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Language and Prestige (The Erroneous Pronunciation of err)

As was characterized from a different perspective in an earlier post (“Prestige and Language Change”), prestige is a precious commodity, no matter where it manifests itself in society, and language is no exception. There are still prestige dialects in various countries of the world that are: (1) varieties of the language associated with the capital city that have been canonized as standard, usually by Academies of Sciences (e. g., Parisian French in France, Muscovite Russian in Russia), but not only (cf. Tokyo Japanese in Japan); (2) by tradition deriving largely from the class dominance of its speakers, as in England, where RP (“Received Pronunciation”) is the variety of English spoken by the upper classes, as at Oxbridge (= “the Queen’s English”). America is an interesting case because Standard American English (SAE) is not legislated by an academy and not associated with the capital or any major city but rather with a wide territorial swath extending from the Middle West to the West Coast.

Prestige in America when it comes to language seems to accrue to speakers who speak “correctly.” There is a long tradition in America of correct speech codified in grammar books and taught in schools to children regardless of their geographical location. When it comes to phonetics, of course, territorial dialects that depart from SAE are alive and well, and continue to be spoken by persons with a higher education as well as by “just plain folks.”

In this context, it is interesting to note that when one hears a speech error uttered by a person who otherwise speaks perfect SAE, there may be an automatic negative evaluation on the part of the hearer resulting in a drop in the utterer’s prestige. A good example of this from the broadcast media was manifested this morning in the report of Julie Ravener on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” who pronounced the verb err to rhyme with air instead of the correct purr. (This matter was the subject of an earlier post; vide “The Dictionary Errs (Rhymes with Purrs),” March 10th, 2013.) Now, Ravener’s pronunciation is far from unique and has been slowly but surely displacing the traditional one during the last several decades. The derivation of this error is not hard to find: it comes from the generalization of the pronunciation of the associated noun error as the statistically dominant word vis-à-vis the verb.

Failure to observe tradition in speech by resorting to an erroneous pronunciation––no matter how widespread––always runs the risk of affecting the prestige of both the speaker personally and that of the content of the utterance containing the speech error. Once the pronunciation that started life as an error commands enough users to eclipse the traditional variant, prestige becomes irrelevant in assessing the new doublet simply because knowledge of tradition always tends to fade with time as older speakers die out and are succeeded by generations that are ignorant of the earlier prestige form. Sic transit gloria mundi.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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