Pronounciation

At Edinburgh university we were taught that Southern English speech provided an example of hypercorrection: they would talk of lawr and ordah in Indiar, and claim that buttah is bettah than mahgarine.


BBC English has lost something of its old upper-crust flavour, as the occasional programmes culled from the archives remind us. Correct and self-confident Scots speech, of the kind spoken by the late Fyfe Robertson or my colleague Murray Ritchie, also seems on the wane in the face of general anglicising tendencies in the media.

If you turn on the radio or the television, you are liable to hear from the Scottish media a cleaned-up version of slovenly urban demotic speech with strong transatlantic overtones. I could cheerfully strangle the broadcasters who give the time the American way in Pilton Scots. Our other foible is the glottal stop. That aroused most parental wrath at the supper table when we were young.



The standardising cultural forces at work in our society mean that ''correct pronounciation'' of our own proper and place names is under constant attack or mutation. There is a school of thought that says nothing is ''correct'' in language, that there is only current usage.

Fowler's Modern English Usage goes some of the way down this road, for example, by accepting the split infinitive. Indeed the case for not splitting the infinitive relies on the fact that in Latin the infinitive is one word, as the old Latinist grammarians pointed out. Their descendants are more permissive and it is true of course that in English the infinitive is split into two words anyway: splitting it further does not seem a horrendous crime.

A language has to be open to change and neoligisms. It is one of the strengths of English that as a mongrel it can accept new blood from almost any source. But some resistance has to be made to slipshod or meretricious change. For example the virtual disappearance of the word disinterested in the sense of dispassionate seems to me a genuine linguistic loss.

The idea that we just let our old names and words go is too liberal for me, and it clearly is also too liberal for the pupils of Tain Royal Academy. Class 2B of year 1988/89 has produced an excellent little Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Place-names. In very simple and clear terms it sets out the correct pronunciation for most of the names likely to give trouble. The compilers asked Scottish secondary schools to provide a list of local names consistently mispronounced by incomers or the media.

In all cultures the pronunciation of some names will not correspond to their spelling. When I went to work in England I came adrift on Magdelene College (Maudlin), Beaulieu (Bewley) and Cholmondley (Chumley), among others. In Scotland the examples that defeat foreigners include Milngavie, Strathaven and Alford. In these examples the ''correct'' or traditional pronunciation is defended by local usage but in the case of the old Scots name ''Menzies'' the battle seems largely lost.

Even the company of that name now seems to have given up. The pronunciation Mingus has been dropped from the corporate advertising on TV and only a few diehards in the newspaper and magazine wholesale division in Edinburgh, I'm told, keep up the tradition. The correct pronunciation had generally disappeared among the West of Scotland staff long before.

The source of the confusion is the old Scots character z which had a different value from the identical English letter. It was what in phonetics is called the yod, a sound at the start of words like yet or at the end of French words like bataille. It survives in other Scots names like Dalzell and words like capercailzie, though again by the process of hypercorrection the z is often sounded here too. As a result many Scots will swear blind that the proper pronunciation is MENzies with the English z.

When the name Menzies travelled abroad its holder either accepted the change philosophically (for example, the late Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia) or adjusted the spelling. Charles Mingus, the great jazz musician, may have had some Scottish blood in him, or else an ancestor may have acquired the name from a Scottish slave boss.

Mispronouncing names is a particular hazard for incomers, of whom there have been recently so many in the rural parts of Scotland, to the point where it seems that every hotel and restaurant in the land is in English ownership. The little Tain dictionary is a handy companion for them, for those who deal in the spoken word in the media, and for the rest of us who make our blunders in private.

* Pronouncing Dictionary of Scottish Place-names. Edited by Donald Bethune, Alan Gordon, Karl Green, Martin Revie and Drew Skinner. Available by post (enclose SAE measuring at least 6in. x 9in.) from Tain Royal Academy, Tain, Ross-shire IV19 1PS, at #1.95. Telephone: 0862 2121.