I mispronounce words. I am conscious of it. I am more conscious of it because I am an English teacher. I am most conscious of it when I am with other
English teachers and notice that I sometimes stammer in their presence because I am over thinking the pronunciation of a word.
I spent my first few years in a French-speaking Caribbean island, learning both French and English.
I grew up in the Bronx, surrounded by Spanish and English speaking Caribbean immigrants.
I love hip hop and its melodic slang.
Flashback: As a freshman in college, a friend from Minnesota asked if she could record a conversation of mine. She had to write a linguistics paper and thought I would be a great subject because of my New York accent. As luck would have it, my childhood friend was visiting that same weekend. She and her partner simply left a recorder in my room and told my friend and I to just talk.
And we did.
We spent the first few seconds joking about the recorder, and then our conversation flowed from family to school to sports to women.
I never saw the linguistics paper my friend wrote, but I remember she told me that she received an A. I can only recall two strange facts she shared with me: my friend and I apparently conjugated our verbs in a sparsely used tense or something along those lines. More importantly, she told me that when I said ‘room’ it sounded more like ‘womb.’ She and her partner, while transcribing, had to stop several times because initially they were unsure how ‘womb’ fit into the conversation.
Flashback #2: When I fell in love with hip hop, dropping the G off of the word was prevalent; it reflected the slang, represented the culture, and rearranged the rhymes. For example, “chilling” became “chillin.'” Since the N was now the last letter, it was stressed. This phenomenon happened for all ‘-ing’ words.
Flash forward from the flashback: My first year teaching at my current school, a student publicly pointed out to the class that I did not pronounce my Gs at the end of ‘-ing’ words.
She was correct.
I was humiliated.
She laughed because, according to her, I did not speak properly.
Similarly, the high school principal confronted me about my mispronunciations. During our discussion about my desire to move into administration, he stated, “I’m going to be on top of you with your communication this year.” His comment, I initially thought, related to a quick email I sent him, in which one of the words was misspelled.
As I am leaving the room, I respond to a different comment by saying, “That’s interestin.'”
“That’s it. Right there,” he says, in a eureka tinged manner as if he figured out a cure for cancer or some other great discovery that would better the world.
He asks me to sit back down and he says that he notices my dropping of the ‘G’ in my words. I can tell he is uncomfortable. He says that he is concerned that parents, a very important and influential constituent of our school community, and others will make assumptions about me. As an administrator, I will have to speak publicly to various audiences. He claims that he is worried that my speech may, in their minds, confirm any negative prejudgments. Thus, my need to speak correctly. Humiliated again. Ironically, he stated that if I was French and mispronounced words, many people would overlook and excuse it. He does not know my origins.
The conversation dangerously straddled the intersection of race, class, prejudice, and discrimination. Those four words were never mentioned, but their presence and intensity were palpable.
I did not know what to say. I did not know what to think. I did not know how to respond. I did know the conversation was uncomfortable, manifested most notably by his body language. More importantly, it hurt me.
Yet, when I got home, I practiced…all weekend long.
While I was practicing how to enunciate “correctly”, I threw ‘ask’ in there as well because I was sure that my ‘ask’ sounded like ‘axe.’ Heck, my ‘room’ sounded like ‘womb.’
I practiced too much that weekend. While I now “correctly” pronounce words that end in G, sometimes I mispronounce words that end in N, often adding a not present G, out of habit.
I mispronounce words. I am conscious of it.