Say What?

athalete Sh! Cherokees!

When I was a college student (approximately 100 years ago), I was an English major who also dabbled in linguistics. I can’t say that my liberal arts education left me with many skills that led to high-paying, prestigious jobs, though I never ended up flipping burgers. (I was a cashier in a restaurant, but that was while working my way through school).

But my education has left me with a few things that I treasure: a compulsion to read, a desire to write, skills for editing, and a nearly uncontrollable desire to correct people. I gave up on being a Grammar Nazi a while back, because I sensed it wasn’t conducive to making friends, and a lot of the old “rules” (like not splitting infinitives) make no sense anymore.

What I haven’t been able to shake, though, is a cringe when someone mispronounces a word. Ath-a-lete. Nuc-yul-ar. Foil-age. I’ve corrected my husband on that one so many times, when he’s reading seed catalogues to me, that I swear by now he’s doing it on purpose.

Once I even called up a radio station because the news announcer said Bo-GOH-ta instead of BO-ga-ta. Aside from my husband, though, I’ve given up correcting people’s pronunciation unless they ask me to.

(This actually does happen. A former boss of mine was talking about an article he read and was talking about a sarcophagus. He must have seen me wince, though I tried not to show it. “Is that how you pronounce it?” he asked, and I then enlightened him. (This incident indicates not ignorance on his part, but the fact that he had only ever seen the word written and was guessing at the pronunciation. But I digress.))

One of the common words that still makes me cringe is how people pronounce “chipotle.” Almost invariably, they say chi-pol-tay instead of chi-poat-lay. This is actually an understandable mistake, as there are few words in English that include the sounds tl together in that order. To get it, you have to smash two words together, like “hot links.” That’s easy enough to pronounce, but when the combo shows up in the middle of a single word it seems baffling.

I also dabbled in Russian in college. Among the peculiarities of the Russian language – and there are many, including the Cyrillic alphabet – is that there are letters that stand for more than one sound at a time. It’s like in English, where the letter z can stand for regular z (as in zip) or zh (as in azure). But Russian carries it to the extreme. They have one letter that stands for the sound ch, and another one for sh, and yet another one for zh.

But they don’t stop at that. There is even a Cyrillic letter that stands for four different letters in English: shch. (It looks kind of like a small w with a tail on the end.) The letter is useful (for Russians, anyway), as it occurs in the word for cabbage soup and the name of the Soviet Union’s former head, Nikita Krushchev.

When my Russian instructor was trying to teach us this sound, he had us repeat the phrase “fresh cheese.” That was about the only place in English where the sounds occur together naturally. (You can think of others, like “fish chips” or “harsh chimps,” of course, but those are harder to remember.)

One day I was explaining this to my husband, rather pedantically, I expect, and I said that there were no English words that had the shch sound at the beginning of a word or a phrase. He looked pensive for a moment, then got a smile.

“Sh! Cherokees!” he said. I surrendered. I was defeated. By a man who still says “foilage.”

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