Bryan Garner on Words

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Bryan Garner

Photo of Bryan Garner by Winn Fuqua Photography

One constant in language, as in life, is change. Over time, words can change in spelling, meaning and pronunciation. This month, we’ll explore changes in pronunciation and next month in meaning.

The main goal with pronunciation is to stay within the mainstream of one’s linguistic community—which, for lawyers, normally means educated professionals. Even there, you’ll find regional differences in terms such as voir dire, which is /vwah DEER/ in most parts of the country but /vohr DIRE/ in much of the South and Southwest. A Texas judge might well look askance at a lawyer using the out-of-state pronunciation.

Some pronunciations are in flux as the result of repatriation: a word imported centuries ago, and thoroughly anglicized, is sometimes treated as if it were foreign by those unaware that it was long ago made English. Hence homage, pronounced /HAH-mij/ for centuries, is now often heard being pronounced /oh-MAHZH/ by those who think they’re using a French word. Similarly, people forget the English word ambience /AM-bee-uhnts/ and instead use the French ambiance /ahm-bee-AHNTS/.

Doubtless worst of all are the mistaken attempts at foreign pronunciations: concierge /kahn-see-ERZH/ (think garage) and coup de grace /koo duh GRAHS/ are often pronounced as if there were no consonant sound at the end. In other words, people attempt the foreign pronunciation but get it utterly wrong. A term like foie gras /fwah GRAH/ can mislead Anglophones into mispronouncing coup de grace.

Some people couldn’t care less about such matters (and they’re likely to say they could care less). But educated professionals are likely to care because of adverse inferences that others might draw about their lack of care.

Although pronunciation is among the steadier aspects of language, we occasionally see major shifts. In British English, for example, there’s a strong tendency to lose /th/ and to make it either /f/ or /v/: go wif you (go with you) or my muvver (my mother), you’ll often hear.

The spread of a nonstandard speech pattern has been remarkable. A few years ago, British educational authorities announced that teachers should stop insisting their students master the /th/ sounds: In British English, /f/ and /v/ in place of /th/ should not be “fwarted.”

 

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Bryan A. Garner, editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of many books on advocacy and legal drafting, is the distinguished research professor of law at Southern Methodist University. His most recent book is Nino and Me: My Unusual Friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. Follow on Twitter @bryanagarner.

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