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'Ate' or 'Et'? British Library mulls pronunciation

By Jill Lawless

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 28 2010 9:00 a.m. MDT

LONDON — If you say tomato, and I say tomahto, the British Library wants to know.

The research institution is inviting people to have their voices recorded as part of a project to chart the way pronunciation and accents in English are changing.

The library wants visitors to read aloud a passage from a children's book — "Mr. Tickle" — so linguists can compare the way people make vowel sounds, learn how they deal with words ending in "ing" and hear whether they pronounce "garage" to rhyme with marriage or mirage.

Roger Walshe, the library's head of learning, said Thursday that the result will be "a snapshot of English in the early 21st century."

Visitors to the Evolving English exhibition, which opens Nov.12, will be able to record themselves in sound booths, and others can submit audio clips on the library's website, www.bl.uk. The results will be preserved for future researchers in the library's sound archive.

The exhibition traces the development of English over more than 1,000 years, through displays that range from an original manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowulf" to the King James Bible and Victorian pamphlets on how to speak properly.

Just what constitutes "proper" pronunciation remains a thorny issue — especially in Britain, whose many accents can often pinpoint the speaker's regional origin and class background. George Bernard Shaw's observation in "Pygmalion" that "it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him" still holds a large measure of truth.

Yet linguists say pronunciation is constantly evolving. Young people in Britain are increasingly likely to call the eighth letter of the alphabet "haitch," rather than "aitch," and pronounce the past tense of "to eat" as "ate" instead of the old-fashioned "et."

"There is no right or wrong," Walshe said. "There are just different usages.

"People have always been concerned about change and at times have tried to prevent it, but the change is unstoppable.

"It is almost like a Darwinian evolution. When English is transplanted or grows up in a new area like the United States it will evolve in a new way, but there will be shared characteristics, so you can see the common ancestor."

In turn, the young linguistic upstarts often influence the mother tongue. Britons increasingly pronounce "schedule" in the American way — "skedule" rather than "shedule."

"I heard a politician the other day talking about 'stepping up to the plate,'" Walshe said. "No one plays baseball here, but you hear that phrase."

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