Sound and fury: how pronunciation provokes passionate reactions

Auditory beauty lies in the ear of the listener but to focus on sounds we don’t like is to miss out on the riches, power and beauty of the English sound system

When I used to present programmes on English usage on Radio 4, people would write in and complain about the pronunciations they didn’t like. In their hundreds. (Nobody ever wrote in to praise the pronunciations they did like.) It was the extreme nature of the language that always struck me. Listeners didn’t just say they “disliked” something. They used the most emotive words they could think of. They were “horrified”, “appalled”, “dumbfounded”, “aghast”, “outraged”, when they heard something they didn’t like.

Why do people get especially passionate about pronunciation, using language that we might think more appropriate as a reaction to a terrorist attack than to an intruded “r” (as in “law(r) and order”)? One reason is that ...