Pronunciation in the 1920’s

It’s fair to say the English language can be a bit of a minefield at times. What else can you say about a language in which enough, cough, dough, bough, and through don’t rhyme with one another, or in which the plural of goose and mongoose are geese and mongooses? Come to grips with all those inconsistencies and you’ll still have to contend with the fact that English has a troublesome spelling system that permits a word like zoo, with its straightforward double-O spelling, to rhyme with hew, blue, to, you, lieu, coup, flu, two, through, queue, hoopoe, and bijoux. And add to that the fact that English also has probably the largest vocabulary of any comparable language on the planet, and the problems soon begin to stack up.

With all that in mind then, try reading this:

Penelope Cholmondely raised her azure eyes from the crabbed scenario. She meandered among the congeries of her memoirs. There was the Kinetic Algernon, a choleric artificer of icons and triptychs, who wanted to write a trilogy. For years she had stifled her risibilities with dour moods. His asthma caused him to sough like the zephyrs among the tamarack.

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That is an announcer’s test—an intentionally challenging piece of prose once used to audition prospective radio announcers. This particular test is one of the oldest on record: According to I Looked And I Listened, the 1954 memoir of former New York Daily News radio columnist Ben Gross, this was in use back in the early days of American commercial radio in the mid-1920s, and was passed on to him by renowned New York radio announcer Phillips Carlin. It’s unclear precisely how the test would have been carried out, but given how later tests were organized, it’s likely that auditionees would have been given it cold, with little or no time to prepare beforehand.

So would you have passed it? Did any of those words trip you up? (If you found it easy, the 1951 NBC Handbook of Pronunciation has a much longer version for aspiring radio announcers to try at home.) Here’s what the dictionaries have to say about some of the trickiest parts of that passage:

Cholmondely (n.): Despite appearances, the surname Cholmondely/Cholmondeley is pronounced “Chumley,” according to the Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary.

Azure (n., adj.): Cambridge also lists no less than eight different pronunciations of azure, depending on whether the first or second syllable is stressed; whether the A is pronounced long (as in “bay”) or short (as in “bat”); and whether the Z is pronounced like the Z in zoo or like this “zh” sound in leisure or treasure. But if you’re looking for a job at NBC in the 1950s, they want it pronounced “AZH er.”

Crabbed (adj.): Meaning “difficult” or “bad-tempered”; if you’re using it as an adjective, crabbed should rhyme with rabid, not jabbed.

Congeries (n.): In American English, congeries is pronounced with the stress on the initial syllable, “CON-juh-reez,” whereas British English (and, oddly enough, NBC) prefers it on the second syllable, “con-JEER-eez.” Either way, if you’re not familiar with it, it might come as a surprise to find that congeries is a singular noun meaning “a disorderly collection” or “a heap.”

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