February is almost here, and once again I issue my annual Family Learning reminder about what a wonderful time this is to consider the way we pronounce various words - especially "February."
All month, we will hear radio announcers, our friends, our children and even ourselves say "feb-yoo-ary," as though the word were spelled with only one "r." But the second syllable is spelled RU, not just U, and so the name of this month should be pronounced "feb-roo-ary."I can almost hear the angry scratching of pens and pounding of keyboards that a statement like this will generate among certain readers. Any mention of "should" or "preferred" or "standard" in reference to the spelling, pronunciation or mechanics of English strikes some people as an invasion of their personal right to use English any way they choose.
And that is just the point: Our use of language - and our children's use of language as well - should be a matter of choice. If you choose not to pronounce the first "r" in February, fine, but you will be making your choice based on knowledge, not on ignorance or misinformation.
One of the problems with this word, though, is that many school children think it is spelled "Febuary" because that is the way they hear it pronounced. How many children do you think would spell it that way if they grew up hearing it pronounced "feb-ru-ary"?
But there is much more here than just accurate spelling. The whole idea of Family Learning, and of lifelong learning in general, is that the world around us is brimming with opportunities for learning and for knowing, and that knowing is better than not knowing.
The desire for self-improvement is, I think, one of the finest traits a human being can possess, and it may be the single most valuable habit we can instill or encourage in our children. It is, or should be, the habit our schools are trying to instill as well, for it is this desire for self-improvement that makes all the lessons of school worth knowing. As Mortimer Adler, the great philosopher and teacher, once said: "The whole purpose of the school is to give children the tools with which they can THEN be educated."
All this in the pronunciation of "February," you ask? Oh yes, and more.
Children who see and hear their parents wrestle with the precise pronunciation of a word like "February," are very privileged children because they see the modeling of self-improvement in action. They see adults creating standards for themselves rather than taking the easy path and excusing their actions by saying that "everybody else does it."
If all it took to prevent children from using that phrase to excuse their own behavioral transgressions were the pronunciation of the first "r" in "February," you wouldn't hear the word uttered any other way. But, of course, there is a great deal more to it than that. And it is true that pronouncing that "r," or the first "c" in "arctic" or the first "n" in "government," IS more difficult than the way "everybody else does it."
But if you want to set these standards for your own speech, I'll show you next week how to divide the most common pronunciation problems into three convenient categories. And we can devote this month of February, with all its many opportunities for practicing that particular word, to polishing those pronunciations we choose to adopt for ourselves.