"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Before You Write Your Memoir, Ask Yourself This: How Will I Pronounce It?

I am an editor. On a daily basis, I modify the writing of others so that—it’s hoped—the language will be improved. That said, I have to admit a certain point of pride: Just because I find myself on occasion in a position of (relative) authority when it comes to words and commas and such, I’m not one of those stuffy language snobs or a militant grammarian. You know, a chronic eye-roller at the slightest language “mistake” seen or heard. On the contrary, I am generally of the it depends school of thought, an inclination that has only been buttressed by a formal background in linguistics.

To clarify: It depends is not necessarily a position of linguistic laissez faire—or linguistic anarchy for that matter. It’s simply the acknowledgment that real-life language is best understood as a fluid thing. Oh, it’s true, there are standards. It’s just that these standards—indeed the very notion of a language standard—come with numerous qualifications and caveats. We can certainly refer to dictionaries and style manuals for guidance on general standards of language propriety and “correctness.” And, yes, these standards serve a purpose. But they also suggest a clarity and uniformity of language use that is idealized, if not at times downright inaccurate. So my pronouncement is this (not that anyone asked): Let us be pragmatic in our application of language rules and skeptical of critiques declaring language’s inexorable degradation.

I was surprised to see similar sentiments in Every-Day Pronunciation,  a book specifically on American English pronunciation written almost 100 years ago. The attitude of the author, English professor Robert Palfrey Utter of Amherst College, struck me as both prescient and progressive. But then I tend to imagine previous generations in a much more tight-collared fashion than they deserve. (As my father once reminded me, “Sex wasn’t invented in the ‘60s.” Touché, Buppa.)

Professor Utter opens his book with the following: “A MANUAL or dictionary that indicates pronunciation usually professes to do one of two things: to tell us how we do pronounce, or to tell us how we should pronounce. A third ideal is possible, that of this book, which is intended to tell us how we may pronounce without reproach.” (Yes, this guy was out of control.) He goes on to say that

[T]here are no “laws” of phonetics or of pronunciation; there are merely generalizations more or less inclusive as to the practice of the “best speakers” or “careful speakers.” The law of falling bodies is a law in the sense that it is inevitable and inviolable; there is not authentic record of a falling body that succeeded in breaking it. There is no law of language that has not been broken many times again. Such generalizations as we make in regard to language approach sometimes more and sometimes less nearly to universality, but it is safe to say that not one of them is truly a universal. “Shall we, then, have no standards!” asks the purist. Certainly, the more the better. If they are before us, they lure us on. If they are behind us, they demonstrate our progress.

And then there’s style
Although I myself cannot begin to imagine such a situation, consider the following hypothetical occurrence: It’s a late Saturday morning and, perhaps due to events from the prior evening, your brain feels like it’s wrapped tightly with cellophane. You’re still in a not-for-use-in-public shirt and no pants combo. Your hair is far past fashionably disheveled. The as-yet unfulfilled weekend duties are evident in the strewn dirty laundry and the too-long-in-the-sink dishes. Suddenly the phone rings, and it’s an unexpected alert: Guests (say, ones you barely know) will be arriving shortly. This first prompts a forced exodus of the detritus, maybe to that one rarely opened closet. As for your condition, within 20 minutes you stand framed by your doorway, clad in clean shirt, sporting trousers and pasted down hair, a vision worthy of a first communion. Is this deception? Of course not. It is the (rather quick) creation of a more orderly self to present.

Language is in many ways like this. Though my analogy only goes so far. An explicit and conscious effort to “clean up” or prepare our language is more applicable to an occasion of formal writing or a speech. More common are the largely subconscious adjustments we make throughout the day to our language as we move from one social context to the next. You chat with your significant other before you head to work. You discuss your health at a doctor’s appointment later that morning. Back at work you have a phone conference with a potential client you’ve never met before. After work, you stop to get your hair cut, which involves chatting with the barber. Later that night you talk to tech support on the phone for a computer problem. Barring a bilingual situation, the one constant in each of these scenarios is English. Beyond that, however, there will be a plethora of differences in the style of your language from one situation to the next. In sociolinguistics, this phenomenon is understood by the concept of register. Most if not all of us speak (and write) in a range of registers.

One basic way to understand register is in the sense of formality. Think of formality on a scale running from a conversation with a close friend about a Farrelly brothers movie to—oh, work with me here—a conversation with the Queen of England (or let’s just say your very prim grandmother). Come to think of it, during a student-abroad semester in Scotland, I actually spoke with a duchess and duke, a rather congenial elderly couple as I recall. Now, I can’t remember what I said to them exactly, but I have a pretty good idea of what I probably didn’t say. You get what I mean?

