A chasm in education


It never ceases to amaze me how people can find new ways in which to mispronounce words.

I have just heard a writer (a writer, and so one would assume a person who is interested in words) on The Radio 4 programme Saturday Live, pronounce, in all seriousness, the word chasm with the same initial sound as in the word church. Yes, I have heard it said like this as a joke, poking fun at English spelling conventions, but never as what was clearly the speaker’s belief that it was the usual way to say the word.

It isn’t even such a rare word. He must have heard ‘kazzm’ many times in the course of his life. Has he never connected the two?


  1. What are the reasons that lead to mispronunciations? I wonder about this because I occasionally mispronounce something and immediately realize it came out wrong. Sometimes my talking has gone on far enough ahead of my horrified brain that inserting a corrected pronunciation would be a greater distraction than just continuing. All of these occasions took place when I was not paying full attention to what I was saying, but partially distracted.

    Perhaps there is an analogy to playing the piano. I once read a book by a physician (a neurologist or neurosurgeon or someone who dealt with the brain) who was dissecting the brain’s relationship with his learning to play the piano as an adult. If I am recalling correctly, he said sometimes timing errors result from a change in the pathways — someone may be playing a piece purely by muscle memory when the player recalls a tricky measure is coming up, and the timing falters because now the player is looking at the music or thinking about it differently in the brain, and the messages to the hand muscles are coming from the brain, which is farther away.

    Occasionally I will envision a word as it is printed when I am saying it. I have pauses in my speech often enough that I do not know if I falter when visualizing a word as opposed to just letting muscle memory carry me through. Were there indications in the broadcast that the writer might have been sorting through words mentally, or did the mispronunciation come out smoothly while the talking proceeded?

  2. Barbara –
    I had been hoping that someone else with more knowledge about the brain would make a comment, but nobody seems willing to add anything. In the specific case of “chasm”, the speaker was talking quite fluently, with no hesitations. There are linguists who argue that a native speaker never makes a mistake. I can’t agree with that – how do they explain spoonerisms, for instance? Your analogy with playing the piano (or any other musical instrument, presumably) strikes a chord (pun entirely intended!) with me, as I also play the piano, but not to a professional standard. I’ve heard it said that amateurs, like me, practise until they get a piece right, but professionals go on until they can’t get it wrong. I find it impossible to memorise anything beyond the first few bars. When the notes are in front of me, the muscle memory works for most sequences and chords, but from one ‘performance’ to the next, the mistakes differ. A specialist might be able to tell us if this is a similar phenomenon to the mis-sequencing of sounds in speech. And is picking the ‘wrong’ sound, as in the mispronunciation of chasm, a similar thing, or something completely different (always assuming that the speaker was intending to say ‘kazzm’ rather than ‘chazzm’)?

  3. There’s a similarity between playing the piano and reading – both are the result of human inventions, unlike speaking which is the result of evolution. So babies are born already prepared to analyse the speech they hear around them and eventually utter their first words.

    Guessing about your example, is chasm really a word you hear frequently? If your writer first encountered it in a text, he/she would have to look it up, or make it up.

  4. ‘There are linguists who argue that a native speaker never makes a mistake.’ I quite agree that this is nonsense. There is the entire field of error analysis which has revealed many psycholinguistic insights.

  5. There’s a technical term here – ‘ spelling pronunciation’. That’s what is happening.
    The intelligent and curious person knows that Eng pronunciation is tricky & you need to be wary . Today we have all the info on our cell phones. So we have no excuse except sloth /ou / aw/. Best thing to do is devote ONE hour to learning the IPA (the international phonetic alphabet). it should not take you more than an hour or two.
    It goes with a little chart – a cross section of the oral cavity. And you are ready sail the well-charted waters of Eng pronunciation on either side of the pond (aka the Atlantic).

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