Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How Do You Pronounce It?

One of the trickiest parts of using professional terminology is getting the pronunciation down. There are at least two reasons pronunciation is important:
  1. You want to be understood, right?  Using a recognizable pronunciation make it more likely that professional communications will be accurate.  And in clinical settings, accuracy can be a matter of life and death.

  2. You have to pronounce it in your head!  Even if  we do not speak a term out loud, we sort of pronounce it "in our heads" as we read or write a term.  We really need some kind of pronunciation of a term for it to become part of our brain's operating "word list."
Okay, but how does one figure out how to pronounce a term correctly?

This is the usual pattern for developing your pronunciation of a term:
  1. Learn it from someone else.  You might pick up a pronunciation from a peer, a mentor, or a learning resource—or from the media.

  2. Look it up in a dictionary. Written and audio pronunciation guides are available in the major medical dictionaries, comprehensive dictionaries, and similar resources—some of which are freely available on the web.

  3. Use common pronunciation patterns.  Each language has it's own "typical" pronunciation guidelines, some of which may not be written down.  For medical terminology, one often uses either Latin pronunciation patterns or the pattern of your native language.
But here's where it gets tricky.  For some terms, there is no "correct" pronunciation—only several possible alternate pronunciations. That's the nature of human language.  It is variable and dynamic in usage, meaning, spelling, and pronunciation.  

Dictionaries are an attempt at standardization of language, but cannot be absolutely comprehensive. Even if there was one universally accepted dictionary, it would change over time as our languages change. 

Besides the futility of an unchanging standard for pronunciation, there are regional differences related to dialect. I speak a form of midland-urban U.S. English and my wife speaks a form of southern-rural U.S English.  Which of us is "correct" in our variations of pronunciation?  Hmmm.  I suggest that it's best to call us both correct.  As long as we can understand each other accurately.

Even in Latin and Greek there are dialect differences that affect pronunciation.  I once had a colleague declare a pronunciation to be the "correct Latin pronunciation" of a term.  But that puzzles me because the earliest memory I have from my first Latin course was an explanation of the different systems of pronouncing Latin—and which one we were to use in our course.  I don't think the system we used is very common in medical circles, because I find my pronunciations of Latin terms a bit out of the mainstream on occasion.  Maybe that's what prompted my colleague to declare his version of "correct Latin pronunciation." 

I think we should make continuous, strong efforts to use "mainstream" pronunciations when using professional terminology.  For the sake of accuracy and safety in our communications, such effort is essential.  

But for many terms, we need to understand that pronunciations may legitimately differ—perhaps from regional variations or perhaps from whom one learned their Latin.  And I think we need to train our ears and our tongues to adapt to different pronunciations when we encounter them.  

I think SKEL-uh-tal muscle tissue is okay here in Missouri, but I think I'll be better understood in Calgary or Liverpool if I talk about skeh-LEE-tul muscle tissue.  

And, FYI, if you hear me say FOR-uh-men, I'm really talking about a fuh-RAY-men.  Blame my Latin teacher, if you must lay blame somewhere.

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