Back to pronunciation: a case in point?
A few days ago I was listening to an archived program from Wisconsin Public Radio’s To the Best of our Knowledge. One of the topics was memoir and featured creative writing guru Natalie Goldberg (author of the bestseller Writing Down the Bones.) Goldberg was extolling the virtues of memoir writing, pointing out that it gets us in touch with the texture of our memories, and so on. Of course during this time, the actual word memoir was coming up. A lot. And that was the problem: Goldberg kept pronouncing it as "mem-wah." (You can listen here.)

By the fourth time of hearing "mem-wah," my right eye started to twitch. I exhaled through my nose and tried to grin. I listened on. I knew of this writer and had nothing bad to say of her. I’d read one or two of her books and had even heard her interviewed before. But that damned "mem-wah."  I couldn’t get past it. Mild consternation mingled with linguistic perplexity. I did what all of us do now when faced with situations of uncertainty: I Googled it.

When you say "mem-wah,"  you may get my reaction or a similar one like this guy’s. Stephen Lyons begins a Salon.com piece by describing time wasted watching a panel of authors on CSPAN2’s Book TV. And then he vents about—what d’ya know?—the pronunciation of a certain word:

The panel discussion was about as riveting as watching cardboard decompose in a slow drizzle. Still, after an hour, one major question remained unanswered: What is the correct way to pronounce "memoir"?

Novice writers who are still stuck in an uneventful first marriage and have not discovered the joys of brie, $15-a-pound Hawaiian coffee and red Italian leather tend to say "mem-moir," which has no cachet, and holds them back from ever inking a lucrative book contract.

Experienced writers—professors in university creative writing programs, for example—who can distinguish an exquisite merlot from an inferior merlot, and have publishing connections beyond Boise, Idaho, say "mem-wah," drawing out the second syllable for dramatic effect.

A kindred spirit? Was I on to something with my annoyance of Goldberg’s "mem-wah"? Sure I was. We’re getting beyond the realm of simply saying "mem-wah" reflects a more formal register. Formality is certainly a relative notion, but I think I can safely put forth that to this American ear (and apparently to Lyons’) "mem-wah" smacks not of formality but of high-brow affectation—i.e., think Thurston Howell III, oh, and “Lovey.”

Add to this another example from a slightly different, but no more flattering, angle. A friend reminded me of the Coen brothers’ film Burn After Reading. John Malkovich plays Osbourne Cox, a disgruntled midlevel CIA analyst who quits his job. Cox is also, in the words of film critic Roger Ebert, “a snarky, shaved-head, bow-tie-wearing misanthrope.” And he’s exactly the kind of character—so someone decided—that would pronounce memoir as "mem-wah."

Here are two dialogues between the Osbourne Cox character and his British wife, Katie (played by Tilda Swenson). First is the conversation in which Cox explains what he might do now that he's quit his job:

OSBOURNE
"I've always wanted to write."

KATIE
"Write. Write what?"

OSBOURNE
"I've been thinking about it. A book, or a sort of [mem-wah]."

She stares at him for a moment and then attempts, unsuccessfully, to suppress a guffaw. And later in the film as the plot congeals:

OSBOURNE
"Some clown—or two clowns—have gotten a hold of my [mem-wahs]—"

KATIE
"Your what?"

OSBOURNE
"Stolen them or—"

KATIE
"Your what?"

OSBOURNE
"My [mem-wahs,] the book I'm writing."

KATIE
"Why in God's name would anyone think that's worth anything?"

And so on. The "mem-wah" pronunciation is no accident. (And it works even better when you pluralize it.) It is wholly appropriate for both comic effect and added characterization of the grating, pathetic Cox.

When all else fails
Here is a case where, indeed, appealing to the standards may shed light on the situation. So what do the standards say about pronouncing memoir? Well, from Professor Utter’s book mentioned above, we find two variations for the vowel sound ending of memoir, the -are sound and the -or sound (no -ah to be found). At Merriam-Webster online, we have, again, those two variations. Same story at Dictionary.com. And the Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus? Just the –are sound ending.

Of course we need to acknowledge there’s something vaguely foreign—dare I say French?—in the pronunication of this word. We may even have a strange inclination to nasalize the final syllable, which means we allow air to pass through the nasal cavity during the pronunciation of a sound. Valois: It feels like French!

In its entry for memoir, the Oxford English Dictionary, which primarily reflects British English pronunciation, actually alludes to this very thing. First, note that it lists three variations, all with –r endings, though it places the r's in parentheses, suggesting the option of dropping or near-dropping of the sound. A-ha! Is this the justification for the now, I’ll admit, grossly maligned "mem-wah"? I would say not. Even though the entry suggests the British English pronunciation may maintain a tad more “foreignness,” the OED seems to qualify the parentheses, almost apologizing, by adding this note: “The quasi-Fr. pronunciation…is somewhat anomalous, as the word is fully naturalized in use, and has been anglicized in spelling; its continued currency is prob. due to the fact that –oir is unfamiliar as an ending in English words.”

