Once again, Saturday Live, BBC Radio 4’s morning programme, has displayed linguistic ignorance, whether by accident or design. Last week’s programme (4 May) interviewed the ‘caller’ (British English ‘commentator’) for the Kentucky Derby (surprisingly the current caller is British). Twice, the presenters made the point that they had consulted a professor of applied linguistics, and that this professor had told them that on this occasion, the Americans had it right, pronouncing “Derby” to rhyme with “herby”, we British being wrong to call it ‘darby’.
I do not believe that any professor of applied linguistics can possibly have said anything so crass. Presumably (s)he was asked which was correct, and the professor had answered fully, saying that the older pronunciation was /ˈdɜːrbi/, but that the pronunciation had changed in Britain, while it had remained unchanged in the States, and I expect that (s)he went on to say that this didn’t make either of them wrong, but just different. Journalists are never happy with this, and invariably extrapolate that “older” means “more correct”.
I was once asked on air which stress pattern of controversy was correct – first syllable or second. I replied that both were given in dictionaries as acceptable, so neither was “incorrect”. The programme presenter then went on to ask “Which do you recommend to broadcasters?” I started to say “first syllable stress, in order to prevent letters of complaint from arriving, and to keep listeners attending to the content rather than the form of the broadcast”, but after the first three words, I was interrupted, and the presenter said “There you have it – the BBC says that CONtroversy is correct!” and I had no opportunity to come back. I vowed never to make the same mistake again.