Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pho-net-ics (fo net' iks)

n. the study of the production of speech sounds and their representation in written symbols.

I was working down in West Hartford today.

On the way to the job, I passed by this great old building. It's the birthplace of Noah Webster, of Webster's Dictionary fame.

On the way back, I pulled over and snapped a couple pictures of the place, which is now a museum. Despite the cars roaring by on the very busy street, I couldn't help but feel a bit of a time warp into the 18th century. The house is all painted red, with the red picket fence, and trees completely surrounding it. Smoke gently poured out of a chimney, and that sweet smell of firewood wafted down to where I was. For a minute I could almost imagine when the street was just a dirt path, and the house probably stood, one of a very few, alone in the wilderness.

Noah Webster took it upon himself to 'save' the English language from the British aristocracy. He felt the aristocracy had corrupted the language with too many proper rules, and he rejected the idea that Greek and Latin were required to learn it. Webster surmised that if American government was based on control by the people, so should the language. So he set out to kind of 'dumb it down', and make it more practical. To record and define the words used by everyday people. This can be seen today with words like 'ginormous' finding their way into the dictionary.

I'm notorious for mispronouncing words. I thought Plymouth was pronounced 'plye-mouth' for years and years. I've had roaring arguments with my friend Rooney about the proper pronunciation of words like 'lithe', and the town 'Athol' (it sounds almost like the body-part, right?). Until recently I pronounced Norwottuck, nor'-wo-tuck'. Rather than it's proper nor-wa'-tuck. And now I'm still not completely sure about the similar sounding Nonotuck, or Pocumtuck for that matter.

I've always been fascinated by dictionaries. I'll occasionally pick one up just to browse for new words I don't know. I also find it interesting to see what the words are based on, and what old languages they came from. Sometimes, embarrassingly, I'll find meanings for ones I thought I understood, but found I had been misusing for years.

The name "Webster's" has become synonymous with dictionaries, and used by many different companies. But Merriam-Webster, considered the most direct heir to Noah Webster's work, is based right here in the valley, in Springfield.

This is one of the 'New World' versions I keep next to the computer, even though all you have to do nowadays is hit the spell check button and your done...

And you can bet I hit the spell check for this post...


Mary E.Carey said...

I have often wondered whether I'm one of those people who use the wrong word and don't know it, because people are too polite to point it out. (I've known some really smart people who use the wrong word and I don't point it out.) It took spell check for me to realize that I wasn't a stellar speller. One thing I've always known I don't have an instinct for is commas -- just like I can't tell when I'm supposed to shift gears in a car even though I've always driven a standard in deference to my dad who preferred it for some reason.

Tony said...

I still throw semi-colons about with wild abandon; really, see?

I was a big fan of standard when I was younger, now I could take it or leave it. It's that feeling of being more in control of the car's functioning and mpg with a standard, I think that's the appeal. Now it just gets in the way as I'm trying to stuff an Egg McMuffin in my face while checking my phone messages.