A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Friday, July 29, 2011 :::
The estimable Jay Nordlinger over at National Review Online got on one of his hobby horses this morning.  While protesting often that he is what is known as a descriptivist in language--meaning rules follw use--and not a prescriptivist--meaing rules governing use--he nontheless thinks we should all mispronounce a few select words on his say-so.

One is forte, meaning strong-suit, which all dictionaries say should be pronounced something like "fortay," as in the Italian musical direction.  He says it should be pronounced "fort," because that it the way the French pronounce it, except they don't.  The final "e" is pronounced in French, ever so softly.  A Mind That Suits doubts that that has been the preferred pronunciation for many centuries, and even the Oxford English Dictionary, arbiter of Standard English Pronunciation (the "Received" Pronunciation) back in the Old Blighty has it pronounced the same way as the English upper classes say "forty."

This morning, he quotes a friend who says that "fillet" should be pronounced by analogy with "wallet" and "mallet."  True enough, the English upper classes do that.  But A Mind That Suits has spent many years in fine dining in the United States, and he can assure you he has only heard it pronounced that way by electricians and mechanics, who have a special meaning for it.  Chefs all say "fill-AY."

So A Mind That Suits got the idea to address this peculiar fixation of Mr. Nordlinger's.  Please keep in mind Mr. Nordlinger's friend on "fillet" and "mallet."

Dear Mr. Nordlinger:

Sherbet and sorbet are both derivatives of the Arabic word for fruit juice.  If you look in the cookbooks of James Beard, you will see that they were once used interchangeably, even if the stress and pronunciation followed different patterns.  However, in modern parlance, sherbet has come to mean "frozen fruit juice + cream," and it often spelled sherbert, and sorbet has come to "frozen fruit juice with no cream." A useful distinction, and so it has become permanent.

So, too, fillet.  I hear fillet with a "t" only in contexts that have nothing to do with flesh.  So, "fill-AY" means "flesh with no bones;" "FILL-it" means something technical. A useful distinction, and so it has become permanent.

(I do not think Americans use it for headband, it's original meaning.)

"FILL-it" is the uniform pronuncation for all meanings in the Received Pronunciation, an entirely artificial dialect whose arbiters are the Oxford English Dictionary and the BBC pronunciation guide. 

We, however, speak American English.

If your friend is such a literary genius, where did he get the idea that English pronunciation should be uniform?  There's mallet and fillet in the RP, for instance: totally different values for "e."

For the record, from the OED: /ˈmalᵻt/ vs. /ˈfɪlɪt/


As that example shows, even in the RP, the variations provide enough to plough through for the arm-chair linguist.

Oh, and explain to us again: why do we have to say "fort" when we mean "forte?"  Because the French do? Shouldn't we, perforce, use the French pronunciation for fillet?  Or did something get lost in translation?

It's particualrly confusing, as the French do not say "fort;" they say "forte," just, you know, the way French people pronounce it.  And even the OED says that the final "e" in the English word forte must be pronounced.

A while later, A Mind That Suits, that little scamp, added this note:

A Much Simpler Question

Dear Mr. Nordlinger:

If you say that "fillet" should be pronounced like "mallet" and "wallet," should "ballet" rhyme with "mallet" or "wallet," and, if it should rhyme with "mallet," how would one distinguish between "ballet" and "ballot?"

Leaves us simple folk all confused.

A Mind That Suits

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 4:26 PM



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