Sound and nonsense

To a nonnative speaker, what a difference a misheard word makes.

Bob Wellinski/The LaPorte Herald-Argus/AP
Baltimore Oriole – in Indiana

I used to dream of a stadium filled with fans, everyone on their feet and holding a chocolate sandwich cookie, chanting, "Oreos, Oreos, Oreos," as Baltimore's baseball team won the World Series.

I should be clear that (a) I know nothing about baseball, (b) I love Oreos, and (c) English is my second language. It is incredibly easy for me to mix up words that sound similar.

My Oreos dreams persisted until one night when I was having dinner with my friend Dave, a sports fanatic, and the subject of baseball came up.

"How cool is that?" I said. "A baseball team is named after a cookie!"

"What team is named after a cookie?" Dave asked.

"Oreos – you know, the Baltimore team."

Dave cast a long, silent glance at me and then said: "The Orioles are named after a bird, not a cookie." He proceeded to spell it, trying to get me to pick up the difference between orioles and Oreos. I could hear the laughter in his voice.

This business of mixing up words is embarrassing, especially when I mispronounce people's names. Craig and Greg; John and Joan; Marian and Myriam. A few years ago, I worked with a Gail, who sat across from me, and a Gil, who sat next to me. When I called out to Gail (or to Gil), nine times out of 10, both would reply, "Are you talking to me?"

My son Alex laughed his pants off (not pans or pens, but pants) when I told him I had a "sneaker" for a snack. "Mom," he said, "Snickers, S-n-i-c-k-e-r-s, is a candy bar. Sneaker, s-n-e-a-k-e-r, is the shoe."

At least I am not swimming alone in this sea of mispronunciation. According to englishforums.com and collegenet.com, both native and nonnative speakers have trouble pronouncing words like nuclear, Realtor, jewelry, library, and rural. Nuclear is often mispronounced "nu-cu-lear," Realtor becomes "Rea-la-tor," and jewelry changes to "jew-le-ry." Dr. Language at yourdictionary.com lists the 100 most often mispronounced words and phrases in English. For all intents and purposes (not "all intensive purposes"), here are some words to watch out for.

•Carpal tunnel syndrome is a medical condition, not an instance of carpooling in a tunnel.

•While a card shark sounds more dangerous, the word is cardsharp.

•Bob wire did not fence off the American frontier, barbed wire did.

•A blessing in the skies may refer to a rainbow, but you probably misheard "a blessing in disguise."

"Take your time speaking, correctly enunciating each word," is Dr. Language's advice.

An added bonus is that pronouncing words correctly helps you spell them accurately, too, says Dr. Language. A friend of mine, who is a Venezuelan living in the United States, once wrote "see me before you live" on a note to one of his staff. Had my friend pronounced "live" and "leave" properly, he could have avoided ever having to employ a dead person.

"Pay particular attention to new sounds," says Linda Miller, associate director at the Emerson College Writing Center, who has taught English as a second language for 30-plus years. Many English sounds don't exist in other languages, so nonnative speakers like me often substitute unfamiliar sounds with sounds they know from their own language. Linda was sometimes called "Rinda" because the "l" sound doesn't exist in the speaker's native language. And I had once announced my intention to memorize a "ple-teho-la" of English vocabularies in an ESL class. Chinese, my mother tongue, does not possess the sound of "th" or "r," after all.

Armed with tips from the experts, I asked Alex to demonstrate the correct pronunciation of orioles and Oreos. Unlike Eliza in "My Fair Lady" who was able to enunciate "rain," "Spain," and "plain" with clarity after some training, I never arrived at the epiphany of correctly distinguishing orioles from Oreos. Granted, Alex is no Professor Higgins and a two-minute lesson is all we could handle as mother and son.

I no longer dream about a stadium full of fans chanting "Oreos, Oreos." I now dream about a flock of little bright orange birds singing to me like a church choir with a mission: "Orioles, orioles, orioles...."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.