Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

I’m hairline-deep into edits for the new book as I write this, so perhaps this short post will only make sense to those of you with memories of the editing process recent enough to understand where I’m coming from.

I’m suddenly perturbed by words with alternate acceptable pronunciations. There’s a number of words in the manuscript that have different possible stress patterns and speeds of speech, and thinking through things like line rhythm when processing said words can be frustrating. This is most relevant to words where the way I say them is likely not the way the majority of the population says them. This Menshivikism may come from a childhood spent in one of only two counties in all of mainland Canada where non-rhotic speech is dominant. But it’s likely even more specific then that.

Take the word “skeletal”. It’s in the book just once. My pronunciation of the word is totally valid, but likely not in line with the majority of English speakers. I pronounce it with emphasis on the second syllable, wherein it’s a longer E than in the word skeleton (sk-LEET-al). Sounds a bit like the last name of US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia. This pronunciation is a bit more common in the UK, says the wiki, but I get the odd raised eyebrow over here. I think I picked it up from a physical anthropology prof in college, re-memorized it as such for an exam, and went from there.

Anyway, the point is that the rhythmic architecture of the line that includes that word is markedly different depending on who reads it and how. The pattern of stresses and non-stresses changes from reader to reader. I’m not writing in metrical verse, here, but I am writing (as we all are) with metered language, words that have specific cadence-shapes, that interlock in any of a thousand-odd ways the Tetris game of a line allows. It’s troubling to know that a reader may not be shaping their words the same way I am, and it’s regressive and ultimately impossible to try and work to the multitude of possible readings.

This anxiety over sound proportioning is similar to the more global poetic anxiety over misunderstandings. I know, at root, that divergent practices in English pronunciation is a good thing, a sign of a language at least half as vibrant and diverse as one this dominant and cross-cultural needs to be. I like the goofy way the British say the word “aluminum”. I just don’t like it when it’s essential to the rhythm in my head that they pronounce it the way someone from Nebraska would. There’s an analogous anxiety over misunderstanding of content, running parallel to this anxiety about misheard sound. Connotative meaning changes from reader to reader, and if you’re reliant on some nebulous concept of shared meaning to anchor a metaphor, there were always be fuzzy patches inreaderly understanding. Just as not everyone talks like you, not everyone thinks like you either. I’m all for this, in a far-away sense. But in the heat of the polishing blitz, it’s hard to sometimes tell an aide from an obstacle. The gift of pluralism stops at the line editing stage, it would seem.

Another divergent word in the book, though one where I’m likely at least on side with the English majority, is “ancillary”. To me, ancillary is pronounced roughly in time with the 4/4 count a drummer might keep. That is to say, four syllables counted as stressed, unstressed, halfstressed, and unstressed. ANcilarry. I know there’s an alternate pronunciation out there wherein you stress the second syllable, unstress the first, and generally underpronounce the last two. anCILLarry. Rhymes with “Aunt Hilary”. Assuming, of course, you’re pronouncing Aunt like Ant, not like Daunt without the D. If you pronounce Aunt like Daunt, that comparison was neither accurate nor helpful. And so it goes. Two months more of this insanity, kids…

In the interim, I’m sure I’m not the only person to have obsessed over this problem. Are there any pieces of advice out there?

PS: Here’s a blogful of commenters having the same conversation re: skeletal. Both the talking dictionary sites I consulted chose skeluhtal.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Poems in the Wider World, What Jake Did

3 Comments on “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”


  1. My advice would be to write your own “music” the way you speak it and the way you hear it. You’ll never be happy with anything else, and it will feel inauthentic, a regrettable compromise of your own voice, if you try to match some vague sense of mass consensus that may or not actually exist.

  2. LH Says:

    Exact. It’s your ear that matters. See my interview with Ken Babstock for more.

    I over-edited my first book. When I read it or from it, I read it how I initially wrote it, pre-manic last minute edit.


  3. This is a serious issue. I advise you don’t speak but instead take to communicating with the world through interpretive dance. My bill is in the mail.


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