The fact of the matter is that for many native speakers of English, the French language, or something that we think sounds French, has an air of culture and sophistication. This has probably been going on since the years following the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the army of King Alfred William of Normandy conquered the English and ushered in an era of French speaking among the upper classes in England (which also left an indelible mark on the English language itself, but that’s another story).

[Update: Of course! Thank you to the commenter who pointed out the mistaken King Alfred reference. I have no recollection as to why that name–and not William–crept into that paragraph. William of Normandy, thanks to the outcome of the Battle of Hastings, comes down to us as William the Conqueror.]

Without reproach (or confusion or distraction)
Even if one wanted to appeal to etymological justifications for "mem-wah," the case would be a tricky one for several reasons. According to the OED, yes, the English word memoir is derived from the French mémoire, the first recorded English use of the term occurring in 1567 (spelled as "memoyr"). However, as the OED has already mentioned, naturalization is relevant here: A word (even if taken directly from another language) generally adopts the “natural” sounds of the user’s first language. To put it another way, the pronunciation of a word does not doggedly adhere to geographical boundaries or the path of historical linguistics.

An r-less pronunciation of memoir (i.e., an -ah sound at the end ) may resemble French and have a ring of prestige, but what we’ve seen thus far is that this comes with a risk. Common usage may be a somewhat ambiguous term—but not that ambiguous. When a speaker opts for a variant less commonly known or accepted, undue attention may be brought on the word or, better put, the speaker. I would cite forte as a supporting example, as in Math was never my forte or His forte is singing. Recall Professor Utter’s introduction about pronouncing a word “without reproach," and let’s expand on that. Distracting or, worse yet, confusing a listener are obviously not advantageous to getting your point across. Consider what this “Usage Note” suggests in the situation with forte pronounced as "fort" rather than "for-tay":

The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation...which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian….The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners. [My italics on the last sentence.]
If we want to engender “reproach” or confusion, if we want someone to appear affected and somewhat  idiotic, as in the Coen brothers’ character of Osbourne Cox, then yes, by all means, say "mem-wah."

But that still leaves us with Goldberg. Why "mem-wah"? (And it’s really a solid -wah at the end, not even a little nasalization to make it sound French, which is even more confusing.) Maybe there’s something in her biography to clue us in on her pronunciation. Could it be a kind of hypercorrection? Then again, maybe it emerged at some point during her decades of teaching writing and conducting workshops to thousands who would love nothing more than to have a legitimate reason to start saying "mem-wah" themselves. But I’d like to think that—given her decades of Zen meditation—she’s too comfortable in her skin to be prone to "mem-wah" abuse.

Has this been much ado about nothing? Perhaps. And to be clear, my intentions here were not to heap scorn on the respected Natalie Goldberg. I don’t really know why she uses that pronunciation. But I’m gonna ask her.

Meanwhile, to Lyons and his Salon article, I give thanks for a chuckle and a feeling of vindication. Maybe this whole exercise can be summed up like this: Ostensible ignorance of this or that language “rule” I can tolerate (and sometimes couldn’t care less about). And I should point out that I no doubt have my share of violations, especially in the frenetic interplay of casual conversation and email. But it’s the affectation of sophistication—or the appearance of it to put it a bit more mildly out of respect to Ms. Goldberg—that may be the sole linguistic felony I still take genuine umbrage at.

And yet, now I wonder: What are my "mem-wah" equivalents? Are you muttering something about me right now? Are you headed to Google with a furrowed brow and a quest for vindication for my high-brow affectation? First, I would suggest, as I’ve by now told myself, lighten up. And I would ask you this final question: Haven’t you realized that all language is to some degree...a "cha-rahd"?

19 comments:

Tessa said...

I have no strong views on how one should pronounce memoir, although I would point out that the English have a habit of adding -r to words ending in vowels, e.g, Anner for Anna, Australier for Australia. (I know whereof I speak, because my late, much lamented best friend, who was English, always called me "Tesser.")

But I am a little puzzled by your reference to the Battle of Hastings and King Alfred of Normandy. I claim no expertise in history, but if I learnt anything from the hilarious spoof, "1066 and All That," it was that the battle of Hastings was fought between William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, King of England. The only King Alfred I can remember was the king who reigned in the 9th century - Alfred the Great or, according to 1066 and All That, Alfred the Cake.

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Anonymous said...

What I don't understand about all this is that the French pronounce a final r. Think "soir" or "noir." It's not like an s or t that actually disappears when spoken. So why would we lose it?

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the French pronunciation of the final R. This is doubly odd because the French spelling ends in "re," so there is absolutely no way to consider dropping the "r" sound. Having taught a graduate course on women's memoir and had to grit my teeth in order not to correct students who failed to take their cue from my pronunciation.

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