Either will do

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Mark's Pronunciation Blog - hancockmcdonald.com/blog/topic/marks-pronunciation-blog

ACCENT THROUGH THE KEYHOLE: small views of big pictures. This series of posts looks at key questions relating to accent and English teaching by focusing on specific instances and generalizing out from them. Check out the podcast too - it's at the bottom of the page...     

View 1: Either will do

So what are we looking at today? We’re looking at trivial pronunciation debates – the kind you get with words like either. As you know, there are two ways of pronouncing it: with the first vowel sound like the one in tea or the one in tie. And of course, the case is similar for neither. So which one shall we go for in class? The answer has to be, Who cares? Either will do! Students find such ambivalence a bit unnerving, but that’s just the way it is.

But isn’t one of them American and the other British? That has been suggested, but it doesn’t seem to hold water. People seem to use either indistinguishably, in Britain at least. If you want an example where there’s a transatlantic distinction, try tomato - the second syllable sounds like mate in one accent and mart in the other. But you can’t generalize from this – there is no parallel difference in the pronunciation of potato, for example. The tomato thing is a lexical idiosyncrasy, not part of a wider pattern, and you can’t learn much from it. And in any case, if say your students use the American variant whilst in the UK, it’s hardly likely to make them unintelligible.

But won’t it give them away as foreigners? Sure, they’ll be recognized as ‘not from round here’, but is that a problem? Nobody can be a native everywhere. There are plenty of such variations in single countries too. For example, in England, there is a turf war over whether grass rhymes with gas or with farce. If you use the first variant in the south of the country, it will mark you out as an interloper from the north, and visa versa. The long versus the short ‘a’ in words like grass is a shibboleth – it is an iconic distinction which will give you away as not being part of the group if you choose the wrong one for the area you’re in. Another example of a lexical shibboleth in Britain is scone, which rhymes with cone in some places and gone in others. The island’s natives get quite hot under the collar on such trivial issues – the fact is, accent can get quite tribal. But fascinating though variations in words like either, tomato, grass and scone may be for those whose mother tongue it happens to be, they’re probably neither here nor there for learners. Unless, for example, your student is a spy hoping to infiltrate, or an actor trying to imitate.

So what’s the main point for English teaching? It’s this: Accent variations which are nothing more than lexical idiosyncrasy are of little importance in English teaching. Move on. Over to you - do you have any (un)favourite examples of pronunciation trivia?

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Interesting article, Mark! My own favourite example of pronunciation that isn't worth teaching is the difference between /d/ and /t/ endings in the past simple.
Mark Hancock's picture

Yes, Paul, certainly not on a par, importance-wise, with the /id/ ending. We should initially focus on when -ed is an extra syllable or not, I'd say. However, I think the /d/ /t/ distinction does make a difference where the next word begins with a vowel, eg walk tinto versus turn dinto.

Thank you, Mark Hancock. I just went to a presentation by a colleague here in San Francisco and learned about your work. I agree with you about idiosyncratic variation. If instructors don't move on, as you say, about this old idea of "correctness," they will be left behind by language learners. I am excited about the new energy being put into helping learners of languages improve their intelligibility to not only native speakers of the target language, but to non-native speakers of the target language. And your comments about /id/ /t/ and /d/ are right in line with intelligibility.
Mark Hancock's picture

Thanks Lia. The idea of 'correct' in accent, is bizarre. Some languages, like French and Spanish, have an 'academy' to tell you what's correct. As if language users are like sheep who can be herded, whereas I guess we're more like cats, who can't. We do what works.

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