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TWTS: When spelling rules become a harbinger of mispronunciation

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It can be a panic-inducing moment when you're asked to say out loud a word that you have primarily or perhaps only encountered in writing—and you’re not sure how to say it.

For instance, many of us learned in elementary school that a vowel followed by a consonant then "e" is usually pronounced with a long vowel sound, as in "time," "cave," and "robe." That said, many of us also got burned the first time we tried to say "epitome" out loud.

Another confusing word is "harbinger." Our listener Sharon Levin says pronunciation of "harbinger" is at the center of a disagreement in her home: "I say you pronounce 'harbinger' as if the letter 'g' was a 'j,' as in giraffe. My husband Bob disagrees, and says it is a hard 'g', as in 'goat.'"

Bob does have a point. If we look to words like "finger" and "linger," logic would lead us to believe that the "g" in "harbinger" is pronounced the same way. However, standard pronunciation does dictate that "harbinger" is pronounced with a soft "g" sound. Sorry Bob.

"Harbinger," something that foreshadows a future event, has an interesting history. It comes into English in the 1100s and originally means "one who provides lodging." From there, it comes to refer to the person who's sent ahead of a traveling army or royalty to secure lodging before everyone else arrives.

By the 1500s, "harbinger" can refer to any kind of forerunner or precursor. For example, the robin is sometimes referred to as a harbinger of Spring. If you've been watching the news lately, you may have heard economists speculating about rising wages as a harbinger of inflation.

Though it's not standard, you will occasionally hear people pronounce "harbinger" with a hard "g." Since language loves to change on us, Professor Anne Curzan says it's worth keeping an eye out to see if the hard "g" pronunciation takes off.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.