Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

The other day a friend and I got into a conversation about pronunciation. Ironically, neither of us used the word “pronunciation” (or the incorrectly pronounced “pronounciation”) during our conversation. My friend enlightened me when she pointed out the difficulty one can have finding words in a dictionary when one doesn’t pronounce them correctly. I hadn’t given much thought to this before. Shame on me!

Our conversation focused on regional and ethnic variations in pronunciation in the United States.

I remembered a story (true but told as a joke) about a boy who moved to New Jersey from Georgia, who was asked to use the word “poach” in a sentence during an English class. The boy said, “My mama and daddy were sitting on the ‘poach.’” Classmates snickered, much to the boy’s dismay and discomfort. The teacher wrote both words on the blackboard and explained the phonetic difference, according to pronunciation in that part of New Jersey. This was a necessary lesson for the boy, although it embarrassed him even more.

Years ago while working for a marketing company, written instructions were given to operators that pointed out the difference in pronunciation between “ask” and “axe.” The instructions stated that “ask” was pronounced “ask,” and “axe” was pronounced “axe.” How’s that for clarity? (Said with tongue in cheek!) Much to the company’s surprise, the operators who pronounced “ask” as “axe” continued to do so. Duhhh!

It would have been better to have given oral instructions on the difference in pronunciation between the two words, or at the least, the written instructions should have emphasized that “ask” is pronounced with an “a” followed by an “s” sound and a “k” sound at the end.

In the part of New Jersey where I grew up, words such as “ask,” “can” and “flag” are very flat in pronunciation, something I can’t put in writing. When I heard a shopkeeper during a visit to my hometown in New Jersey after I had lived in New England and other states, I asked him where he grew up.

He replied, “Right here!”

“I mean before you came here,” I explained.

“I’m homegrown,” the shopkeeper answered. “I grew up right here.”

I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that that was the way I spoke before being forced to take a speech class in phonetics in New York. I then understood why other students (especially New Yawkas) and I were made to take this class.

It’s no surprise that sometimes when conversing with someone from New England, New Yawk, New Joisy, the South, the Midwest, Chicahgo, the West or the Northwest, regional differences make one ask, “Whatchu say? Would you spell that, please?”

Peggy Tarr

Peggy Tarr has been a columnist for the Evanston RoundTable since its founding in 1998. Born in Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, she graduated from Rutgers University with a degree...