Proper pronunciation; or how my teachers got it all wrong

Working my way through Greek history, I am rapidly coming to discover that I’ve gotten just about all of the pronunciations of Greek names and places wrong, and am now experiencing retroactive humiliation. I blame this in part on me, of course, but I also blame it on my teachers.

It seems to me that while I was taught to use the pronunciation guide in dictionaries, the use of it was never encouraged. I don’t ever recall mispronouncing a word and then having one of my teachers say “Why don’t you look that up in the dictionary?” Not once. Ever. And the thought never occurred to me on my own. Of course, after I had a bachelor’s degree and was done with formal schooling, I began to read pronunciations carefully from the dictionary every time I looked up a word. But the pattern for a whole brace of words was already set.

For instance, it wasn’t until well after I graduated college, and was reading The Three Musketeers that it suddenly occurred to me, through what I can only describe as divine insight, that D’Artagnan was not pronounced “Deh-art’-ag-non”. (Admittedly, I never took French and never put two and two together.)

But in reading the book of Greek history that I am now going through, Isaac Asimov, as was his practice, put pronunciations next to all of the Greek names and places and I am beginning to discover that just about everything I thought I was pronouncing correctly, I was pronouncing wrong. In this case, I blame my teachers for I distinctly recall them pronouncing the names this way and I was merely repeating what they were saying. Oh, you want a for instance?

I always pronounced Phoenicians as “fo-nee’-shuns”. Turns out, that’s wrong; it’s proper pronunciation is “fee-nish’-ee-unz”. I never in my life heard a teacher say it that way, but there it is in the dictionary. I suspect that teachers, unfamiliar with Greek pronunciations made it up as best they could. How should they know that in Greek, “ae” is pronounced -ee? So that I have been mispronouncing Achaeans all my life. And how about “argives”, which I have always heard teachers say as “ar’-guyves” and yet is actually pronounced “ahr’-jivez”. I could go and and on with examples.

The problem is that I have these terms burned in my brain this way. Hearing myself saying “Phoenicians” properly sounds absolutely ridiculous to me. It just doesn’t sound right and so I tend to stick with my incorrect way of pronouncing the syllables. I wonder if this is how dramatic changes are introduced into languages.

Or if it is just another way that we Americans look silly to the rest of the world. I don’t know. It’s all Greek to me.


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