Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Not your coal. Charcoal.

Earlier today Buffy finished reading The Scarlett Letter. She loved it. And she's not a bit embarrassed by her late introduction to the classic. Honestly. How many of you have read every book that's listed on the back cover of Cliff's Notes? I've never read Walden.

Halfway through she mentioned something about Hester "Prine" and I corrected her without teasing. " thin" I said. Then I had to add "at least that's how I've always heard it." Because names really are all about lexical pronunciation. Read this amusing post about a dissertation defense and Pepys the diarist.

There's no English spelling rule that should make the "peeps" pronunciation obvious. It's only from hearing it said by someone (whom I believed) that I learned not to say peppis peepis pep-eyes peppees peppeez or anything else that would get a laugh. So why should Buffy have known that Prynne doesn't rhyme with line? Some might argue that Prynne looks enough like Lynne/Lynn to make the pronunciation clear. But we all know that analogy is a fallible rule.

So late this evening Buffy interjected a non sequitur into a conversation about politics...or religion...or ice cream...(I can't remember)

"Chester Prynne right?" she asked.

"What?" I collapsed laughing. "Who's that? Hester's twin brother? Did Hawthorne write a sequel called The Azure Letter about Chester and his daughter Gem?"

Buffy insisted that she had said "Hester."

"I said It's Hester Prynne! I said Hester!"

She wasn't sure how I could have misheard so when I started to explain she told me to put it in a post.

When it's begins a phrase the vowel is often elided. Especially when the phrase opens an utterance. This same [ɪ] has been elided from it for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare saved time by ignoring the poor high front lax vowel. Tis true; tis true tis pity, And pity tis tis true.

So instead of saying "it's Hester" Buffy said "ts Hester." More like one word: tsester. That [h] is chronically truant. And following a fricative it's easily hidden even if present.

This is one of those not so common cases in English pronunciation when the [ʦ] affricate can't be broken by syllabification. As an initial sound there was no coda available to claim the [t]. And in a coda position the /t/ would more likely be a glottal stop [ʔ]. So I was obviously unprepared for an onset affricate with alveolar release [ʦ] and I interpreted it as a postalveolar release [ʧ].

But I do think Chester could be a fascinating character.


  1. I think this kind of pronunciation "fox paw" is especially bad for people who read a lot, but don't have very many people with whom to talk about what they've read.

    I was saying "go-eth" for Goethe for basically my entire life, before my father explained to me how German vowels worked. With a stick.

    The worst part, I think, is finding a way of correcting someone that doesn't make you look like a big meany. Obviously, you and Buffy have unbreakable bonds of trust, and I guess that helps. Because if someone took the time to read and understand and (for God's sake) TALK ABOUT Marcel Proust, who am I to giggle and tell them "Proust" rhymes with "roost?" Some kind of jerk?

  2. I saw the name Chester Butts today. And thanks for the heads up on Pepys. Reminds me of the Peeps smores I made this Spring.

  3. I'm just surprised that Buffy never had to read the Scarlett Letter in high school. I know I did...but I'm with you, there are TONS of books I'd like to read but haven't read yet :(

  4. So at the end of the Scarlett Letter that Buffy read, does Dimmesdale say "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damnation."?


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