Mispronunciation is a little Rumpelstiltskin-like gremlin, who dances on the tops of seminar tables and in the dining hall. Its ghoulish grin can leave a legacy of embarrassment, for the rest of the conversation, maybe for several classes afterwards. As we blush and mumble hurriedly after realizing we have botched a word, it introduces itself, cackling Grimmly.
Yalies don’t speak often of this creature, who isn’t nearly as monstrous as its more omnipresent and ominous parents, Failure and Stupidity. But perhaps that makes it more insidious. The embarrassment it causes isn’t covered by what seems to be a campus policy of attempting to soothe (rightly so) self-consciousness with encouragement and reassurance.
Mispronunciation, we seem to believe, is a blunder worth being embarrassed by, and an embarrassment we don’t know how to nurse.
Fumbling a word rattles us for the same reason that many people may deem this discussion indulgent: We feel it should be simple, a nonissue. While we’re insecure about our command of the concepts we’re trying to articulate, there’s an expectation that we should at least be able to wield the component parts. Too often, our shame at messing up the fundamentals then distracts us from the substance of an idea.
Our fear of mispronunciation is one manifestation of the pervasive anxiety that we don’t fully belong, a fear we readily discuss in the abstract. We lament our perfectionism. We chastise ourselves for being embarrassed and try to rebuke ourselves into confidence. But to what extent do we actually address the interactions where these phenomena appear? We are, in this regard, thinkers and not doers.
So although this particular phenomenon is low stakes, it is worth analyzing. It manifests a common source of anxiety on the part of the speaker as well as the listener, who does not know how to react. If we can figure out how to navigate this particular scenario, we can provide a small dose of comfort and establish a foothold towards kinder and more productive conversational dynamics.
Scene 1: A friend once guffawed loudly across the dinner table when someone bungled “consequently”. Scene 2: When a student reading a passage in class muttered a few variations of “fibula” and looked up questioningly, my professor nodded encouragingly, repeated the word quietly and moved on to respond to the passage. In both these instances, the speakers felt the sting of embarrassment, but only one listener reacted empathetically.
Why the embarrassment though? “Consequently” is among the words we read a lot more than we speak. This is a common phenomenon at Yale, where bookworms are expected to vocalize words we are familiar with, but have processed and communicated only via the written word. “Fibula” is just esoteric. Such words are prone to bungling, independent of a speaker’s educational or cultural background. We must not forget that English is a ridiculous language; itself an unruly and beautiful hodgepodge of origins, the “proper” pronunciation of which has been instituted and continues to be policed by a narrow privileged class.
We can’t always know why someone messes up, but we can appreciate the subtleties of how to react. The professor’s use of encouraging listening skills — nodding, using encouraging vocal cues — and most importantly, reacting to the content of what the student said rather than the way he said it, gestures at a more constructive culture of conversation. In this culture, we actively value the substance of each other’s ideas rather than how they are presented.
A friend, one of many who admit that they hesitate to read aloud in seminars, remembers not wanting to do so in third grade because she feared ridicule for messing up. And in a sense, this is a third-grade issue. That is when we were supposed to be cultivating confidence in ourselves as contributors and also learning to respect and support others in their efforts. The embarrassment of mispronunciation may seem trivial, but I say that’s exactly where we need to start in building a culture of respect and appreciation. We needed to start when we were little. Now, we need to start small.
Leah Meyer is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .