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Phonetics, Pronunciation, and Reading

AMONG the essentials of English speech the most important is a knowledge of how to pronounce words correctly, for correct pronunciation is the evidence of education, and it may be fostered and developed by a course of intelligent and useful reading. But to be able to read correctly one must be well grounded in the different values of the letters of the English alphabet in their various combinations. Hence, a few words upon the means employed to teach the young idee how to speak its mother tongue and how to read to advantage are given below.


Those of us who have attended public school know of the efforts made to stimulate good-natured competition among boys and girls to acquire a thorough knowledge of spelling and a correct pronunciation, for these two branches of education are highly valued by teachers.

As a rule, modern methods of teaching these necessary adjuncts to a thorough understanding of the English language are complex. They are beset by so many difficulties, especially in the field of pronunciation, in the guise of dots and dashes, curves and curlicues, that the child who studies English by these methods is greatly retarded in its studies. The powers of memory of a child are severely taxed when it is condemned to labor over chaotic aggregations of signs for the purpose of acquiring a knowledge of the arbitrary

rules that govern the various combinations of letters that enable it to read and write. These chaotic aggregations form a chief stumbling-block to the progress of a child. But it is not only the child that suffers; the teacher too is beset with perplexities difficult to solve, as has been evidenced recently at Kings College, London,' where a conference was held to consider the best means for teaching pronunciation.

At this conference two methods of teaching pronunciation were considered. Professor H. Caldwell Cook, representing the University of Cambridge, advocated the pronunciation of unstressed vowels. He declared that what was wrong with English pronunciation was that it was slipshod and careless-a declaration with which any one who has studied the subject should agree. But in this case, as in many another which comes up in the teaching of the English language, the doctors disagree. Professor H. C. K. Wyld, of Liverpool University, attacked this theory, and said that careful speech was either ludicrous or vulgar. He thought the best pronunciation to teach was that which would not make a boy appear ludicrous when he went out into the world, and perhaps the best type is that of the army officer of the old school. But the worthy Professor has evidently forgotten that "the army officer of the old school" is a law unto himself as much in the pronouncing of words as in his interpretation of their meaning. The writer, who in the course of his career has come into contact with army men of "the old school," from Major to General,2 has had ample opportunity to judge of the quality of this pronunciation, both in formal address and in conversation, and his judgment is that the army man's lead is a poor one

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to follow. Two of the characteristics of the pronunciation referred to if such it may be called-are the obscuring of the initial "h" and the clipping of the final "g"characteristics which would never have been indulged had the persons concerned been taught correct pronunciation.

It is a well-known fact that there is a tendency to obscure the unstressed vowels in colloquial English conversation, and this is due chiefly to rapidity of speech; but this tendency is largely overcome when the speaker takes time to express his thought. Professor Walter Rippman, an expert on phonetic values, believes that clearer and better speech is a matter of articulation and not of the stressing of unstressed syllables, while Dr. Daniel Jones, who is lecturer on phonetics at the University College, London, is of the opinion that the best pronunciation is that which is not obstrusive. In his judgment affected speech is bad. Just exactly what is meant by "affected speech" is not explained, but if this means assumed or unnatural speech, then one must agree with the dictum. If it be an affectation of speech to ignore the "h" in such words as which, what, when, and whither, then one must write down the great mass of the English people as affected. Of the two methods considered at the Kings College conference there can be no question that the first is to be preferred, for teach a child the correct, formal pronunciation of words as units and you teach it at the same time to observe not only the vowel values of their contents but the accentuation and the syllabic division also, thereby producing far better spellers than by the wordpicture method of sight-reading.

No one should expect to make over an adult who has devoted twenty years of his life to acquiring a slovenly enunciation. No amount of teaching can uproot all the

evils of mispronunciation in the grown man; but these evils can be checked, corrected, and even eradicated in the young. None but a Liverpool professor would expect a grown man to cure himself of habits of mispronunciation acquired through years of contact with fellow men equally as careless with their diction. The purpose of that London Conference was evidently to determine whether or not teachers of English should instruct their charges in the correct way to speak English-giving full utterance to all sounds in every spoken word; that is, teach them the formal pronunciation of words. Time and tide of public affairs will take care of the unstressed vowel, the silent letters, etc. We are all in a hurry, and never more so than when we speak. We suffer from a chronic disease—that of trying to say what we have to say before the other fellow gets a chance to say it for us, and so correct pronunciation goes by the board. Have you ever heard anything more utterly absurd than the variant pronunciations of our little word "yes"? Would that the public discard it altogether and revert to the "yea" of our Puritan forebears.

Realizing the necessity for removing the stumbling-block that has impeded the advance of both pupil and teacher, the National Education Association appointed a committee for the purpose of considering the adoption of a uniform and consistent system by which all the sounds in the English language could be correctly indicated. But this Association was not the first to recognize this need, for in the third decade of the closing half of last century it had received the attention of a committee of the foremost scholars of the time, some of whom are living to-day. Until this committee began its work the means of indicating pronunciation accurately had not received such attention from educators as

the importance of the subject required. Even after the labors of this committee had been completed educators were slow to adopt the recommendations of the committee, notwithstanding the fact that it had devised the most logical and consistent method for indicating sounds.

Prior to this period, and for some years afterward, none but motley methods for indicating pronunciation had been used-used not only in the dictionaries, but also in the text-books. Then (and even now) pronunciation was expressed by the same chaotic aggregations of dots and dashes above or below the letters, together with curves and curlicues, until it became necessary for the student of orthoepy to commit to memory no less than 85 sound-signs in order to study the subject intelligently. These soundsigns varied with the successive revisions of the different works presenting them, to suit the fancy of the author or the editor-in-charge. That such a method would ultimately be condemned is not to be wondered at, yet while it was tolerated at large it was discountenanced by the leading philologists of this country and by many eminent scholars abroad.

On this subject Dr. Charles P. G. Scott, who was a prominent member of the editorial staff of the Century Dictionary, having been editor-in-chief of the department of etymology of that work, and who comparatively recently was editor of the new Worcester Dictionary in course of revision, once said:

"In my opinion, long held, and confirmed in the most positive manner by a somewhat extensive lexicographic experience and philologic study, the so-called 'system' of notation used in the current American and English dictionaries (except the Oxford and the Standard) is thoroughly bad-unhistoric, unscientific, unliterary, unscholarly, inconsistent, irrational, ineffective, ut

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