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Homage to Ignorance

In the last few years one hears increasingly the mispronunciation of the word homage, whose pedigree in English as an Old French loan word goes back to at least the 13th century (1290 being the date of the earliest OED attestation). Anyone who has it as a secure item of vocabulary and has actually heard it pronounced by knowledgeable speakers on both sides of the Atlantic knows that (1) the stress falls on the first syllable; (2) the initial vowel is the same as in the word palm, whether pronounced “aichlessly” (with H-dropping) or not, both being correct; (3) the second vowel is unstressed and, therefore, the same as in the word garbage; ditto (4) the final consonant. The phonetic transcription is, consequently, [(h)ɑ́mɨǯ].

Younger speakers in America who utter this word can be heard pronouncing it à la française, i.e. with the stress on the last syllable, no [h], and a final fricative [ž]; thus [omáž].

One Englishman wrote to the NPR Ombudsman in 2004 to alert the network to this mistake, and his warning is reproduced as follows (Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, “The Joy of Text,” NPR.org, November 23, 2004):

‘Hom-age… not O-mahj’
Jonathan Leonhart is a listener in London who writes to say that NPR should pronounce the word “homage” with a soft “H,” as an English and not as a French word:

Could you please circulate a memo to all your NPR correspondents and show hosts… informing them of the PROPER pronunciation of the word “homage?” The people you hear most frequently mispronouncing it as a French word are the Hollywood airheads in their commentary accompaniments on DVDs. “O-mahj…  o-mahj… o-mahj” Give me a break. It’s as pathetic as the classic over-correction “between he and I”–a semi-literate attempt to sound “smart,” made so much sadder by how wrong it is.

Leonhart helpfully includes a link to pronunciation from Merriam-Webster (“an AMERICAN dictionary,” he hastens to add).

The key word in Mr. Leonhart’s letter is “airheads.” It is ignorance pure and simple that accounts for this erroneous pronunciation. And it is far from the only instance of insecure knowledge of one’s own language being at the root of linguistic change.

[Update, October 2010: Cf. now the repeated mispronunciation of homage by a not-so-young Englishman, the presenter Mark Coles (BBC, “The Strand,” October 15, 2010)]

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

2 Responses to “Homage to Ignorance”

  • Kris says:

    I’m read they’re actually two different words? The silent ‘h’ is meant to mean a physical representation of respect or admiration i.e. film reference, collage, statue, etc., so it’s likelihood in “Hollywood commentary” is understandable. The soft ‘h’ pronunciation is the feeling of respect or admiration? Not sure if that’s correct…? Any ideas?

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