some listeners to Today yesterday morning detected a certain trahison des clercs in the moderate opinions of Professor John Wells, the successor of Daniel Jones (alias Henry Higgins) at University College, London. He wouldn't say kil'ometre himself, he admitted, but that was because he was getting on a bit. (He is 71.) He knew better than to say mischievious, but he breathed no word of criticism of those who did.What had I said to give rise to this comment? I had done no more than make an objective report on some findings from the pronunciation preference polls I had conducted as part of the research behind LPD. As I truthfully stated, of the (British) people I asked about kilometre, only 37% had expressed a preference for ˈkɪləmiːtə, while 63% had preferred kɪˈlɒmɪtə. (By the way, the corresponding figures for Americans were 16% and 84%.) For mischievous, I reported that 65% of British respondents to my questionnaire had said that they preferred the pronunciation ˈmɪstʃɪvəs, 20% had voted for mɪsˈtʃiːvəs, and 15% had expressed a preference for mɪsˈtʃiːviəs.
By reporting objectively on the views of a representative sample of native speakers of English, how could I incur the charge of trahison des clercs, of betraying the educated? True betrayal would be to suppress the honest and accurate reporting of people’s opinions.
Unfortunately there are those who expect expert commentators to do no more than reinforce their own prejudices. But I report what I find.
I’m glad to say that the article did finish on a more realistic, if patronizing, note.
Professor Wells also knows enough to realise that if all the world says … kil'ometre, there is nothing that can be done about it.