Friday, January 18, 2008

Seen But Not Heard

When I was a senior in high school, there was little to interest me in education. I slept through most of my classes, rarely did homework, and couldn't be bothered to pay attention to much of anything. I was better in my English classes, though (and German, come to think about it--maybe I should consider working with language as a career) especially when I was called upon to create something.

In one class I wrote a short story about a little boy who had a nightmare. This dream consisted of his being chained up in a dungeon and tortured by a demon. The only really memorable part of the story was a brazier full of burning coals, a brazier which loomed threateningly but never became significant to the story--just to its telling.

I had seen the word "brazier" any number of times. In fantasy novels and on Dairy Queen signs for the most part, but the word and its meaning were both familiar to me. I was precocious with words--I read the dictionary when I was twelve, as intrigued as I've ever been by a novel. But there was a problem.

I'd never considered how the word was pronounced.

When I read the story in front of the class, I realized at the beginning of the first sentence containing the word "brazier" that I was in trouble. When I got to the word, I read it as though I said it all the time, even though my mind was working it through a dozen pronunciations.

And that's how I uttered the phrase "a brassiere full of burning coals" in front of a class full of my bored peers. People who already had plenty of ammunition if they ever wanted to poke fun at me, which they never did because I was nearly invisible in high school--I didn't matter enough to be made fun of. Twenty-some years later I still remember that, and remember the frustration of being wrong--being publicly wrong--and have a vague awareness of my embarassment at the time for having said something risible.

I had a similar moment yesterday. During office hours I was listening to Tom* talk about how, if one were able to produce a certain kind of chemical and ingest it, one would not age because one's cells would not break down. I can't remember the name of the chemical, but it started with the letter "T." I couldn't remember the name of the chemical a few seconds after Tom said it, but I wanted to make a comment on what he said. So I did what I always do--I made a joke.

"That's my new career," I said. "I'm giving all this up and going into Thermopylae production."

Tom and Tonya both looked at me like I'd spoken (I'm struggling to think of a language here, because Tom's a linguist and his dissertation was a grammar of the Sherpa language, so most of what I can think of wouldn't seem too strange to him) Tralfamadorian.

Then Tom said, "What?"

And I said, in a somewhat less confident voice, "Thermopylae." They still didn't get it. "It's a joke," I said.

"Do you mean 'Ther-MOP-a-lee'?" Tom said.

"Sure," I said. "Tomayto, tomahto. Whatever." I realized then that I had never heard the word "Thermopylae" spoken. It always looked like ther-mo-PIE-lay to me, and I'd never questioned that. So that's what I said.

So I had to check. I knew my pronunciation was likely wrong, but I held out hope that there were alternate pronunciations of the word, and that I had stumbled onto a lesser-known one.

I was wrong. There's only one recognized pronunciation of the word. I checked here. I even listened to it.

So I learned something, anyway. And now I can pronounce both "brazier" and "Thermopylae." But really, Thermopylae is pronounced "ther-MOP-a-lee?" Really? It sounds like an ancient Greek board game. The object of which would be, obviously, to occupy and own as many stoa as possible, so when other people's tokens (chariots, cups of hemlock, and the like) landed on your property they'd have to surrender a certain amount of drachmae. I think I'll design that game now. I don't know what the specifics will be, but you don't want to land on Stoa Poikile once it's owned. Rent is a bitch. The Stoics will whoop your ass.

* I'm going to start calling Tom the "Idea Cannon" after this post. Because that's his conversational style.


dchmielewski said...


For me it was being ridiculed (by my father and a family friend no less) in 5th or 6th grade about aspiring (in a written document) to go to "collage". I believe that the witty retort was something about my sure desire to be an art major based on my spelling of college.

I think this contributes to my being a spelling nazi to this day. I remember dinging Michelle Pedersen for her horrible spelling. Of course, I should have been buttering her up instead, so that tells you something about my experience with the ladies too. I guess that is not a surprise. Hopefully, I have learned something in the last few decades, aside from the obvious (don't ridicule the spelling of the pretty girls ;-)

Baritonality said...

Well, Jason, I took Koine Greek this summer and know that Greek, though a phonetic language, is not really all that precise in its pronunciation. Weird.
The Greek is Θερμοπύλαι (ther-moh-PY-lai) and though it does not have a pie in there, it doesn't have an accent on the MOP, either.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Jason said...

Those are valuable lessons to pass on to young Nick. When he begins to understand English, that is. And girls. Wait--that will never happen. Understanding English will have to do.

That's my defense. I'll go back to the original and say I that since I stressed the appropriate syllable I pronounced a higher percentage of the word properly, since they got the phonemes all wrong as well as the stress. Hah! I mean--hah.