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Degrees of Linguistic Self-Awareness (Anosognosia)

It is reasonable to assume that speakers vary in the degree to which they are aware of how they speak their native language. Specifically, they may not always be aware of the fact that in some cases they have silently chosen from a range of variants that may characterize the pronunciation of a certain word. In an extreme case, moreover, the choice of a possible variant may be at odds with what is extant and habitual in the language, particularly as this pertains to the names of persons, where variation is usually strictly constrained by the preference of the person who bears the name.

Here is what can only be called a quasi-pathological case heard on NPR Radio. In a recent broadcast of Weekend Edition Saturday, the host, Scott Simon (whose linguistic manner, incidentally, can only be characterized as pompously precious), while interviewing a correspondent, Scott Horsley, several times mispronounced the latter’s name by rendering the medial s of his surname as a [z] instead of Horsley’s own version with [s]. This kind of lack of self-awareness borders on what is called anosognosia in the mental health literature, defined as a ‘deficit of self-awareness, a condition in which a person who suffers a certain disability seems unaware of the existence of his or her disability’.

A possibly related case pertaining to linguistic self-awareness––also from a recent exchange between two NPR correspondents, Robert Siegel and Michele Keleman, this time on All Things Considered––involved the pronunciation of Iran and Iranian (about which see in detail an earlier post on the subject of broad and flat a in contemporary American English). Siegel several times pronounced these words correctly, i. e., according to the traditional English norm, to rhyme with ran and Pomeranian, whereas Keleman consistently used the forms influenced by foreign speakers (specifically, Iranians) to rhyme with Ron and raunchy. Over the course of an exchange that lasted several minutes, neither speaker deviated from their respective preferred pronunciation.

The degree to which interlocutors confronted with variant linguistic forms are aware of the variation as it occurs is an open question. In the particular case of Iran and Iranian, native speakers who ignore, or are ignorant of, the traditional norm should be informed of the possible deficit in status and power that is comported by a deviation from traditional English phonetics in the direction of a foreign mispronunciation, amounting to an unintended concession as to which of the interlocutors’ utterances are valid or veracious.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

One Response to “Degrees of Linguistic Self-Awareness (Anosognosia)”

  • Michael Lamb says:

    Very bold. How gloriously non-PC, however diplomatically put! I think it must have been this post that inspired me to twit a robotic user of “no problem” as I mentioned in a comment on your post of November 16th, 2013. However I met my Waterloo in a mobile phone shop where I was sold an iPhone with “iSO 7”. I doggedly kept talking about iOS 7, and was shown literature with headings containing the correct variant, which was still invariably read out in the dyslexic form. I surreptitiously tried pointing to the “iOS 7” while pursuing the discussion using the ortholexic form, which merely elicited more dyslexia, or should I say dysphasia? Since then I have been on helplines where the same thing happens. The situation is hopeless.

    Since you mention Iran, perhaps you would be interested in a rather different problem we have in the UK, where I guess we have more media people than you with a Muslim idea of political correctitude, so that these days we hear an awful lot about Awvgghhawnistawn. (Your text boxes don’t seem to accept IPA. Can it be done?) As if Netherlanders were to insist on saying Hawlont. Mind you, they haven’t started insisting we call it Nederland yet, which would have more merit than a lot of this nonsense, since Holland is only one province. So would Netherlandish or Hollandish, since of course it’s the Germans (i.e. Dutchmen, as in the US) who speak Dutch. But so much of this sort of thing is already firmly entrenched that native speakers or inhabitants of the places in question must have a much harder time understanding the place-names now ordained for English as pronounced by English speakers than when the known English versions were current.

    BTW I know some speakers of Farsi hypercorrect the aw I have used above in the ethnicity-aware “Awvgghhawnistawn” to oo, but I haven’t heard anyone going to those lengths yet.

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