21 April 2024

The Tintinnitus of the Bells, Bells, Bells

My parents used to rebuke us: “Enunciate!”

Humph. I didn’t think I spoke badly, but they would’ve instructed the nation with resolutely precise enunciation if they’d had their own Discord and YouTube channels.

A couple of decades later found me in France at a colleague’s dinner table talking about the weather. I mention the harsh winter in Minnesota and my French friend stopped me.

letter T

“The harsh what?” he asked.

“Harsh winter,” I said. At his request, repeated it yet again.

He said, “I don’t understand.”

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter.”

He looked puzzled. “I thought winter had a T in it.”

He was right. I wasn’t pronouncing the T. Same with ‘plenty’. Likewise, I pronounced only the first T in ‘twenty’'. Some words with an ’nt’ combination – but not all– lost their ’T’s coming out of my mouth.

Banter and canter, linty and minty seem fine, but I swallow the T in ‘painter’. Returning after a year overseas and more conscious of enunciation, I sounded like a foreigner. “I just love German accents,” said my bank teller, cooing and fluttering her eyelashes.

Language in Flux

By age 8 or so, I’d become adept at soldering and still use the skill for repairs, projects, and mad scientist experiments. Pitifully, it took me decades to realize I didn’t know how to pronounce it.

I’m not sure if it’s a Midwestern thing or an American attribute, but I leave out the bloody letter L. Most people I know pronounce that compound of tin, lead, and silver as “sodder.”

I don’t do that with other LD combinations like bolder, colder, and folder. Even with practice, solder with an L does not trip readily off my tongue.

letter L

The Apple electronic dictionary that comes with Macs shows North American pronunciation as [ ˈsädər ]. Interesting… no L. Then I switched tabs to the British English dictionary where I learned it’s pronounced [ ˈsɒldə, ˈsəʊldə ]. Okay, there’s an L. But hello… What’s this? What happened to the R? Whoa-ho-ho.

Speaking of L&R, when was the R in ‘colonel’ granted leave? Kernel I understand; colonel, not so much. What about British ‘lieutenant’? The OED blames the French, claiming ‘lievtenant’ evolved to ‘lieutenant’ but pronounced ‘lieftenant’.

Finally, what happened to the L in could, would, and should? They seem to have broken the mould. The Oxford lords giveth and they taketh away.

Sounds of Silence

I know precisely why another word gave me difficulty. I tended to add a syllable to the word ‘tinnitus’, which came out ‘tintinnitus’. I’ve puzzled an otolaryngologist or two, because I conflated tinnitus with tintinnabulation.

(Otolaryngologist? Speak of words difficult to pronounce!)

Which brings us to a trivia question all our readers should know: How does ‘tintinnabulation’ connect with the world of mystery?

Rhymes Not with Venatio

Before Trevor Noah became a US political humorist, his career began as a South African standup comic. On one of his DVDs, he altered words to sound snooty and high class, such as ‘patio’ rhymed with ‘ratio’.

Junior high, Bubbles Mclaughlin: nineteen months and three days older than me. Like Trevor, this ‘older woman’ had no idea how to pronounce another word ending in ‘atio’. For years, neither did I, but she could have rhymed it with ‘aardvark’ and I wouldn’t have minded.

letter C

C Creatures

I’ve been listening to ebooks recently. Almost all text-to-speech apps claim to use buzzwordy AI, but most don’t, not when ‘epitome’ sounds like ‘git home’. Similarly, ‘façade’ does not rhyme with ‘arcade’.

When making the Prohibition Peepers video, I altered spelling of a few words to get the sound I needed, such as ‘lyve’ instead of ‘live’. What a pane in the AIss.

I wondered if ebook programs would pronounce façade correctly if their closed captions were correctly spelled with C-cédille, that letter C with the comma-looking tail that indicates a soft C. If you stretch your imagination, you can kinda, sorta imagine a cedilla (or cédille) looking a little like a distorted S. (For Apple users employing text-to-speech, a Mac pronounces it correctly either way.)

Our local Publix grocery (when their founder’s granddaughter and heiress isn’t funding riots) spells the South American palm berry drink as ‘acai’, which meant both employees and I sounded it with a K. If they’d spelled ‘açai’ with the C-cédille, I would have learned the word much sooner.

I could say ‘anemone’ before I knew how to spell it. The names of this flower and sea creature are spoken like ‘uh-NEM-uh-nee’, which rhymes with ‘enemy’.


Permit me to introduce you to Rachel and Rachel’s English YouTube channel. She kindly explains we often learn words through reading and don’t learn their sound until much later. I was shocked that three of the words she led with have given me trouble including one I hadn’t realized I was currently mispronouncing– echelon. I was saying it as CH (as in China) instead of SH (as in Chicago).

