The big pronunciation dilemma

Published Sep 12, 2018 | Written by Jeremy Knight

My boyfriend is constantly poking at fun at me for the way I pronounce certain words. “You’re putting the emphasis on the wrong part of the word, Nic. It’s Showman not Showman."

Who is right, and who is wrong? 

And, what would you call that - a dilemma, or a dilemma?

Where we place the stress on a word is one of the most important aspects of clear speech, but these subtleties can be lost even on native speakers, let alone learners of English. Often when an individual is misunderstood, it’s down to misplaced stress rather than pronunciation.

Think of it this way. At the dinner table, you might cause a bit of confusion if you were to declare it was time for ‘Dessert’ rather than ‘Dessert’. Unless everyone was prepared to tuck into a plate of dry sand…

Dictation, elocution and intonation are all determined by a range of factors. Regions, class, gender, our upbringing, even our social identity. 

Learning English isn’t as easy as other languages because on top of the extensive vocabulary, you'll be met with 19 vowel sounds and 25 consonant sounds covering a whole range of mouth positions - front, centre, back, open, close, spread, relaxed and renowned. Most modern languages have no more than 5 vowel sounds such as Spanish, Japanese and Arabic. 

Having just returned from Spain where I was keen to practise my (very limited) grasp of the language, I began to appreciate just how difficult it must be for those in reverse. Expecting non-native speakers of English to tackle the plethora of ambiguities, inconsistencies and homophones that plague our ever-expanding language is a big ask.

For example, why is lawyer pronounced ‘loy-er’ when there is a perceivable ‘w’ right in the middle? And why, if something happens ‘by’ accident, do we do something ‘on’ purpose? 

Or how about when you present a present? Or if you suspect someone is a suspect? 

And don’t even get me started on the scone/scone debate. (I'm sorry, but that lurking silent ‘e’ counts for something!)

So, perhaps my boyfriend has a point for pulling me up on my pronunciation habits. But many of our most pressing language dilemmas seem to remain unanswered.


Why is English so difficult to pronounce?As everybody who has studied English as a foreign language knows – English is a relatively easy language to learn, up to a point. It is easy and quick for most learners to reach intermediate level, as the basic grammatical structures are straight forward, and the vocabulary is simple and often has traces in students’ own languages. This is one reason why English has become so popular as an international ‘lingua franca’ – to speak it to a level in which two people can communicate is quite easy.

Published by Jeremy Knight September 12, 2018
Jeremy Knight