Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 66.djvu/548

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By Professor EDWIN W. BOWEN,


FOR wellnigh two centuries a popular belief has prevailed throughout the English-speaking world that there should be a standard of pronunciation, which should be followed in all those countries where English is the native tongue. Many people, holding this view, assume that some such norm is unconsciously observed by men of education and culture, who, because of their influence and rank, are generally conceded the right to establish the customs of speech. It is but natural, therefore, that men with greater or less claim to culture and education should take it upon themselves from time to time to determine the supposed standard of pronunciation. Thus as far back as the beginning of the eighteenth century we find that the orthoepists of that period undertook to ascertain and record the pronunciation of English as practiced in polite society.

Now, the early orthoepists discovered, apparently to their astonishment, that English pronunciation, even in the most cultured circles, far from being fixed by ironclad rules, was quite an elastic thing, allowing considerable latitude. Indeed, two centuries ago pronunciation in English, as reflected by the best usage, was no more uniform than it is to-day. Then as now, men recognized no fixed and absolute standard of English pronunciation. They followed their own tastes and individual preferences, despite the orthoepical suggestions and recommendations of their contemporaries. Prejudice and caprice, too, in those days, as in the present time, were factors to be reckoned with, so that the path of the would-be authority on pronunciation was beset with no slight difficulty.

It must not be inferred, however, that the orthoepists themselves were a unit and in perfect harmony as to current usage. On the contrary, they were frequently far apart in recording the pronunciation sanctioned by the best society and differed quite as much as their worthy successors of the present day. They sometimes indulged in vituperation and severe censure at each others' expense and made no attempt to conceal their disapproval of a rival's authority, which they expressed in plain, vigorous Anglo-Saxon. Some of their sarcastic remarks furnish spicy and entertaining reading to the student who is willing to plod his way through the dreary waste of those forgotten dust-covered tomes.