I work with a couple of French folks whose English is so good that they are effectively native speakers, as far as I can tell. It’s super-impressive—if my French were ever anywhere near as good as their English…
It’s their very skills themselves that make it obvious when they make a pronunciation error–it’s as if I were making a pronunciation error. It is not at all the case that I don’t make pronunciation errors in my native language, and people most definitely do notice them–but, I suspect that they’re all the more obvious precisely because (a) I’m a native speaker, and (b) I’m an “educated native speaker” (sounds hoity-toity, but it’s a technical term in linguistics). I would guess that many of my “smaller” mistakes in French go unnoticed because they get lost in the thick fog of all of my other mistakes–in my native language, though, they all stand out.
So, when my French-speaking-colleagues-who-are-essentially-native-speakers-of-English-too make pronunciation errors in English, it is, indeed, noticeable. Happily, their English-language pronunciation errors often fall into a single category, and that’s what we’re going to go after today–my little attempt to repay more hours than I even want to think of that they’ve spent hammering on my pronunciation/lexicon/syntax/politeness/EVERYTHING in French.
You may have noticed that written vowels in English are pronounced differently than those vowels would be pronounced in essentially every other written language on the planet. (That’s just a fraction of all languages, by the way–the vast majority of languages have no writing system.)
The reason behind all of this English-versus-the-world divergence in vowel sound pronunciation is something called the Great Vowel Shift. It changed the pronunciation of many vowel sounds, and it happened after English spelling was mostly established. The result was that English vowel sounds didn’t line up with their spelling as well as they used to.
One of the changes in pronunciation affected words that happen to be spelled with an e at the end. It’s a silent e now, but it wasn’t always. The preceding vowel sound changed–in a very systematic way that requires knowing a bit about what you do with your mouth to make sense of–and one of the consequences was that if that preceding vowel was i, it went from being pronounced like i in most languages to being pronounced like the word eye is pronounced today.
So, today, if you’re an Anglophone kid, you grow up being taught that when a word ends in -iCe, where C means any consonant, the i indicates the sound of the word eye. There are plenty of examples of this:
But–and this is a big “but” (which is why I italicized and underlined it)–iCe (i followed by a consonant followed by an e at the end of the word) is not always pronounced that way. There are plenty of times when it is not, and those tend to be longer words that educated people would use, and my French co-workers are super-educated, so they use these words. For some of the native speakers of French that I know, mis-pronouncing these words is essentially the only mistake that I ever hear them make in English. So: let’s work through some of these.
You’ll notice something about the words that are pronounced the way that Anglophone kids are told you always pronounce -iCe: they tend to be single-syllable. Consider:
- live (the adjective only, as in live bait)
But, not all single-syllable words of this type are pronounced that way. Here’s the one counter-example that I can think of:
And, not all of the words in which -iCe is pronounce like “eye” are single-syllable words. The counter-examples that I can think of:
I know what you’re thinking now: Zipf, this is simple–regardless of the number of syllables, the i is pronounced as in five if it’s in a STRESSED syllable. And, yes, that almost works–but, consider archive, which is stressed on the first syllable, but is still pronounced like five.
…and live is weird–when it’s a verb, it’s pronounced like give, but when it’s an adjective, it’s pronounced like five.
OK, we’re more or less good with the words that end in iCe and get pronounced like five. What about the words that don’t get pronounced like five? Let’s take a look at some. Now, I’m not going to select these randomly. I went to this web page on the Morewords.com web site. What it gave me is a list of words that end in -ive, sorted by how frequent they are. Here’s what the output looks like. You’ll notice that every word is followed by two numbers. The first one is the length of the word in letters, while the second one is how many times the word occurs in every million words of text. (What collection of texts did they do their counts in? They don’t say.) So, give is 4 letters long and occurs 1735 times per million words, executive is 9 letters long and occurs 171 times per million words, and so on.
With that list in my greedy little fingers, I’ll go through it and pull out some of the ones that are not pronounced like five. That gives us this:
…and there’s a little attempt to help with the already-almost-perfect English spoken by so many of my French colleagues. Got a funny story related to mispronunciation? Tell us about it in the comments…