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Hypercorrection March 9, 2007

Posted by Edwin in Cantonese, Grammar, Phonetics.

Recently, to my surprise, I have found out that I have been mispronouncing a word for over 30 years, in my own native language!

The word is ‘愛’ (oi3) in Cantonese, meaning ‘love’. It is a commonly used word, and many people like myself, mispronounce it as ‘ngoi3’. It is usually not noticeable, but in terms of phonetics, it is a completely different sound.

To be exact, I am pronouncing the word in the ‘less correct’ way. The official Cantonese dictionary accepts this pronunciation as a variant. The wide spread of this ‘less correct’ pronunciation was an result of an unconscious rule of adding the initial ‘ng’ for all words that do not have an initial. The rule is not always correct.

In fact, there is a linguistic term for this kind of rules – hypercorrection. It describes the over-generalization of common usage by imposing artificial grammatical rules that are not necessarily correct in all cases. An example in English is the rule of not ending any clause with a preposition. After being hypercorrected, Winston Churchill made this famous quote:

“This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

To be honest, I am still having a hard time to convince myself that I am wrong (or ‘less correct’). Many people nowadays will not accept the original pronunciation, and would assume that it is incorrect. I don’t like its sound either. I find my pronunciation of the word more natural.

I have 2 choices now. I can either correct myself, or I can wait for the dictionary to be updated, which could happen one day.

Have you ever found yourself mispronouncing any word in your own language? What would you do about that?



1. 米蘭 - March 9, 2007

When I say the English word “often”; I say “off-ten”, while everyone else says “off-en”.

I’m not sure why I say it differently though. I tried to correct it, but cannot.

2. Joe - March 9, 2007

I think it’d be difficult to find anyone who DOESN’T mispronounce at least a few words in his/her own language. I’ve worked very hard in recent years to pronounce “February” correctly (rather than “Febyuary”), but I still knowingly mispronounce “comfortable” (“comf’terble”), “often” (“off’n”) and “vegetable” (“veg’table”).

It took me 20 years to realize that I also mispronounce a fundamental sound in English, the letter ‘l’ (ell). Rather than using the tip of my tongue (as most people seem to do) I use the back of my tongue and soft palate. It must sound kind of strange; my wife once said it’s kind of like a “gl”. I’ve tried correcting this on occasion, but I think I’m now too old to change.

Do any of you avoid words in your own language or a language you’re learning, just because you don’t like the way they sound or because you don’t want to sound funny?

3. edwinlaw - March 9, 2007

Milan, as far as I know, ‘offen’ is correct. ‘Often’ is a variant. But I guess both are acceptable nowadays.

4. edwinlaw - March 9, 2007

In fact, I remember in one of my Toastmasters speeches, I changed a date in February to March, to avoid any chance of mispronunciation.

Your question leads me to remember some situations when I tried to avoid using a word because the other person was mispronouncing it. I don’t want to embarrass the person by pronouncing the word correctly!

5. Jaŋari - March 12, 2007

Joe: ‘comf’table’, ‘feb’ry’ and ‘veg’table’ are mispronounced, they are in fact how British English has been mostly pronouncing them for the last couple of hundred years. The vowel in ‘comfortable’ and ‘vegetable’ is a schwa, which often occurs in unstressed syllables, like the first ‘a’ in ‘apart’. Schwas often get reduced, in fact whenever they can – wherever the adjoining consonants will allow it – they reduce to nothing. This is also why we get ‘lib’ry’, ‘choc’late’ and, if you speak ‘high’ British English, ‘necess’ry’.
There is a term for it – not that terms mean all that much – ‘haplology’.

6. Jaŋari - March 14, 2007

Oops, I meant “aren’t mispronounced” in the first sentence. My bad.

7. edwinlaw - March 14, 2007

That makes more sense. 🙂 Thanks for your comment, Jaŋari.

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