Dear Imprudence: Oh No, It’s the Pronunciation Police!

The following appeared in Slate’s “Dear Prudence” advice column chat-room supplement fairly recently:

Chicago: We have a close friend who is prone to embarrassing malapropisms that surpass even the best Norm Crosby bit. These are not innocent and simple mispronunciations—but ugly mangling of words including misuse and lack of understanding of the meaning of some words. I know that many words have multiple pronunciations and meanings, but this is beyond brutal. Some of them are funny, some are faux pas that make you wince and want to help. We used to try to help by repeating the word correctly in conversation after she had mangled it. No success. We have tried the direct approach—like a teacher—but this was rebuffed. We never did any of this in public but in private, away from others. And we picked our spots—only bringing up the worst cases. But she takes offense and continues mispronouncing words and inserting them in conversation where they don’t belong. Recently, my wife used the word adept, and now our friend mispronounces it and uses it like apt. It is like she has her own language. My wife has stopped trying to correct her. Her husband is no help and does the same thing on a smaller scale. I refuse to throw in the towel as I can’t understand why anyone would not want to expand their vocabulary—correctly. I would want to know if I was saying tenor for tenure and FOIL-AGE for any of the many accepted versions of foliage. We are 57 and of sound mind. She does not have a hearing problem.

There are so many problems here, I don’t even know where to begin. This “friend” is SO EMBARRASSING, nor does she take kindly to being corrected by her “well-meaning” pals who think her misuse of language is just terrible! Horrors!

One part that strikes me as uniquely troubling is this: “We are 57 and sound of mind.” Yes, because being 57 is supposed to automatically mean that one becomes not sound-of-mind? Soundness of mind, additionally, is one of those things where the meaning changes depending upon whom you talk to. Combined with the letter-writer’s utterly condescending attitude toward his “friend,” this sounds suspiciously like a trope that has been leveled for ages at PWDs, mostly by the temporarily abled who are so concerned about their welfare: If you’d just take my advice/listen to me/let me HELP you, you would get better. As has been proven time and time again, this is rarely true.

Now let’s look at the columnist’s response:

Emily Yoffe: Your friend probably has some sort of language processing disorder (there was speculation that the George Bush’s malapropisms, “I know you want to put food on your family,” etc., might have come from such a disorder), and all the schoolmarmish corrections in the world won’t “cure” her. It’s good you mention Norm Crosby, because he built an entire career on amusingly mangling language. I don’t know why you consider being with your friend “brutal.” It sounds as if you usually understand what she means, and when you don’t, you can ask for more context. Trying to keep a straight face seems like the biggest problem you face in socializing with her. So just be compassionate and let it go, and when you get in the car, you can laugh at her best neologisms.

Shockingly, I don’t totally hate this advice, despite Yoffe’s ill-fated attempts at snark/humor. She brings up an excellent point: If these “well-meaning” grammar cops think that being around this person (whom they call a friend) is such a trial, then why would they continue to be around this individual? To bolster their own sense of superiority? To show off their class privilege to this “friend” in the most ridiculous way possible? I have some issues with the “just laugh at her when she’s not around” suggestion, which seems almost needlessly rude–laughing at someone’s disability, furthermore, (which they often cannot control) is generally considered impolite for a reason.

But what the hell do I know? I’m just a person with several disabilities; if I’m lucky, perhaps a well-meaning TAB is writing a hand-wringing, oh-so-concerned letter to an advice columnist about me right this very second.

13 Comments

  1. If the subject reads this, I would advise her to dump her judgy friends. Either she can’t help it and they’re jerks, or they have different ideas about what is funny. (My sister loves to mangle Indian names – Aditya became Rosh Hashanah – but she does that because it bothers me and she knows it.)

    I strongly think it’s the first case.

    I’d tell them I was trying, I wasn’t doing it to bother them, and if they can’t handle it, well…

    I also hate the idea about laughing behind her back about something she can’t control. Sometimes, we find the manifestations of disability funny (coping with it and all), so she may have no problem laughing with them. “Oh, I did it again!” But if she’s not comfortable with that, then they need to grow the eff up.

  2. I was fine with her response up to the point where she encouraged them to laugh at her behind her back. This means the author felt that it was okay to ridicule a supposed friend and since when is that okay. Irregardless of whether she was differently abled or not belittling someone is cruel.

