I just noticed that I have had a WordPress setting enabled for the entire lifetime of my blog that prevented search engines from indexing it. I have just disabled that setting, so a little catch-up is in order for the unwashed e-masses (iMasses? I’m typing this on a Mac) that will inevitaly be banging at my humble Internet front door.
I am going to school to get a second bachelors degree in Music Education. My first bachelors degree is in Computer Science from the University of Michigan (keep this in mind, it is important at the end of the story). I am working on this second bachelors at a school that I will call (for the purpose of protecting the identities of the parties involved in the following story) Fourth Yeast Urn University. What follows is a true account of an argument that I had with an instructor there; let’s call him ‘P. Ompu Sass’ . I don’t know what kind of yeast was in the first three urns, but due to professor Sass, there will soon be nothing left in the fourth to activate the glorious rising of freshly educated urban minds. Fourth Yeast Urn will be left only with minds that are flat, crackery, and stale like that matzah that you have sitting around in your cupboard from Passover three years ago when you swore that you were going to go the whole seven days without eating anything leavened but then you moved it to the top shelf in shame after the first day when you couldn’t resist the Krispy Kreme donuts that that irritating guy in marketing brought to work as penance for making everyone stay late the week before to nail down the changes to that mailer when he just ended up going with the original one anyway. Wow, you’re still reading this?
As part of my degree, I have to take a class called Voice and Diction. Not Diction for singers, which might actually be useful in my future carreer as a music teacher, but Voice and Diction as in “you will learn how to pronounce words correctly.” I swear to god that’s it. Nothing else. Not even public speaking stuff. Just pronunciation. For this, I have to pay an ungodly amount of money and sit in classroom saying “sherbet. library. arctic.” over and over again until I really have no confidence in how to correctly pronounce the word at all anymore because of that thing that happens when you say the same word over and over and over and over again and it starts to sound weird and foreign. Try it: Electrical. Electrical. Electrical. Electrical. Electrical. Electrical. Electrical. Electrical.
That, e-masses, is the word that started it all. We had just taken an exam and were going over the answers in class. For one portion of the exam, we had to transcribe English words into their ‘standard’ International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) equivalents. IPA is a set of symbols that (relatively) unambiguously represent all of the phonemes, or individual sounds, that make up all spoken language in the world. This is very helpful when discussing pronunciation, because, for example, while ‘phlegm’ and ‘Flemish’ each start with different letters, they both start with the same phoneme, which is represented in IPA as [f].
We were going over this exam, and one of the words that we had to transcribe was ‘electrical’. I had written [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] down on my paper , and professor Sass had marked it wrong. I was somewhat surprised, but I figured it was becuase of a minute difference in one of the vowel sounds. It turns out that out text book listed the transcription as [ɪlɛtrɪkəl]. The English aproximation of that would be ‘eletrical’. Notice the first ‘c’ missing before the ‘t’. Professor Sass explained this to the class, who had almost all gotten the question marked wrong. I couldn’t believe it. Not only had I never in my life heard of anybody in any dialect or with any accent pronouncing that word ‘eletrical’, but we had discovered numerous other errors in the book over the course of the semester. So I raised my hand. ”Professor Sass, are you sure that ‘eletrical’ is, in fact, the standard pronunciation of that word, even though we have discovered a bunch of other errors in this book, some when going over this very test,” asked I. ”Yes, I remember learning it that way in Harvard drama school,” said he. Well, OK, thought I, having been reminded yet again of his academic pedegree, maybe he’s right.
Though just to be sure, I checked with Merriam Webster, the source that our textbook used as the reference for what was ‘standard’ English. Sure enough, [ɪlɛktrɪkəl]. No missing ‘c’. And then, just to be double sure, because Harvard is pretty intimidating, I checked with the guy that teaches that singer’s Diction class, thinking that he may have heard that odd pronunciation from his own dealings with the stage… Nope, never heard it in his life.
The next day in class, I raised my hand again. ”Professor Sass, I checked Merriam Webster and it lists the pronunciations as [ɪlɛktrɪkəl],” said I. ”Oh, Merriam Webster? No one really puts much faith in them [well, except our textbook...]. I’ll look it up just to be sure and let you know next class,” said he. At this point, I really thought he was kidding, but as we go through this story, I think I can safely say that he was lying. At this point, he has lied directly to my face twice. Once when he said he learned that pronunciation in drama school, and twice when he said that nobody pays any mind to Merriam Webster.
At the beginning of the next class, he told us that he looked it up, and yes, it is actually [ɪlɛtrɪkəl], no ‘c’ sound. I raised my hand again. ”Where did you look it up,” asked I. ”The Oxford English Dictionary,” said he. Fine, said I (to myself). I don’t know why he would be looking in a British dictionary for standard American pronunciation, but fine; if it’s in there, then… fine.
But just to be sure, I looked it up in the OED. Yep, [ɪlɛktrɪkəl]. That’s three lies to my face. Luckily, he was walking by the bench that I was sitting on when I was looking up the word, so I flagged him down. ”Professor Sass,” said I, “look at this, the OED is also showing [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] as the correct pronunciation.” ”Oh, well, why don’t you google ‘IPA association’ and see what they say,” said he (Wait a second… the IPA association? What on Earth is the IPA association? There is no such thing. There’s the International Phonetic Association, which gave us IPA, but there is no ‘IPA Association’ that maintains an updated list of the ‘standard’ way to pronounce every word in every language in the world. Back to the story…) Of course, we couldn’t find the IPA Association’s standard way of pronouncing ‘electrical’. So professor Sass said that he would ask his colleagues what they thought.
The next day in class, professor Sass delivered the final verdict. ”I asked two other professors,” said he, “one said that [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] was in fact the correct pronunciation [the one that every god-fearing blue-blooded apple-pie-eating calvin-pissing-on-the-ford-logo-sticker-having American uses], but the other said that [ɪlɛtrɪkəl] was the way that he learned it too [the no 'c' on that they teach at Harvard drama school, apparently]. So that’s it. We both win. There’s no dictionary in which I can verify hearsay. It’s over.
But of course, it wasn’t. I emailed this other professor; let’s call him professor Please Tell The Rest Of The Department About This Guy Because I Just Want To Get My Degree And Get Out Of Here And I Don’t Want to Deal With This Crap. I emailed him and I asked him for a source of this ridiculous pronunciation. Any dialect, any accent, just point me to something that’s written down and published that says that [ɪlɛtrɪkəl] was ever a pronunciation used by anyone on the planet Earth at any time in history for any reason at all, wrote I. And of course, professor This Crap didn’t recall having any such conversation with professor Sass, and he verified in both the Kenyon and Knott Dictionary of Pronunciation and the NBC Pronunciation Guide that [ɪlɛktrɪkəl] is and always was the only correct way of pronouncing the word ‘electrical’ (at least regarding that first ‘c’ sound). Lie number four.
Unless I hear from professor Sass, this is where the story ends. Four lies directly to my face. It is infuriating to be lied to by anyone. It is more infuriating to be lied to by a teacher. It is MOST infuriating to be lied to by a teacher who you are basically PAYING TO NOT LIE TO YOU. Which leads us to the moral of this story: the University of Michigan kicks Harvard’s ass.