that the pronunciations given are not the only ‘correct’ pronunciations.”
I think it all boils down to this: Even the most educated speakers are probably going to pronounce a few words peculiarly. Is that a bad thing? No. In fact, I think that’s what makes people interesting. 🙂
Concerning the pronunciation of “basil,” I guess I should have been a little more specific. I pronounce the first syllable with a short “a,” and the “s” with an “s” sound. I’ve noticed that most Americans seems to use a “z” sound. Anyway, not many people pronounce “basil” the way I do, so I feel unique. 😉
On a related note concerning herbs, here are a couple of other interesting points:
Did you know that Americans and Britons pronounce “shallot” very differently? Apparently the British accent the second syllable, whereas Americans do not.
There’s also a similar divide on the pronunciation of “herb.” Britons tend to pronounce the “h,” but Americans don’t. I always pronounce the “h.” To me, dropping the “h” just sounds so pretentious. 😉
Anyway, this has been an enlightening discussion.
Because of your comment, I just re-read and revised this article. I wrote it about seven years ago. I don’t think I rant as much now. Nevertheless, I still contend that the pronunciation of “monk” to rhyme with “conk” is at best an alternative or regional pronunciation. Merriam-Webster, which is notorious for its inclusivity, does not show that pronunciation. Neither does OED nor Howjsay: http://howjsay.com/pronunciation-of-monk.
M-W, OED, and Howjsay all acknowledge two pronunciations for “basilar” and “basil”: short a or long a in the first syllable.
Interesting article. I’ve always been a huge word nerd and a stickler for grammar, but I pronounce “monk” with the same vowel sound as “conk.” And yes, I’m a native speaker. 🙂
Also, please listen to the second pronunciation of “monk” here (by someone from the U.S.):
So, I think this pronunciation may be more common than many people think. I also pronounce “basil” a lot differently from everyone else too. 🙂 I pronounce it just like the first two syllables of “basilar.”
Incidentally, I agree with you about standardized tests. They’re almost as bad as spelling bees. 😛
I should have known better than to repeat the word “deteriorating”in relation to language. Of course change is normal, both in usage and–especially–in pronunciation.
I am acquainted with many regional accents, but I honestly had never heard a native speaker pronounce monk in that way. If you don’t mind telling me, what region did your mother grow up in?
I have heard radio announcers with college degrees pronounce Mozart as “Moe’s art.” Not that it matters in the long run, I agree. Certain pronunciations will prevail and others will become rare or disappear.
Meanwhile I’ll try to do better at skirting matters of pronunciation unless I feel there’s a strong reason to prefer one over another.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment.
As a recovering prescriptivist, I feel the need to respond to this post.
My mother, who is a child of university professors and was excellently educated probably around the time you were, pronounces “monk” in the way you consider incorrect. It’s not incorrect English. It’s a variation in pronunciation–there are a lot more of those in English than you seem to think.
Mispronouncing foreign names is something that has always happened, and I have never met a college-age human who pronounces “Mozart” incorrectly.
As for other changes in pronunciation, like putting stress in the “wrong” places on words, those don’t mean the language is deteriorating. Here’s a radical idea: languages change. Our modern English pronunciation would appall people from two hundred, three hundred, four hundred years ago. And much further back than that, they wouldn’t understand us at all. Not only have stress patterns changed, our vowel sounds have radically altered since the birth of English, and we have lost entire phonemes. If administrators and other professionals are now using “incorrect” pronunciation, their pronunciation is probably becoming mainstream, and in a few years, it will be in dictionaries.
All that doesn’t mean just anything is correct or proper English, and that doesn’t mean it’s being taught well in schools. But your complaints aren’t the right ones to be making. Our language is changing, NOT deteriorating, especially in the pronunciation department. Parents should be listening to their kids as much as kids should be listening to their parents.
The Powers That Be love their standardized tests because they provide numerical statistics that seem to prove something. They’re easy to grade, and they are cheaper to administer than individually-administered tests that would actually measure the progress of the whole child. This push to drop the arts “for reasons of economy,” to drop grammar and the concept of standard English, “for reasons of modernity and multiculturalism,” and to emphasize math and science “for reasons of leading the world in technology,” is very foolish. Schools stripped of music, literature, and standards of excellence in subjects other than math, science, and athletics can only produce some very lopsided, unhappy personalities.
I keep hoping that the deterioration might slacken.
Thank you thank you thank you! It seems that modern technology and social media allows the user to shorten words like ur instead of your. I find it sad how public schools are putting proper teaching of English and music education on the back burner. Proper spelling and pronunciation are not requirements for a diploma as long as the students can make an ok score on a standardized test.
Delightful and informative as always. Your articles highten awareness about the deterioration of our language.