On my favourite podcast recently the host Steve Novella picked up another hosts pronunciation of ‘often’. He noted that the ‘t’ should be silent and strictly speaking he’s correct. ‘Often’ is a funny word as the t fell out of use but then made a come back probably due to an increase in literate people who could see the t and assume it had to be said.
Another contentious pronunciation also mentioned on the SGU is the word ‘nuclear‘. Many Americans seem to go crazy if you get this ‘wrong’ but if I’m honest, I’m not really sure which way is right. I think I say both.
All of this got me thinking more about description versus prescription. People will often say authoritatively that ‘this is the correct pronunciation’ and variants are laughable or stupid but where does that authority come from? Is it the same authority that tells us not to use passives or that split infinitives are inelegant? I imagine it is, but it seems to me whereas people are willing, when it comes to grammar rules, to swim against the tide of ‘usage’ and proclaim that they are right and that (for example -the word ‘hopefully‘) everyone else is wrong, necks are less likely to be stuck out where pronunciation is concerned.
Sure there are the odd few who will demand foreign words are pronounced in a suitably foreign way but the ‘latte’ crowd are almost always inconsistent and limited to prestigious European languages. Requesting authentic pronunciations of words would be a hell of a task for a language like English.
So if people like to use language carefully why are the words ‘gif’ and ‘likert’ mispronounced by almost everyone and why is almost no one demanding their correction? If we want authoritative pronunciations we can go no better than to talk to the actually creators of these terms. In the case of ‘.gif’ the guy who invented ‘.gifs’ has said categorically that he intended it to be pronounced ‘jif’ as in ‘see you in a jiffy’. Even more compelling the creator of the Likert scale, was a guy called Rensis Likert. His name is categorically pronounced ‘lick-ert’. It’s his name, you can’t really argue with that.
If you are a hardcore prescriptivist, I hope you’ll pronounce these words ‘properly’ from now on. Don’t worry that no one understands you -you’ll be in the right, and that’s all that matters.