I heard someone finish a story today with the expression “WALL-AH”. They were explaining how they had accomplished something and finished with this satisfied declaration and an open hand gesture. Given the context, I am relatively confident they were actually trying to say “voilà” – the French term for “there you have it” – and simply mispronounced it.

It is situations like this where I wonder about the universality of the golden rule. It is all well and good to preach that we should treat others how we would like to be treated but therein lies the problem; this varies drastically.

Personally, the way I would like to be treated is as a life-long learner with the emotional maturity to differentiate teachable moments from personal criticism. I would far prefer to be corrected once than spend a lifetime mispronouncing something with people noticing but not saying anything under the mistaken belief that my feelings are so fragile I couldn’t face the awful truth of my own imperfection.

There are so many thousands of words out there, and I am well aware that I only understand and can pronounce a small number of them. Perhaps this is the teacher in me, but I still get a kick out of expanding my vocabulary and strengthening my command over English both written and verbal. Yet, there is an unspoken expectation that by 18 we should have perfected this extraordinarily diverse and difficult language and it is the height of rudeness to suggest an adult is anything less than a master linguist.

Again, at the risk of sounding too much like an idealistic teacher, I genuinely believe that those of us who move forward and improve as adults do so precisely because we are unafraid of making mistakes and are not too proud to grab every opportunity to learn.

Of course there is context. If someone tells you in tears that their Dad has just died of a brain “HEM-RAGE” it would be a touch insensitive to say it’s actually pronounced “Hem-O-Ridge” unless he died out of anger over the poor sewing of his pants. But all things being equal, in a causal, light-hearted discussion, I would rather someone let me know if I mispronounced a word but as I’ve learned through experience this is not the way everyone would like to be treated.

So what then of the golden rule? I guess we must simply treat others the way we think they want to be treated at that particular moment and hope for the best.

And if you’re wondering, I did not correct this person but held my tongue. Perhaps that is why I have written a whole article instead. Is this response any more mature or kind I wonder? Who knows, maybe if I had corrected them, they would have told me that “WALL-AH” is exactly what they meant to say. Perhaps it is a word I am not aware of. In that case, I could have learned something and would have been happy to do so.

But alas, we’ll never know. I’d hate to be thought of as “not nice“, or worse yet a “language bully“.

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