One of my favorite parts of this job is exploring different dialects and ways of speaking.
Often it can be difficult to identify how locals in a particular area pronounce the names of locations or businesses or even family names in their region. So, in an effort at authenticity and cultural immersion I sometimes call a local business or a chamber of commerce to ask questions about local pronunciation peculiarities.
A few years ago, I narrated a book called “The Darkling” (one of my all-time favorites) which takes place in Coden, Alabama. It is a wonderfully suspenseful story full of rich atmosphere, incredible specificity, and deep history.
There were many questions I had about the town, its history, and local proper names. I was lucky enough to spend a good deal of time talking with Miss Odetta at the Bayou La Batre Chamber of Commerce. The simple act of speaking with me in her unrushed, deeply southern, and thoroughly charming dialect left me with a better understanding of the place and the people who live there. Her knowledge of local history and her willingness to share made me more determined than ever to represent the town and tell this story to the very best of my ability.
Another aspect of this job which never fails to fascinate me are all the oddities and regional differences in pronunciation of words in the English language. For instance, I’ve been corrected more than once on how to say the word “hovel” which is defined as “a small, poorly built and often dirty house” (Merriam-Webster). I’ve always heard and pronounced it with an open O sound as in honest, which incidentally is the second pronunciation listed by Merriam-Webster. The first or preferred pronunciation is with a schwa sound at the beginning, as in the first syllable of the word “about”. One of my publishers actually had someone call in about my pronunciation of this word! The list of words my producers and engineers have quibbled over goes on and on: ethos, envelope, route, tour, gala. Think about how you say any of these words. Where are you from? Good chance you adhere to your geographical region’s prouncations.
It can get even more complicated with non-English words. Do you pronounce a french or german or spanish word in an English book the way a native speaker would? For instance, the word croissant or schadenfreude or guacamole. Think about how you’d say these words in the context of an English sentence. I doubt you’d go full-on in its native tongue’s pronunciation, yet how true should you be to the word’s “real” pronunciation?
Then there is the whole issue of British English vs American or Australian English. When a British author writes a book or publishes an article, do you pronounce with the preferred British pronunciations or the American? I am an American, and I’m narrating for a primarily American audience. I doubt anyone wants to hear me drop my r’s and imitate a British speaker when I’m narrating an article about Tony Blair!
There are also so many words which I read often and know the meaning of but have never incorporated into my everyday speech. Many times I have recorded a book or especially a Vanity Fair article and I have been corrected on the pronunciation of a word that I had no idea I had said incorrectly or used the second pronunciation. (Publishers typically prefer that you use the first pronunciation when possible.)
All of these examples can be frustrating but not as personally annoying as my South African mother in law assuming I don’t know how to pronounce a word or know its meaning simply because I’m pronouncing it as an American!
One thing’s for sure: words and their pronunciations are endlessly fascinating and debatable as a writer, as a speaker, and as a listener!