As a young boy in primary school I was once asked to read aloud a passage that contained the word fatigue. I had heard the word once or twice but had never seen it in print before, and didn’t make the connection between the faintly familiar sound and the unfamiliar French letter-pattern. So I ploughed on with a literal pronunciation, “fatty-goo”, to the great amusement of classmates.
My teacher gently corrected me, and I finished reading the specified text a shade pinker. It was an early lesson in the disparity between English spelling and pronunciation. I see similar stories all the time; just last week I read a tweet from an editor who said she’d been mispronouncing desultory all her life. I’m sure she’s not the only one.
Pronunciation is a source of constant controversy – and is it controversy or controversy? Macmillan Dictionary includes both pronunciations, and indeed the two forms are legitimate. This point is sometimes missed: people assume there can be just one right way, when in fact there is often more than one. Geography and register may be factors in whether a particular pronunciation of a word is perceived to be correct or appropriate.
A recent humorous article in the Irish Times commented on the social and religious aspects of pronouncing aitch in Northern Ireland. It prompted a flurry of letters on the subject, several of them condemning the proliferation of h-sounds in places the writers considered wrong – including the name of the letter itself. As a cultural shibboleth it elicits extreme feelings: @miche on Twitter told me that as a child he was hit with a plank by another child for getting a h-sound “wrong”. J. D. O’Connor, in his book Phonetics, regretted:
that one pronunciation should confer social advantage or prestige and that another should bear a stigma. It would be much more equitable if we could all pronounce in our native way with no feelings of guilt or smugness, of underdog or overdog.
It certainly would. Yet witness the recent hubbub over GIF, after its inventor insisted it be pronounced “jif”. He has no business insisting. Some people say GIF with a hard g, others with a soft g, some say each letter, and so on. None of these is wrong or inferior; the truth is, you can pronounce GIF however you like. But for fatigue I cannot recommend “fatty-goo”.Email this Post