Those other two words: In grade school, I became confused how to say mischievous and triathlon, requiring more careful attention.

Rachel also discusses how modern usage omits syllables. I say ‘modern’ because my teachers would have rounded smartly on us had we dared abbreviate, so I tend to fully sound out several of her examples. One she doesn’t mention is ‘secretary’, at times said as ’SEK-ruh-tree’.

When is a T not a T?

The phrase ‘can not’ has been shortened and shortened again over time:

    • can not
    • cannot
    • can’t
    • can’

What? Rachel enters extreme territory beyond my ken, explaining the ’stop-T’. Listen to what she has to say about it. That’s all for now!

  © SleuthSayers


Answer to trivia question: Edgar Allan Poe famously used the obscure but wonderful word ‘tintinnabulation’ in his poem, ‘The Bells’.


  1. Leigh, I trained for opera, where enunciation was pounded into us. Later, as you know, I became a college prof, teaching public speaking, theatre etc. I can't leave out letters! It's like this invisible ruler will come down from the sky and bop me on the head.

    1. So THAT's what happened to L'Arlesienne's rôle. You solved the mystery. She enunciated like Iron Butterfly Inna Gadda Eden.

      Melodie, I hadn't thought about it, but yes, I could understand rigorous language training, especially when singing in unfamiliar languages. That takes a lot of fortitude.

  2. I was in college before a teacher taught me how to pronounce apropos.

    1. Rob, our last-of-the-Latin schools taught us 'a propos' (technically à propos) before the words merged. Two words made pronunciation more obvious, a case where modernization wasn't helpful.

  3. Leigh, this is great--I love this kind of post. As a kid, I never pronounced calliope or Penelope or hereto correctly. (I'd never heard the words spoken--I'd only seen them in stories and books.)

    I know what you mean, about leaving out letters. Here in the deep south, there's no t in winter, when spoken. I wish there was no winter here, period. I'm happiest in the 80s.

    1. John, the only reason I knew calliope was hearing it played on the Delta Queen when we camped on the Ohio River. I don't know how the Greek Muse pronounced it, but I suspect it's not the same as we say it.

      John, am I correct Mississippians (and lots of other people) often omit the T in the word 'what'? For example, "Wha did he say?"

    2. We just use one word instead: Whadeesay? We like to save up our Ts for things like buttermilk biscuits, sweet tea, taters, and tomaters.

    3. A wise saving of valuable consonants, John. The best biscuits need some anchor to prevent them floating away.

  4. Leigh, I'm married to a guy who also pronounces it "tinnititis." As for the dropped "t," country music is full of lonely cowboys and wronged women driving down the innerstate. And I hate to break it to you, but "anemone" doesn't rhyme with "enemy." It rhymes with "lemony" (or Lemony, as in Lemony Snicket).

    1. Oh Liz, you got me there, lemony it is. Hey, Liz, I hear you snicketing.

  5. Luckily, I had a mother and a grandmother who were both English teachers, and taught me how to pronounce everything. Also how to parse sentences. I made the mistake once of pronouncing "err" "air" and never did that again.
    On the other hand, there were a lot of things I read (such as Euripides' The Bacchae) which I had no idea how to pronounce until I was in my 30s, because no one around me had no knowledge of ancient Greek... Oh, well.

    1. Air – err – Oh, that's subtle, Eve, and I'm guilty. At least we don't use error as a verb. A long ago New England friend, Merrie, had a vigilant mother who'd smack down anyone who said her name like 'Mary'. Most of us found it safer to sound her first syllable like that in meerkat.

    2. I've never heard "err" pronounced any way other than "air," as in the first syllable of "error," which I say as "AIR-er." You made me research how to pronounce it. What I found says "air" is the American English pronunciation and "er" is the British English pronunciation. I'll stick with "air."
      I learned to pronounce some Greek and some German from a college World Literature professor, who took the time to explain proper pronunciation. I remember him lecturing us on the correct way to say "Goethe."

    3. Thanks, NM. How should we say Goethe? I"ve heard it spoken with a near-R flavor, but I have no idea what it should be said.

  6. For Goethe, I can reproduce the vowel sound in the middle, but I don't have the linguistic skills to describe it well. It is somewhere between an "a" and and "r" with the sound forming in the back of your throat. If you pretend to choke on an "a" and an "r," you've almost got it.

  7. Thanks, NM. I thought I was hearing a fragment of an R, but wasn't sure. While most of the North American public ignores diphthongs (THERE's a word I'm not used to spelling), I find it interesting that they've long been a keystroke away on computer keyboards: Gœthe.


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