Coerced pronunciation


Jack Windsor Lewis (here) either acclaims me as or accuses me of – according to your point of view – being a champion player of the rant against unusual pronunciations. He also names John Maidment in the same context. I can’t speak for John, of course, but my rants are always aimed at people who are speaking professionally and publicly, and who therefore (in my view) should take care that the style of speech they use, including the pronunciation of individual words, is not going to interfere with the transmission of information. Unusual pronunciations, in my opinion, hinder this by making the listener (and I include television viewers as listeners in this case) concentrate on the form of the communication rather than its content. In a parallel way, professional writers need to use both traditional orthography and accepted ‘standard’ grammar in their published work, unless they specify otherwise – as Jack does for his blog.

This, therefore, is not a rant, but an observation. I was recently at a concert where the artists introduced each item with a short talk about either the composer or the work they were about to play, or both. In introducing a string quartet by Shostakovich, one of the quartet members said that the composer had been /kəʊˈhɜːst/ by the Soviet government into making statements and writing certain pieces of music. This is an unusual pronunciation of the word coerced, and I wondered how it had arisen. She was not a professional speaker, and possibly unused to addressing an audience, so it may not be surprising that she ‘mis-spoke’ (in the manner of some American presidents).

Two possible sources for the mistake come to mind – rehearse, which is a word very familiar to musicians, and cohere. Add to that the thousand-year struggle for the /h/ phoneme to retain its ‘proper’ place in English phonology, and it is quite understandable that confusion should reign, and a nervous speaker opt for the unexpected usage I, and about seventy other people, heard.

On the other hand, if it had been a BBC presenter …


  1. Dear Graham
    May I say first that “acclaim” was certainly the appropriate choice of word for your first paragraph. I shd also like to say that I highly respect the admirable rule you mention by which you play our game. But I shd like to mention a rule of my own as a player in our spot-the-faulty-pronunciation game. It’s that I don’t even make a note of any apparent transgression unless I’m quite sure that it’s highly unlikely to’ve been a slip of the tung and I prefer to’ve he·rd it clearly more than once from the speaker — without counting my repeated listening to a single token played back from a recording. I’m rather shamefaced at the moment from not having stuck to my virtuous avowed practice in my Blog 383.
    Having sed that, I may say that I much enjoyed reading this comment of yours. Best wishes!

  2. Graham:
    I take your point, but there are times when poetic license allows variant pronunciations in formal speaking as well as conversation. I speak of deliberate choice. “In AmE the adjective “Consummate” is pronounced “CONsuhmet,” but it is also pronounced “cunSUMet.” The first seems to be edging out the second, but the choice is there. If you disagree, I’m open to instruction.

  3. Marc – Yes, of course, there are variant pronunciations, and inevitably there must have been a first person to use each one. In BrE as well, both pronunciations of “consummate” are heard, with “KONs(y)oomayt” now crowding out the other. In the case of “co-herce”, however, unless other people start to pick up on the person I heard – and particularly if that person regularly uses that pronunciation – I stick to believing that it was a case of nerves rather than deliberation when I heard it.

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