Pronouncing Judgement

After noon recess, we found the classroom windows open. A stack of papers on the windowsill fluttered in the balmy breeze. I heard red-winged black birds calling to each other and wished I could go back outside. The custodian started to mow the lawn between the school and church rectory. I closed my eyes listening to the familiar roar of the mower. The scent of freshly cut grass made me giddy with joy. The school day was half over. School would be out for the summer in a few weeks. Beautiful summer was finally returning to Wisconsin after six months of ice and snow.

My classmates and I could tell Sister Wilhelmina was in a good mood. She had a smile on her wrinkled face. At least I thought it was a smile, because that wasn’t something she did often. Standing in front of the chalkboard, Sister shared, “I love the scent of freshly mown grass. It makes me think of my childhood.” After a pause she uncharacteristically suggested, “Someone tell me what they like and will always remember about their childhood.”

A boy waved his hand in the air and eagerly shared, “I have two things. There’s a crick behind our house that I play in, and I kin crawl out of my bedroom window onto the ruf.”

Sister sat down heavily at her desk, clearly struggling with what to address first, his dangerous pastimes, sloppy speech, or his mispronounced words. Having decided, she weakly questioned, “Do you remember the proper way to pronounce words like ‘creek’ and ‘roof’?”

Red faced, the boy nodded and said in a rush, “Saying those words the way you want me to, don’t feel right.”

I admit that when I was younger, saying ‘crick’, ‘ruf’ and ‘ant’ the right way made me feel silly too, as if I was putting on airs. As an adult working with the public, I quickly realized my teachers were right about those words. I also recognized that to say ‘kin’ instead of ‘can’ and ‘gimme’ instead of ‘give me’ no longer sounded right either.

I find it difficult to correctly spell and pronounce all the words I use. Several years ago, I discovered why I consistently misspelled the word, ‘recipe’. The reason was simply because I had never pronounced the word correctly. I grew up saying, ‘res-a-pa’ (pay) instead of, ‘res-a-pee’.

Merely reading words but never hearing them spoken can cause problematic pronunciation, too. My youngest daughter loved to read. One day when she was in grade school, she had an argument with her big sister.  She ended her argument with, “You can’t denny that!”

Big sister laughed. Chuckling, I explained to my youngest daughter that the word deny is said, ‘de ni’ (neye).  

Just recently, I mispronounced a word when talking with my daughter Tammie. When she pointed it out to me, I joked, “You can’t denny that I was really close to saying it correctly.”

Many people think there is more than one way to pronounce some words. When corrected, they flippantly say, “Big deal, ‘tuh-mey-toh’-’ tuh-mah-toh’. It doesn’t matter. You know what I’m saying.”

Last summer I discovered my family has been mispronouncing the name of a beautiful vining flower, clematis. We grew up calling it a ‘clem-MAH-tis’. A friend insisted the correct name was ‘CLEM-a-TiS’. My initial shocked reaction was, “That can’t be right! That sounds like a Latin word for a disease!”. To my chagrin, Mr. Google backed the friend’s claim.

As a child, I fought Sister Wilhelmina over pronouncing certain words correctly. The feelings I had back then have all returned to me. I’m feeling troubled because saying clematis the right way, and I know it is the right way, makes me feel silly and I don’t want to change!”


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