NOT all Christians have had many years of secular education. Even the apostles Peter and John were described as “unlettered and ordinary.” (Acts 4:13) Nevertheless, it is important to avoid detracting from your presentation of Bible truth by pronouncing words poorly.
Factors to Consider. No one set of rules of pronunciation applies to all languages. Many languages are written in alphabetic letters. In addition to the Latin alphabet, there are such alphabets as Arabic, Cyrillic, Greek, and Hebrew. Instead of an alphabet, written Chinese uses characters that may be made up of a number of elements. These characters usually stand for a word or part of a word. Although Japanese and Korean borrow from Chinese, the characters may be used to represent very different sounds and may not carry the same meaning.
In alphabetic languages, proper pronunciation requires using the right sound for each letter or combination of letters. When such a language follows consistent rules, as is true of Greek, Spanish, and Zulu, the task is not so difficult. However, foreign influences on a language may result in pronunciations that reflect the origin of the words. As a result, a specific letter or group of letters may be pronounced in more than one way or, at times, may not be pronounced at all. You may need to memorize the exceptions and then use them often in your speech. In Chinese, proper pronunciation requires memorization of thousands of characters. In some languages the meaning of a word changes when the tone is altered. Failure to give adequate attention to this aspect of a language can result in conveying wrong ideas.
If the words of a language are made up of syllables, it is important to place the primary stress on the correct syllable. Many languages that use such a structure have a fairly regular pattern of oral stress. Where there are exceptions to that pattern, an accent mark may be part of the written word. This helps to make proper pronunciation relatively easy. However, if the pattern is not consistent, the problem is more difficult. Dealing with it successfully requires much memorization.
In some languages, diacritics are a major factor to consider. These include marks shown above and below certain letters of the alphabet, such as: è, é, ô, ñ, ō, ŭ, č, ö, ç. The diacritical marks may be written, or the reader may be expected to supply them on the basis of the context in which a word appears. In the latter case, careful preparation will likely be needed when you are assigned to read publicly.
With regard to pronunciation, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Being overly precise can give the impression of affectation, even snobbishness. The same can be said of pronunciation that is no longer in general use. The only effect will be to draw attention to the speaker. On the other hand, it is good to avoid the opposite extreme of using slovenly speech and pronunciation. Some of these matters have already been discussed under “Words Clearly Spoken.”
Acceptable pronunciation of the words of a language may differ from one country to another, even from one part of a country to another part of the same country. A person from another country may speak the local language with a distinctive accent. Dictionaries may list more than one acceptable pronunciation for a word. Especially if a person’s opportunity for secular education was very limited or if the language he now speaks is not his native tongue, he will benefit greatly by listening carefully to those who speak the local language well and then patterning his pronunciation after theirs. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we want to speak in a manner that dignifies the message we preach and that will be readily understood by people in our area.
In everyday speech it is usually best to employ words with which you are well acquainted. Ordinarily, pronunciation will not be a problem in general conversation. However, when you read aloud, you may encounter some words that you do not use in daily speech. And Jehovah’s Witnesses do a great deal of oral reading. We read the Bible to people when we witness to them. Some brothers are called on to read the paragraphs during the Watchtower Study or at the Congregation Book Study. It is important that we read accurately and that we do not detract from the message by mispronouncing words.
Do you find that some proper names in the Bible are difficult to pronounce? In English, a stress mark follows the syllable that should be given primary stress. If the accented syllable ends in a vowel, then the vowel is long in its pronunciation. If a syllable ends in a consonant, then the vowel in that syllable is short in its pronunciation. When the two vowels a and i are combined, as in Morʹde·cai and Siʹnai, the ai is pronounced simply as a long i. With the exception of the name Rachel, the ch combination of letters is given a hard k sound, as in Mel·chizʹe·dek.
Ways to Improve. Many who have a problem with pronunciation are not aware of it. If your school overseer points out aspects of your pronunciation that need attention, appreciate his kindness. Once you know the problem, how can you make improvement?
First of all, when you have an assignment to read aloud, take time to consult a dictionary. Look up the words you do not know. If you are not experienced in using a dictionary, turn to the opening pages for an explanation of the symbols that are used or, if necessary, ask someone to explain these to you. The dictionary will show you where to place the primary stress in a word that is made up of more than one syllable and where to place the secondary stress in a longer word. It will show what sounds to use for the vowels and the consonants in a given word. In some instances, a word may be pronounced in more than one way, depending on the setting in which it is used. Whatever word you look up, say it aloud several times before you close the dictionary.
A second way that pronunciation can be improved is by reading to someone else—someone who pronounces words well—and asking him to correct your mistakes.
A third way to improve pronunciation is by listening carefully to good speakers. If audiocassettes of the New World Translation or the Watchtower and Awake! magazines are available, make good use of these. As you listen, take note of the words that are being pronounced differently from the way you would do it. Write these down, and practice them. In time, your speech will be free of the blemishes of mispronunciation, and this will greatly enhance your speaking.