  3. One. In. Seven. Have. Communication. Difficulties.

    And I know, seventy times seven, I will be struck down for my intolerance.

    And isn’t brutal an … animalistic … word? Like she’s being dehumanised?

  4. Adelaide Dupont – I’m glad Prudence called out the use of “brutal”. I don’t know about dehumanizing, but it is a strong word for this situation. Of course, the fact that the letter writer felt compelled to write/ask this says something not so good about hir. I know politeness is important, but sometimes just telling people the truth can go a long way.

    I also didn’t like the use of the word “ugly” in the letter.

    The letter writer’s word choice makes it sound like the friend is antagonizing them (by her mere existence!) on purpose.

    Which is why my advice is much shorter – grow up.

    This letter reminds me of an article I read about facial recognition software and how it thinks East Asians are blinking when they’re not, or doesn’t see dark-skinned people. There was a bit about voice recognition software that made my new FWD bells go off. Some accents can be hard for the computer. It sounds like most recognition software is made by and for white, English speaking, TABS. You know, the “norm.” (Of course, I hope that voice recognition people work with people fluent in “major” languages, so that you’re not required to know English to use it.)

  5. One thing I would have liked Prudence to mention was that, for some people, constantly bringing up the issue would actually exacerbate a disorder like this. I know that when people talk about ways to “fix” my speech impediment, it’s likely going to flare up around them because I’m overly stressed and focused trying to reign it in.

    I’m sure Friend realizes that the couple is constantly badgering her about her pronunciation, and I’m sure it stresses her out even more and exacerbates the situation. She’s probably overly focused on convincing these jackasses that she has a good vocabulary and whatnot, because, from the letter, it’s fairly obvious that these people harp on her about her pronunciation fairly often.

  6. Lousy “friends!” What a jerk!

  7. I know if I found my friends were laughing at me behind my back for my communication difficulties I’d be really angry. And I’d probably dump them as well. Demeaning people, even without them knowing, is just not cool.

  8. I do a similar thing. I probably have some sort of dyslexia (it’s not bad enough to get a doctor’s opinion), and I’ll often say or write the wrong word without realizing it. It can be hugely embarrassing and I can get really upset when people point it out, because it’s out of my control and that upsets me. It’s no surprise that the friend doesn’t react well to their attempts to “help”, considering the tone of the letter.

  9. @ Kaitlyn,

    “[M]y advice is much shorter – grow up.

    That was my advice, too–exactly. Either that or “Get over yourselves,” although that’s longer. 😉

    I used to frequent a forum for people with nonverbal learning disability (NLD) as well as parents of kids with NLD. Certain parents would consistently call people out on proper spelling and grammar. This forum was for people with a learning disability/communication impairment, and some of us/our parents had other learning disabilities (like dyslexia) or types of neuroatypicalness also. So somebody finally said: “You *do* know that this is a forum for people with learning disabilities, right?”

  10. There was a bit about voice recognition software that made my new FWD bells go off.

    Just wanting to say to this that as a stutterer I’ve always assumed that voice recognition software won’t work for me. It would be cool but I am just too cynical to think people worked on it.

    And, yeah, the post makes me go ARGH. If I got an inkling that anyone thought about me like this or that they were laughing about my stutter behind my back, they would be on my “never ever speak to again” list in a split second (with an exception where I tell them off for their complete failure at being semi-decent human beings). The advice was good aside from that, but that bit…!!!

  11. Voice recognition software also has trouble with children’s voices, which kind of sucks as I started using it as a child. There’s progress, but it’s slow going, not that I’m excusing it, just commenting.

  12. This post made me cringe. As a person who stutters, I have come in contact with people who try to interject words or phrases in my conversation and think silencing me is the best way to “put me out of my embarassment” (someone actually said the quoted to me once).

    I am not familiar with facial recognition devices, but I know in the PWS community there are devices such as the Edinburgh Maskers (no longer in production, though) that block out outside noises to help one focus on their linguistics.

  13. I agree with everything you said except your complaint that the writer mentioned that they were “57 and sound of mind”. I would say that they feel they have to say that, as they probably experience plenty of ageism in their lives, especially when complaining about someone else’s behaviour around/towards them. Not that they should have in this case.