Reader Problems: Pronunciation

Reading is great. With the help of a book, you can travel to countries and worlds you would never have the chance to otherwise. You can learn things in a fun or subtle way, so you may not even realize that you’re learning—for example, various mythologies in any of Rick Riordan’s books, or a little bit about the actual World War I in Scott Westerfeld’s alternate-history Leviathan series.

Reading can also give you a big vocabulary, which is one of my personal favorite things about it. Largely because of books, I am great at spelling.

There’s a catch, though. I don’t know about other languages because I read books almost exclusively in English, but in English, at least, spelling and pronunciation do not always go hand in hand. And when you say it wrong out loud, it can make you look like an idiot.

EXHIBIT A: Chasm

See that “ch” at the beginning of the word? Yeah, that “ch” is why, until only a few years ago, I had no idea “chasm” was supposed to be pronounced “kaz-uhm.” The “h” is silent.

Even today, I’m so used to pronouncing the “h,” making that ch sound, that I still sometimes mess up, and when I see the word chasm in a book, I still say “chaz-uhm” in my head.

EXHIBIT B: Macabre

I don’t even know how long I pronounced this word in my head as “mack-ahb-ray.” Since learning this word, I have discovered that most people—or at least everyone I’ve ever heard say the word—pronounce it “mah-cob.” Those silent letters again, they really kill me.

This one hasn’t been as hard to change as chasm for me. I don’t see macabre as often in books, so the switch was relatively easy.

EXHIBIT C: Names, especially in sci-fi/fantasy books like Brandon Sanderson’s

This one is one of the hardest because there are no hard and fast rules. Most of the names in sci-fi/fantasy books are made-up words, not necessarily based in English or any other real-world language, but on a language the author invented for the story. Even worse, they could just be a collection of letters the author threw together because they sounded cool to them.

This means that, when it comes to character names, even hearing someone say them out loud won’t help with your pronunciation struggles—because they might not be right, either.

As an example, the first time I ever read The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, I listened to it on audiobook because I didn’t have a physical copy. Naturally, this means that I tend to pronounce most of the characters’ names the way that the narrator of the audiobook pronounced them, because of course if it was on the official audiobook that must be the correct way, right?

Well, apparently not. I can’t tell you how many times my best friend and I have argued over the correct way to pronounce names like Jasnah (I say “Yahs-nuh,” she says “Joss-nuh”), or Kaladin (“Cal-uh-din” vs. “Cal-ay-din”), or Shallan (“Shahl-on” vs. “Shal-an,” rhymes with talon). At this point, I’ve convinced her to pronounce Kaladin the way I do for the most part, but with the other two, we are still at odds.

EXHIBIT D: Mischievous

This one is less of a pronunciation error and more of a spelling error. It is pronounced the way it looks: “miss-che-vuhs,” but do I always pronounce it that way? No. A lot of people I know don’t, either.

Sometimes I accidentally throw in an “I” between the “v” and the “o,” and it becomes “miss-chee-vee-uhs.” Why do I do this? I don’t know. But for the longest time, I actually thought it was spelled with that “I”—mischievious. My spell check just underlined the word, so it’s definitely not supposed to be like that.

 

The English language is a beautiful thing, but it can also be really stupid and annoying with all its contradictions. Sometimes ch is a hard sound, sometimes it sounds like sh, and sometimes the “h” isn’t present in the pronunciation at all (chicken, chalet, chorus). Sometimes words are more complicated than they seem to be, sometimes they look complicated but actually aren’t.

I truly admire those of you who successfully learned English as a second or third or fourth language. It’s not an easy task—there are many, many people who have English as their first (and maybe only) language, and even they can’t get it right.

As long as the English language continues to be weird, our pronunciation struggles as avid readers will continue. All I can say is talk carefully, and good luck in all your future reading endeavors.

Thanks for reading! I’ll see you next week.

-Ariel

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