12. Why Okies Can’t Use the Dictionary

It’s the oldest joke on the subject of language – “If I can’t spell the word, how can I look it up in the dictionary?”

People don’t realize that the joke could read – “If I can’t pronounce the word, how is a dictionary going to help?”

Here are two vowels, followed by their example words, followed by their pronunciations, as given by the Pronunciation Guide to the Oxford Dictionary. (URL below)

i        sit        /sit/
e       ten      /ten/

Just like the dictionaries I consulted as a child, this is gibberish.

I pronounce the word “ten” as the Oxford people would pronounce the word “tin”, so this confirms to me that “ten” and “tin” are pronounced the same. Therefore, “often” is pronounced “oftin” – except that teacher said to drop the “t”.

The Oxford Dictionary tells me so, and the southern half of America agrees.

It is the fatal flaw of dictionary pronunciation guides that they must refer back to previous knowledge. Linguists use complex and difficult systems independent of the user’s native tongue, but they do nothing for a fifth grader who goes to the dictionary to learn to talk better.

Let’s see what the Oxford people say about the letter “r”:

The symbol (r) indicates that British pronunciation will have /r/ only if a vowel sound follows directly at the beginning of the next word, as in far away; otherwise the /r/ is omitted. For American English, all the /r/ sounds should be pronounced.

Of course, this does not include Boston, where all the “r”s that should have been pronounced elsewhere are saved up and put into words that don’t need them.

The fact is, America does not have just two dialects, Southern and normal; or as my people would say, Northern and normal. America has many dialects, and it should. Britain had many dialects, and their speakers migrated to different parts of America, including one non-dominant English dialect that ended up in the Boston area.

PBS documented this in 1986 in a nine-part series The Story of English, which I recommend highly to those who find a copy and a VHS player to play it on.

Meanwhile, if a kid from Savannah and a kid from Boston meet in the home of a kid from Seattle, it might as well be the United Nations. And a dictionary won’t help.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s