Wheelbarrels and rollycoasters

wheelbarrowI’ve never been a fan of baby talk, even when babies do it. It’s bad enough that parents (and grandparents) encourage it by laughing at the adorable tot’s consonant substitutions, but when they do it themselves, it sets a confusing example.

Surely a child’s language development is seriously delayed every time he hears an adult say, “Aw, wook at him cute widdle toes …How old are you? Fwee?”

I’ve observed the same phenomenon when native English speakers, in trying to communicate with native Spanish speakers, speak English with (their idea of) a Spanish accent. It sounds ridiculous and is both confusing and condescending to the Spanish speaker. Maybe adults think speaking in baby talk makes them somehow more understandable to the child. I always imagine babies thinking, “What the <bleep> is wrong with you?”

Despite years of hearing baby talk, many children grow up to speak correctly. Gradually they listen to adults on television, teachers in their schools, speech therapists (surprise!) … and they figure out most of it. But some words have a harder time than others in making the transition from playpen to board room.

A shocking number of adults never completely graduated from baby talk, even if they don’t realize it. Here are three words that, when mispronounced, suggest the speaker needs a nap:

  • Wheelbarrow (not wheelbarrel or wheelborrow). It contains neither the word barrel nor the word borrow. The barrow part rhymes with narrow.
  • Roller coaster (not rolly coaster). The fact that it is, indeed, rolly does not excuse putting that word in its name.
  • Kindergarten (not kindygarden or kinnygarden). It’s from German, where kinder means children. But that doesn’t give us a pass to mangle kinder and half-translate the rest to garden—even though that’s literally what it means.

The cuteness associated with baby talk decreases rapidly after about the age of two, and is completely gone by the time you start elementary school. So if you’re still saying words like this, don’t be surprised if your co-workers (instead of gathering for cake in the break room) chip in and buy you a dictionary for your birfday.

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Case of the missing zh

conciereI get it. French words are mysterious and unpronounceable. Half the letters are silent, and often it’s hard to tell which ones they are. We Americanize some French words, but not others.

The most thankless job must be teaching French pronunciation to teenagers in the Midwest. “Shape your mouth as if you were saying oooh, but then say eeee. And there’s no state called Illinoiz.”

But it’s baffling when we refuse to make some sounds … just because.

Exhibit A: The zh sound at the end of concierge. I’ve heard many people pronounce it conciere, as if the final ge were silent.

Exhibit B: It’s not as if Americans can’t make that sound. It occurs in dozens of English words, and many of those words did not come from French. Few people have trouble pronouncing the sound in measure, casual, seizure, television, or amnesia.

In some regions of the US, the zh sound is hardened. At least it’s not ignored.

Where’s your car?
In the grodge.

What color’s your new sofa?

Whatcha doin’ with them flowers?
Makin’ a COR-sodge.

Many people swear they have heard concierge pronounced conciere in hotels, by people who work there and they should know. News flash! They don’t. (Know, that is.) Many tradesmen have been known to string bob wire and build masonary walls.

I could almost understand pronouncing it con-see-AIRDGE.  But if you insist on pronouncing it without the zh sound, then I must insist that you go to a spa for a massa, gather your entoura, and take a trip to Baton Rou.

Bon voya.

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