A Heartrending Moment: Orthoepy and The OED

This month marks a regrettable turn of events in orthoepic history – the meaning of orthoepy changed in the ongoing online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). The two earlier print editions (1933, 1989) defined orthoepy as “correct, accepted, or customary pronunciation.” The “draft revision” of September 2010 shortens that, brutally, to “accepted or customary pronunciation.”

Excising the word correct probably gave the editor who did it a frisson, but it cut the very heart out of this venerable word. The ortho- in orthoepy comes from the Greek orthos, “right, correct,” and “correct pronunciation, or the study of correct pronunciation” has been the core meaning of orthoepy since the earliest English orthoepists compiled their dictionaries of pronunciation in the 18th century. Indeed, the expunging of correct from the online OED’s definition of orthoepy would suggest that there’s nothing, or should be nothing, normative about pronunciation. Yet, curiously, the September 2010 online draft revision does not alter the original definition of orthography: “correct or proper spelling.”

How is it that spelling can be correct or incorrect but pronunciation now cannot? When the OED’s editors get around to revising the entry for cacoepy, currently defined as “bad or erroneous pronunciation; opposed to orthoepy,” will they dilute it to “unaccepted or unusual pronunciation”?

While it’s the proper business of modern descriptive dictionaries to record accepted or customary pronunciations, it’s the proper business of orthoepists to examine what is accepted or customary and opine on what passes muster and what does not. Sometimes what has been accepted by some is objectionable to others: for example, neesh for niche, zoo-ology for zoology, the prissy s instead of the traditional sh in negotiate.

And sometimes what is customary for certain speakers strikes others as slovenly: for example, nucular for nuclear, pronounciation for pronunciation, liberry for library.

Modern dictionaries profess to record pronunciations used by “educated speakers” (if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard an “educated” speaker mispronounce a word!) but that’s a deceptively broad category. It comprises anyone who possesses the credentials of an education, from a high school diploma to a Ph.D., and within it there is substantial variation. To the educated person who aspires to be a careful speaker — one whose pronunciation has been arrived at not by imitation, affectation, or conjecture but by careful consideration and prudent choice — a list of pronunciations used by educated speakers is of little help. It conveys only how the word has been spoken, not how it might best be spoken. That is where the orthoepist comes in: as an interpreter and arbiter of correct and cultivated speech.

Standards change over time, of course, but what abides is the natural and admirable human desire to speak in a way that will not attract undue notice or derision. As traditional pronunciations fall into disuse, faddish variants surge to prominence, and the forces of ignorance and pomposity vie for recognition, the orthoepist draws a bold line in the sand and tries, as the English elocutionist John Walker said in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, “to tempt the lovers of their language to incline to the side of propriety,” and “give such a display of the analogies of the language as may enable every inspector to decide for himself.”

In my next post, I will attempt to give you a capsule history of orthoepy, from Walker and his contemporaries to the present. Meanwhile, as always, I welcome your comments and your suggestions for pronunciations to record.