Sunday, March 2, 2014

You Say “Viola” I say “Viola”

While studying Shakespeare years ago with an Oxfordian polymath, I was surprised to learn that those Brits had a different way of pronouncing the name of the female lead in Twelfth Night. They call her “VI-o-la” whereas we Yanks tend to say “Vee-OH-la.” And they do the same thing with Winter’s Tale’s “Perdita,” by pronouncing it “PER-di-tah.”  Of course the Brits and Yanks have all sorts of words that they insist on pronouncing differently, not just the names of Shakespearean heroines. But some variants are more likely to strike the ear of one set of speakers as just being off. That is, saying certain words “the wrong way” in certain circles can be a symbol of pitiable ignorance.
An example of this phenomenon in legal circles has to do with the “proper” way to say “voir dire.”[1] In Texas, as I have heard state trial judges explain to panels of potential jurors, we are closer to Paris, Texas than to Paris, France; therefore, the voir dire process is referred to as “vor DIE er.” By contrast, anyone vaguely conversant with French would say something more like “voi DEAR.” If you use the Francophile pronunciation in Texas legal circles, though, people will look at you like you are some pretentious prig who couldn’t find your ass with two hands and a compass. Similarly, if you go up East to some Yankee courtroom and refer to “vor DIE or,” people will look around for the turnip truck that suddenly deposited you in their midst after you obtained a law license fthrough an on-line correspondence course.
I bet all of us have experienced pronunciation variations that rub us the wrong way. But it seems that certain variations that are just a matter of different regional conventions tend to grate on people more than if someone simply mispronounces a word. (I may be wrong about this, actually, because it really bugs me when lawyers say “condition preh-CEE-dent” instead of “condition PREH-ce-dent” since those same lawyers would never say “I really need to find a Texas Supreme Court preh-CEE-dent to support this proposition.”) But let’s nonetheless assume I’m right about this—the proof being that the Gershwins’ “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a timeless standard.  Some differences in pronunciation, though not inherently wrong, offend so much as to risk condemnation as a “No Nothing.”
Why is this? Why do certain variations in convention trigger such deeply visceral responses even when a person knows quite well that the “correct” pronunciation is wholly a matter of convention? Do these tendencies reflect some primal fear of being misunderstood that makes us cling to arbitrary wisdom? Or do they symbolize some need to keep the outer boundaries of certain circles clear because of lingering fear that the barbarians are poised to break through the barricades? Is it a territorial issue that arises only after one has fought to be seen as someone “in the know” so that disdain of those on the outside is a kind of badge honoring your own passage to safety?
Beats me.

But, undoubtedly, using what is perceived as an “incorrect” pronunciation convention is serious business, a proxy for judgments regarding another’s deeper inadequacy.

As Hamlet suggests, one way “to put an antic disposition on”—that is, one way to seem insane—is “by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase.” [I.4] So when in Texas, we have to say “vor-DIE-er,” even when we know quite well that the French (and most others) say “voi DEAR.” Otherwise, we risk being dismissed for an antic disposition. 

[1] Voir dire is the process of asking potential jurors an array of questions in hopes of rooting out bias and prejudice and thus ensuring one’s client a fair trial.

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