XKCD and the Spoken Word

by Krishna on September 19, 2011

Can you find the fatal flaw in this XKCD cartoon?

It doesn’t work as a conversation! If “10” is treated as binary, it would be spoken as “TWO” and if it is treated as decimal, it would be spoken as “TEN”. If you use “ONE-ZERO”, the reply question would be (instead of “…4?”) either “What radix are you using?” (by someone mathematically inclined) or “Why are you calling it one-zero? Do you mean ten?” And then the game is up!

Even though this is a mathematical joke, there is the point of the spoken word being quite different from the written word. Recently, if you have been following politics, you may have heard of their critics making fun of Michele Bachmann for pronouncing “chutzpah” as “choot-spa” and of President Obama for pronouncing “corpsman” as “corpse-man”. What I found interesting is that in both cases, I would have made exactly the same mistake. Because even though I have read those words thousands of times, I had rarely (perhaps never) heard someone pronouncing them.

I suppose this is more a problem for non-native English speakers like me, because they are more used to reading than listening to proper English speakers. But even for native speakers, some words are much more used in writing than they are in talk or speeches. And in modern times, both writing and speeches have become less grandiose to target a different kind of median reader. You cannot rely on people in real life and in movies to pronounce words correctly because they may have different accents. The news is already simplified text, and even there sometimes you had people pronounce “Iraq” as “Eye-rak” instead “E‑raq”.

It is also the case that when you try to pronounce English very clearly and correctly, sometimes it can sound very artificial. I have listened to a few podcasts by Uncle Bob Martin. And sometimes his speech pattern distracts from the technical matter, because he seemingly takes a lot of effort to pronounce words correctly. I suppose, as language evolves, perhaps the common man’s colloquial pronunciation seems more “correct” than the official pronunciation.

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