by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
July 7, 2004
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Are you irritated by mistakes in English? So am I, though I constantly remind myself that, if there had never been any "mistakes" in English, then we would be speaking the language of Chaucer, to go only that far back.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales begins: Whan that aprill with his shours soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote... . For modern readers, that's:
When April with his sweet showers / Hath pierced the drought of March to the root...
Had no one ever made a "mistake," our word for "sweet" would still rhyme with our word "root."
There are of course mistakes and mistakes. The other day, listening to the news on NPR, I heard a young woman say that some organization had issued a "communeek." This got my attention, and I wondered at my ignorance of what that might mean. Then she said it again, just before announcing a speaker from the BBC, who said that a communique had been issued.
One imagines the ribbing she got from her colleagues over that boneheaded pronunciation. Had our beloved President spoken of a communeek from some nuculer outfit, one would simply ascribe it to his New Haven alma mater and let it go, but NPR announcers are usually better educated.
I have written in this space about some of the "mistakes" that most irritate me, but today I am going to declare that some of them, at least, have passed the test of time and are merely signs of the inevitable change in the English language.
Take "different than," for instance. I prefer the older form "different from," but there are now too many speakers with good taste and good education who say "than." This is especially true, I think, in England. "It's me, sugar." I am certain that's what I would say if a call from the bedroom asked who was opening the front door in the dead of night. "It is I" would probably result in a panicky call to 911 to say that an intruder was on the premises.
In writing, I would never (I hope) commit the solecism of replacing the predicate nominative with an accusative.
"Who, whom" is another distinction that is being quickly lost. At an institution to remain nameless, I began a question to a receptionist, "Whom should I see about...?" But I had not even finished when she looked at me with a mixture of pity and contempt: "Whom?"
But while I am willing to concede as a lost cause many of the distinctions that are being jettisoned or replaced, there are some to which I cling - irrationally, I admit.
The pronunciation of the word "falcon" is one of these. The Ford Motor Co. and a certain athletic organization have reinforced the already strong tendency to make the word rhyme with "talcum."
Dictionaries to which I have unwisely allowed shelf space even give preference to what is for me the pronunciation of unschooled hicks and only grudgingly concede that there are still some old diehards who say "fawkon," with the vowel of "law" and no "l." The time is not far off when I will be the only speaker of English left alive who pronounces the word "falcon" as God meant it to be pronounced. So be it.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.