Does pronunciation equal intelligence?

I don’t usually go to Wheel of Fortune to get inspiration, but a very unusual circumstance occurred during a recent episode where a contestant had the words “Mythological Hero Achilles” on the board and only had to read it to win. He pronounced Achilles as “A-CHILL-ees” and was pronounced by Sajak to be incorrect. Wheel of Fortune later stated that “When a contestant tries to solve a puzzle, they must pronounce it using the generally accepted pronunciation.”

Now, I won’t go into the incorrect plurality in that sentence, but let’s just take them on their word. And that brings me to my conversation today, because I’ve been through this exact same thing, and let me tell you that quite often people assume you lack intelligence just because you can’t pronounce something correctly. To explain that, I’d like to bring you back to my days as a Ph.d student at Western Michigan University where I was studying political science, and in particular political philosophy.

For those who know me, it’s generally understood that I’m very well read. While other kids were reading the equivalent of Harry Potter back in my grade school days (Harry Potter wasn’t around yet, so to be honest, I don’t even remember what the kids were reading back then), I was reading classical literature, and at some point got into a major Greek and Roman influence that drove me to read all sorts of historical tomes. When I got to graduate school, I had read a lot of the material that was being assigned, so you might think that I was pretty well prepared.

Well, that might have been the case if I had read these books because some school had required me to read them. But I read them on my own, and quite often I had to go through other critical studies to even figure out what I had just read. What I never got out of this was some type of discussion about the literature, which meant that I was picking up as much information as I could without anyone actually helping me along. I remember in high school asking a teacher about some of the material I was reading on my own, and she tried really hard to pretend she knew the material, but it was pretty obvious that she was making it up as she went along and was too proud to admit that she wasn’t a reader of Hume, Rousseau and Tacitus (which I had been reading at the time). And these weren’t even obscure authors from history.

So, when I got to graduate school, I remember being in one of those group discussions where were were talking about someone like Herodotus, and I brought it up in conversation right before the professor corrected me on my pronunciation of the name. And then when I brought up another author, I received that same correction on that name as well. A few days into this course, I started to notice a sense of sarcasm coming from some of the other graduate students who had grown up with these authors in the formal courses they had taken. They all pronounced the names correctly, and there was a sense of dismissing me whenever I brought up anything that I thought was significant.

It took nearly an entire semester for that professor to finally recognize that my bad pronunciations were not indicative of my lack of knowledge concerning these authors. When that moment happened, she and I had many conversations about political philosophy that indicated that she no longer thought of me as some grade school dunce who entered her classroom. But I will say that for years of graduate school, I never received that same respect from some of those same students who attended class with me that semester. There was always a sense that I didn’t know what I was talking about because I couldn’t pronounce a name as well as they could.

And this is one of those snapshots I took back with me when I realized that much of my education before graduate school was self-taught and self-learned. While others were attending really expensive Ivy League colleges to gain knowledge, I was spending my time in the Army, reading whatever I could find whenever I had a spare moment to myself. I sometimes wonder if my understanding of literature has a bit of a skew because of how I learned it and because of what I was exposed to while learning it.

But I do know how that contestant felt like on Wheel of Fortune. After he lost, he then gave an apologetic interview about how he knew how to pronounce the name but just flubbed it. I remember making the same kind of comment the first time I mispronounced a literary name. And then I stopped apologizing after it happened numerous times after. Because I learned something during that time that it took me a long time to realize. You see, I did a lot of mispronouncing of names back then, but one thing I did know was what those authors wrote, and what they meant. What I learned was how many graduate students bullshitted their way through conversations about those same authors, as they knew how to pronounce the names, but hadn’t a clue what those authors really meant.

And I find that very important, no matter how you say the names.

duaneDoes pronunciation equal intelligence?

2 Comments on “Does pronunciation equal intelligence?”

  1. Jason

    Good points here. I remember some of those stories from your WMU days. Reminds me of some of the discussions we had in Latin class, too. There are two equally acceptable ways of pronouncing many Latin words — the ecclesiastical method (sounds like Italian and is used in the Catholic Church) and the classical method (harder consonants, more pronounced diphthongs) that’s our best guess about how ancient Romans spoke. If you favored one method over the other, other students looked down on you if they favored the other method. Why people get so partisan about something so inconsequential as pronunciation still boggles my mind.

  2. duane

    I think part of it is that people like to imagine themselves to be smarter than they are, and rather than study and learn more things to accomplish that, they often believe that belittling someone else can get them the acclaim they wish to achieve. One of my first lessons in this was in my first semester of grad school when one of the “smart” students kept using the word “normality” in practically every critique he made. It took me almost the entire semester to realize he didn’t actually know what it meant.

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