novice and eiderdown

At WorldCon, I ran into a couple of reading pronunciations I hadn't heard before.

A reading pronunciation happens when you learn a word by reading it rather than hearing it pronounced, and you guess how it's pronounced, and you guess wrong. I know reading pronunciations are common among sf readers (and presumably among people who were heavy readers in childhood in general), but I hadn't heard any lately, so these two stood out.

I don't know if I have any of my own left, but I've certainly had plenty in my time. A particularly embarrassing one for me was that I always pronounced "valise" as /'v&l Is/ (see ASCII IPA for pronunciation key); I said the word while reading a story aloud at some point in college, and everyone in the room thought I'd said "phallus." They eventually explained to me that it's actually pronounced /v@ 'lis/, rhyming with "police." (That one's also funny 'cause I know I had previously heard and liked the English version of the Jacques Brel song "Timid Frieda," which includes the line "There she goes with her valises held so tightly in her hands." But somehow even hearing that hadn't changed the pronunciation in my head.)

Anyway, at WorldCon I heard one person pronounce "novice" as /'noU vIs/ (first syllable like the word "no") instead of the standard /'nA vIs/ (first syllable like the word "nah"). I think when I first encountered that word I may've pronounced it like the phrase "no vice." Later in the weekend, I heard another person pronounce "eiderdown" as /'i dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "bee") rather than the standard /'aI dR dAUn/ (first syllable rhyming with "buy").

I don't remember who said these; if it was any of you, sorry for posting this publicly rather than taking you aside and telling you in private. I don't mean to embarrass anyone; just thought these were interesting.

Regarding "eider" and "eiderdown," perhaps it's worth mentioning a rule for German pronunciation that my parents taught me when I was a kid: in German, the "ei" spelling is pronounced like "eye," while the "ie" spelling is prounced like "ee." Or to put it another way, to pronounce "ie" or "ei" in German words, you look at the second letter rather than the first. I don't know enough German to know whether that's always true or only mostly, but it's certainly a good rule of thumb. Useful in reverse, too, for figuring out whether i comes before e or after in a German word that you know how to pronounce.

5 Responses to “novice and eiderdown”

  1. jere7my tho?rpe

    Somehow I remembered it being Andy who mispronounced “valises” while reading Borgel. But the key thing, in my mind, was that they were leather valises. Even naughtier.

  2. Jed

    Huh–actually, I think you’re right. Funny, I had completely forgotten that it wasn’t me who said it. I think that may be because I always thought it was pronounced the way he pronounced it. And it’s possible that I also ran into the same issue with something I read aloud at some other time.

    I had also totally forgotten that it was Andy who introduced us to Borgel. Yay, Andy! Yay, Borgel!

    And 🙂 on the leather valises; I hadn’t remembered that part either.

    Thanks for the reminders!

  3. Robert

    We learned a couple mnemonics in high school for the IE/EI problem. If it’s pronounced EE, then it’s “i before e except after c” except:

    Neither weird sheik seizes leisure either.

    If it’s NOT pronounced EE, it’s spelled ei except:

    A friend does mischief if he makes a sieve of your handkerchief.

    • Jed

      Happened across these comments again just now and it occurred to me that most of the words Robert listed have other common pronunciations.

      For example, “sheik” is often pronounced like “shake”; I pronounce “leisure” to rhyme with “pleasure”; and many people pronounce the first syllable of “either” as if it were “I” (rhyming with “pie”).

      And some people say “handkerchief” with an EE sound, so the last syllable is pronounced like “chief.”

      So all of those become non-exceptions if pronounced in those other ways.

      …I eventually learned the rule as “i before e except after c, or when sounding as ‘ay’ as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh.'” But that doesn’t account for any of your first set of exceptions.

  4. Jed

    Belated thanks for those mnemonics, Robert. I wonder if those really are the only exceptions in English–anyone know?


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