Overcoming Self-Consciousness Around Linguists
[NB: I have told this story before, but this time I have a better understanding that I think is worth sharing.]
I had an experience a few years ago, a woman stood in my kitchen and told me that I didn’t know how to pronounce “adjective” correctly.
She insisted that my pronunciation was incorrect, in fact, she became quasi-belligerent trying to display how my pronunciation of adjective was so ludicrous that it was inconceivable that I would try to assert that I knew how to pronounce it.
The point of contention, you might be wondering, was that I pronounce the “c” in ‘adjective’ and that I asserted that the c is not silent.
I have to admit that this has kind of pissed me off for years. I mean, after all I am the professional, I use the word “adjective” and get paid for using it.
In this situation I was mentioning how I had heard a little kid recently pronounce it “adjedive” [notice that there is no "c" in this spelling] and I thought it was cute. It was at this point that all hell broke loose.
“What’s wrong with that? That’s how you say it.” the woman says to me.
“But the C is not silent.” I say this thinking that she might have misheard me, but no, in fact she heard me distinctly.
“I’ve NEVER heard anyone say “adjective” it is “adjedive”.” (something along those lines)
“Well,” I say, “how do you say adjectival then?” thinking that this will clear things up…
She replies: “I have never used that word.”
At this point my case should have been made since “adjectival” has a little stress on the “c”, or at least it is more noticeable in the pronunciation, but no…she keeps going… “I’ve never heard anyone say “adjective” EVERYONE says “adjedive”.”
I should have dropped it here, but we talked about it for a while and she even brought my relatives into the conversation. Frankly, I was kind of irritated that a guest would go so crazy at me in my own home because of how I pronounce a word. It does seem rude, not to mention silly. I was irritated ESPECIALLY since I believe in usage-based grammar; I fully accept that people pronounce words differently, I have no problem at all with people using non-standard pronunciations of words. All I wanted to do was discuss a canonical pronunciation of a word (the OED pronunciation guide has this transcription: ædktv)
That little k in there, for all you non-IPA reading folk, is what orthographically presents in speech as the c in adjective.
What I should have done at this point is stop and think about what was really happening here. I have it from good sources that this lady doesn’t like to be wrong, but I suspect there is a deeper issue.
Language is so fundamental to people’s identities that when you bring something to someone’s attention that they had no idea even occurred at all, let alone occur in their language usage, it really makes them uncomfortable and insecure. They suddenly feel like all the linguist is doing is picking apart their language and criticizing them, which I promise you is the last thing a linguist is trying to do.
Linguists do not care (in a judgmental and qualitatively evaluative way) one stinking bit about how you pronounce a word, instead, they care that variation exists. I know from my usage-based perspective I actually VALUE divergent and non-standard idiolects. I love to hear the range of ways that people pronounce words, the way they construe meaning, the way they formulate grammatical structure…how their thoughts emerge in discourse. Hear me: Linguists of my type do not tell you how you have to do things with language; we describe what you do with language. We describe. We explain. We do not judge.
So if you are one of those people who get insecure when you talk to a linguist, be assured, they really don’t care about how you speak, they are just thrilled that you do speak. And if you are one of those linguists who always wants to tell other people about the host of interesting things that are happening in a communication situation, think twice about how you approach it and be ready for some major hostility, because 9 times out of 10 you will be perceived as a threat.