Pronunciation: Be comprehensible, not pretentious

Monday, November 24, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

An ex-boyfriend and I once had a great row over his use of the word “aceto.” Don’t know what it means? Precisely.

We had just returned from a trip to Italy, and we were eating at an Italian restaurant to try to surmount the terrible depression that sets in after one leaves that gorgeous country for, I assume, pretty much anywhere else. In all seriousness, he asked the waiter for some "aceto," which is the Italian word for vinegar. I then told him we weren't in Italy anymore and not to be so pretentious. The next 30 minutes were not so buono.

We quickly moved from discussing that instance to arguing about the use of native terms and pronunciations in general. His position was that it is dishonest and wrong not to adhere to the correct usage when you know it, that you are not, for example, doing sufficient homage to Van Gogh if you don’t sound like a cat dislodging a hairball when you say his name.

Mine was (and is) that there is no quicker way to alienate yourself and give people a reason to dislike you than by pronouncing the capital of France as “pare-REE,” however authentic that may be. Unless, of course, you are actually in the Land of Cheese and Mimes at the time.

The crux of my argument that day was that you should use whatever term or pronunciation does the most to facilitate communication. For example, if you are in Italy, referring to Florence as “Firenze” will likely get you further than sticking to your English guns. But using that name whilst in America probably would, and should, inspire some exaggerated eye rolls in your general direction. 

I later had a similar discussion with another friend when we were, perhaps inevitably, at an Italian restaurant. I ordered the bruschetta and pronounced it as “bru-SHETT-tah” without, in the interest of full disclosure, knowing any better. Once the waitress walked away, my friend explained that I had offended his worldly sensibilities by not respecting the Italian practice of articulating “ch” as a “k” sound.

When I launched into the same line of defense I had used with the ex-boyfriend, my friend suggested that the debate was not so dichotomous as I thought. I had more choices than saying the word downright incorrectly, as is the general American practice, and saying it like I was the caricature of an Italian chef.

His belief was that you could be correct and subtle at the same time, perhaps even inadvertently teaching your listener something worthwhile in the process.  He took the view that hedging your bets and saying “bru-SKETT-tah” in an American accent was along the exact same lines as using slightly obscure but correct English, and I was forced to concede the point.

The parallel English argument is perhaps too large a can of worms to fully open here.  However, the choice between using proper and colloquial forms of the native language (when they differ) can be dealt with similarly. Most of the time, you should probably do whatever will facilitate communication — which, it’s worth noting, interrupting a conversation to point out someone else’s linguistic mistake almost never does — but sometimes it’s worth using what is less known in order to promote correct usage.

Admonishing someone for using “further” when he should have used “farther,” for instance, would be pointless. Grammar changes over time and the distinction between those two terms has all but ceased to exist. Even in its heyday, that distinction was hardly crucial to discerning a person’s meaning ("further" being traditionally used to refer to indistinct or metaphorical distances and "farther" to those which can be measured).

But there are other commonly misused words (e.g., "less" when you need "fewer") that many people, including myself, believe the correct usage of is worth fighting for — not in the sense of challenging to a duel anyone who uses them incorrectly, but in the sense of making a conscious effort to use the right term regardless of place or company.

Maybe I was a little hard on my ex that day — given that he was still dealing with black holes of post-Italy despair — but I maintain that any American who stands in Missouri and refers to old “pare-REE” without a hint of irony would best be tarred, feathered and tied to a tree far, far outside the city limits (by a disdainful mob of French people, if possible).

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She recently moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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