In Isaac Asimov’s 1963 essay “You, Too, Can Speak Gaelic” he writes of going, as a student, to the chemistry lab stockroom to get some paradimethylaminobezaldehyde—No! Wait! I’m really writing about England and the English, just stay with me—but he didn’t know how to pronounce it. You’ll never forget it, said the stockroom attendant, if you sing it to the tune of The Irish Washerwoman—and he was right, as I’ve never forgotten it either and, like Asimov, at odd moments I find it running through my head. Years later Asimov, mumbling through it under his breath in the waiting room of a doctor’s office (UK: doctor’s surgery), was startled when the receptionist said “My God! You know it in the original Gaelic!”
My organic chemistry professor, in common with the rest of his kind, had to teach students how to pronounce the names of these compounds, and often joked that we had to “put the emphasis on the right syl-LA-ble”.
But it turns out that in everyday speech the British put the stress on a different syllable than I do in lots of common words. I don’t know what to make of this, why it should be. It seems to be innate. I was laughed at just after we moved here when, in a conversation about househunting, I pronounced the name of Godalming, a nearby town, as godALming–which seemed natural to me–when everybody knows (of course) that it’s GODalming.
I’ll leave further comment on the pronunciation of British placenames for another time; today I’m only looking at the way the syllables are emphasized. Godalming is perhaps not the best example because I was stressing the second syllable and the British locals stress the first. It’s usually the other way around. Of the handful of examples I can think of as I sit here, only one or two don’t involve a surprising (to me) stress on the second syllable.
The most recent such surprise came from a telly advert (US: TV commercial) for a film based on a book by Patricia Cornwell, when the voice-over guy said “Patricia cornWELL”. Did I hear that right? It is the nature of telly adverts to run again and again so I heard plenty of iterations and, yes, he was pronouncing it cornWELL.
The first example I noticed when I moved to England was someone on the radio talking about the best books of the last deCADE. deCADE? I thought it must have been a personal idiosyncracy, until I heard other people say the same. (Not everyone here does; that one seems to vary.)
Between those two I ran into any number of other examples. ConTROversy and perSEVerance are seen by some British people to be incorrect, but I hear the words said that way all the time. In sports—or in a metaphor taken from sports—we British don’t pass the batON, we pass the BATon. In the kitchen, we have PAPrika and oreGAno (PAPrika being one of those examples, like Godalming, in which the stress on the first syllable seems surprising; why the stress in oregano should slip all the way back to the third syllable is anybody’s guess). Plenty of British people call one of the popular internet service providers yaHOO.
I will leave you with that misCELLany. I wish I had some scholarly explanation to present about how words came to be pronounced so differently by descendants of the American colonists, or even some cockeyed reason I could try to pass off as the real thing. All I can do is to report the differences, and ask anyone who knows more to let me in on the secret.
People who know me in the off-line world won’t believe, I’m sure, that I’m ever quiet if there’s a chance to chatter, but I’m often quiet here in England, not wanting to advertise, the second I open my mouth, that I’m a foreigner. Keeping shtumm also gives me a chance to hear how the people I’m speaking to sound, and maybe adjust the way I speak to fit in.
That’s a technique I learned in graduate school at Stanford, when it turned out that my old organic chemistry professor had taught me the wrong pronunciation of several important terms. I learned not to use them until I’d heard someone with a better undergraduate education say them. Getting laughed at is a great teacher; you never forget the lesson. I’ll never say those terms the wrong way again, although there’s been little need for me to say them at all since I left academe.
I can, however, still pronounce paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde, and sing it to the tune of “The Irish Washerwoman“, too.