Martin Ball has commented on my post about the pronunciation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘real’ family name – Dodgson. He raises a more general point that I think deserves a full post rather than simply a reply to his comment.
My position is fairly ambiguous -Â a linguist with a professed ‘classical’ attitude of descriptivism, but having held a job for most of my career that necessitated taking a prescriptive view to some extent. I don’t think Martin’s example of Shakespeare is appropriate here – pronouncing the ‘r’ would go against current SBS phonology and the difference in the vowel sounds is also a result of the phonetic changes in certain phonemes, so that attempting to reproduce them would be unnatural to present-day speakers of SBS. Martin admits that we should, out of courtesy, pronounce the names of living people in the way in which they pronounce them themselves (always allowing for differences in dialect, and, I would add, in the case of foreign names, for differences in phonology and phonotactics), but doubts whether the same courtesy should apply to long-dead individuals. I think it would be a pity to lose the knowledge of these older pronunciations, from a scientific standpoint, and also, still using courtesy as a criterion, a shame to ignore the wishes of surviving family members. I’ve written before about Purcell, and recently, I attended a lecture during which the speaker said of Purcell “but we all pronounce him ‘PurcÃ©ll’ these days”. I protested that BBC Radio 3 certainly still calls him ‘PÃºrcell’, and I was unexpectedly backed up by a lady who said that ‘Purcell’ was her maiden name, and they always pronounced it with first syllable stress. Apart from Purcell and Dodgson, other names that have pronunciations now largely forgotten are Hazlitt /ËˆheÉªzlÉªt/, Southey (whomÂ Byron rhymed with ‘mouthy’) /ËˆsaÊŠÃ°i/, and the fictional names Casaubon (from ‘Middlemarch’) /kÉ™ËˆsÉ”ËbÉ™n/ and Jekyll, in the Robert Louis (and by the way the final ‘s’ should be pronounced!) Stevenson story /ËˆdÊ’iËkÉ™l/, although in this case the real person Gertrude Jekyll is never, in my experience, subjected to the mispronunciation.
It’s understandable that the general public, who quite reasonably pronounce names as they see them, should be unaware of these quirks of spelling (or is it the pronunciation that is quirky?), but my view is that those whose business it is to use spoken language professionally should take advantage of all theÂ help they can, and the BBC’s Pronunciation Unit exists precisely for this purpose – as do the several good dictionaries that include pronunciation advice. I often wonder why Chambers Biographical Dictionary does not.