As I listened to the audio that accompanied the exhibit on the works of the American artist, Joan Mitchell, and Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), here in my home town of Toronto, Canada, a few months ago, I remember being struck by the fact that the narrator (clearly francophone) not infrequently stressed the wrong syllable. Yet his delivery, especially the “word stress,” was so clear that I, as a coach of accent management, found it very engaging. Incorrect syllable stress can throw us, but when we’re continually brought back to the important ideas in a sentence, we still pay attention.
Even native English speakers are using incorrect syllable stress on radio … on podcasts. For example, I was listening to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) interview where the host of the weekly radio show kept saying “diasPOra” although his guest used the correct syllable stress, “diAspora,” several times. It made me uncomfortable, but I knew they were both talking about the same thing. In the last few weeks, I’ve listened to a podcast featuring a discussion among lawyers (very well educated) where one of the panelists (American born – no ESL issues) said “impliCAted” instead of “IMplicated.”
And of course, whenever we listen to the British, we often hear syllable stress that’s different from our own: “BROchure” instead of “broCHURE,”, “GArage” instead of “gaRAGE,” “DEEtail” instead of the American “deTAIL”. And let’s face it – when we listen to English songs, how often have songwriters put the stress on the wrong syllable just to make words rhyme?
And by the way, that word, “detail”? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary lists the American pronunciation as the correct Canadian pronunciation. Well I’ve never used the American pronunciation. No one has ever corrected me. No one has ever misunderstood me. So how rigid should we be about syllable stress? How flexible should we be in accepting that there can be a variety of pronunciations?
I remember working with a colleague who always pronounced “SUBsequently” “subSEEquently.” Nicest guy in the world! Very intelligent and he spoke several languages. But his pronunciation of that word drove me crazy. I couldn’t stand it any longer, so finally corrected him. He immediately went to a dictionary to confirm who was right. Well, the dictionary provided the North American pronunciation, i.e. mine! I began by feeling vindicated. Then subSEEquently, I felt rather ashamed of myself.
Why was I such a snob? Everyone understood what he was saying. What difference did it make? I wonder if the choice is ultimately the client’s/student’s. We can point out the accepted pronunciation in our country or our particular region, then allow the learner to decide which they prefer. If, in the course of their interaction with someone, the listener looks puzzled, the speaker understands why and can correct it, if necessary.
We can point out the more common generic pronunciation of the word, but not insist on its use. I’m not saying we shouldn’t identify and teach accepted pronunciation in our particular location, I’m just saying that “it’s not a big deal.” We can teach awareness without insisting on conformity. What we should focus on is the sounds that interfere with intelligibility and the rhythms that interfere with our understanding of intention. I think there’s a balance between what’s important for comprehension and developing aural tolerance.
Food for thought. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I’d love to hear from you.