How to pronounce the C

Jim McKenney
Mon, 29 Mar 2004 19:54:29 PST
Jane McGary wrote:
>Let's not let this thread get too far or I'll have to recycle my perennial 
>essay on it from Alpine-L.

I would love to read that essay; please, recycle away!

>once a classical philologist, then a linguist, and therefore now very 

First of all, the credentials are irrelevant. Let's not confuse the context
of discovery with the context of justification. For anyone who slept
through freshman philosophy: it's the idea which counts, not its source. 

I suspect that anyone who really knows about these issues also knows that
there is about as much certainly about the purported facts of linguistics
as there is certainty about the purported relationships of plants. Jane, I
share your tolerance about pronunciations, and I have no illusions about
there being one right way.

But we do part company a bit on the issue of ANY PRONUNCIATION THAT GETS
THE MESSAGE ACROSS. That's a great attitude to take if you see your goal as
being primarily that of communicator. To my tastes, pronunciations are a
matter of style.  I'm not content to be only a communicator; I want to
inspire people to think and learn about what these words mean, to
understand why they are spelled the way they are, to see how they fit into
the greater sphere of our intellectual life, to empower them to pursue a
richer vocabulary, to understand things. 

Just as some people seem to think that it is preferable to use the vaunted
"correct" names for plants, some of us like to be aware of what scholars in
other disciplines have to say about the purported "correct" pronunciation
of the languages from which plant names are largely derived. I take the
pronouncements of botanists and the pronouncements of linguists with
equally big grains of salt. 

For some of us, these issues add another intellectual dimension, another
element of spice, a dimension which enhances our appreciation and allows
tie-ins with all sorts of other things. It's a game, and it can be a lot of
fun. Is it reasonable to expect everyone else to share this interest? Of
course not. 

My hope is that those who argue for the least-common-denominator approach
to the pronunciation of these names will extend to me the same tolerance
which they seem to think is their due. 

It's not my life goal to "correct" clueless people who say ny-fof'-ee-ah or
el-scholtz'-ee-ah or ah-jer-ray'-tum. I just don't want them telling me
what to do.

This topic has been a source of fascination all of my life, and I am still
learning. I don't know it all, and hope I never do: it's still a thrill to
look at a word which I've known for years and to suddenly see it in a
different light, to understand its literal meaning or etymology for the
first time, to realize that it is not at all what I thought it to be - and
yes, to wonder how I could have been so dense about it for so long. 

And I know this, too: no one need worry about pronunciations because by and
large no one cares. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland zone 7, where I'm usually the only one who
talks to me in botanical Latin, and even we sometimes disagree about


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