Wednesday, 4 July 2012


*My husband's name has been changed because he thinks this is all “bunkum”.

My husband, Jerry*, and I have been arguing for some days now about the appropriate pronunciation of the word lure, as in fishing lures and lure the bunny with carrots. He maintains that “lurr” [lɜː(r)] is the correct form, and I am sure that there is a dipthong in there, making it sound like “looer” [l(j)ʊə(r)]. The vowel sounds in each are what makes the difference.

In order to prove my point, I first went to the Source of All Knowledge – the Oxford English Dictionary. OED agrees with me, and supplies the IPA reading you see above. To further prove my point, I consulted the Macmillan dictionary online, Wiktionary, and even the lowly Merriam-Webster. Furthermore, I played audio files from at least three English pronunciation websites to cement my win. (I might be considered a poor winner by these standards; I might be considered a poor winner by any standards.)

Despite the abundance of evidence for my case, Jerry refused to give in. I put the vote to our Facebook friends. Six voted for my pronunciation; none for his. Jerry remained stubborn; he claims he “doesn’t believe in surveys”, especially when they don’t go his way.

One of these Facebook friends even looked it up in her own dictionary and said that lure is pronounced like cure, with the “oo-er” sound in both. That’s when we hit our breakthrough. Jerry considered this the proving point in his argument! He went on to say, over and over, “cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)], cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)], cure [kjʊə(r)], lure [lɜː(r)].”

That was when I realized that our argument was invalid. It wasn’t a pronunciation argument; it was a phonological argument. Jerry actually believed that the sounds were identical. So it’s not a problem of speaking, but of listening.

Phonology is the study of how the phonetics of a language are systematized. Along with vocabulary and syntax, every language (even sign language) has a pattern of phonology that dictates where and when certain sounds occur.

To give an example in English, the written words are as follows:

The native speaker knows that by adding the –s to the end of the word indicates pluralization, changing the meaning of the root word. The native speaker also knows how to pronounce the words, [kæts] and [dɒgz]. But look closely at the phonetics of the words. Whereas “cats” ends with an unvoiced alveolar fricative [s], “dogs” ends with a voiced alveolar fricative [z]. 
Why do we voice the fricative on one word and not the other? The answer is: phonology. By using phonological problem-solving techniques, we can come to the conclusion that English speakers voice the plural –s when it follows a voiced sound, and it is unvoiced after following an unvoiced sound. (In dogs and cats, the g and the t are voiced and unvoiced, respectively.) The native speaker knows this intuitively and actually makes no distinction between the two sounds, having been influenced by the spelling that they are the same. Nothing could be further from the truth in a phonetic sense. The sounds are distinct, though they make no difference to the meaning of the words.  

Have a look at the following word list and try to identify the occurrence of the voiced pairs of sounds and the unvoiced pairs of sounds.

Another example of a phonological system is in the following related words:
Breaths [brɛθs]
Breathes [briːðz]

Once again we have the –s­ in the writing of the word, but there is a [s]/[z] discrepancy in the pronunciation. Why, when the words both end in –th? Because there are two ways of pronouncing th. One is unvoiced, the [θ] at the beginning of thanks and throw; and the other is voiced, the [ð] in there and then. Try saying thanks with the voiced sound. It’s odd, and different, even if it still conveys the same meaning. (I have a friend who purposely uses this pronunciation to surprise people.) Well, the phonology of English tells us that whether we use the voiced or unvoiced sound, the meaning of the word remains the same. Not so in all languages, because one may exhibit two words which have differing meanings based on which of these sounds are uttered.

But back to Jerry, and his assertion that “cure” and “lure” sound the same, even though he uses different vowel sounds in each. The orthography of English and his native upbringing have conspired to convince him that his mouth is making the same movements for both. He could not be more wrong. What he doesn’t know about his own mouth movements is what makes phonology fascinating for the linguist. The native speakers have no clue that they are making different sounds, because the brain filters them according to meaning and not by the sound. It brings up a question of the nature of reality: can we trust that our brains are processing the raw sensations correctly? 

Jerry does, though, distinguish between rule and lure. "Rule has an oo-sound," he says, instantaneously confounding my argument in its entirety. 

However, in a sense, Jerry’s original argument is correct. Objectively, he and I are making different sounds with our mouths, but to any listener, we would both be repeating the same word. There is no alternate meaning for “l—r” based on our distinct pronunciations, so we will both still be able to be understood in communication.

In conclusion: tomayto, tomahto. However it's pronounced, it's the same word. He won’t stop saying lurr and I won’t stop hating it. He is also now calling me “Inspector Clouseau”, because he thinks I "sound like a dog with peanut butter on the roof of its mouth".

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