Sunday, April 08, 2007

Jumpin' up and down yelling "KILN! KILN!"

In the linguistic equivalent of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” speech is always primary and writing secondary. That is, the infant learns to speak before learning to write, and this recapitulates the development of a language from that which we speak to the writing system we use to preserve it, however imperfectly. (I’ll save for another day the irony that we demand a greater degree of so-called correctness in writing than in speech, an irony that puts food on my table).

Some words, and here I’m talking about English words that have been with us for a long time, fall into disuse in wide geographic areas. They become part of people’s reading vocabulary, the words they know because they’ve encountered them in newspapers or books but have not heard in ordinary conversation with people who learned them before they could read. Rather than look up the pronunciation in a dictionary, people often guess, based on the spelling. This reading pronunciation, as linguists refer to it, becomes widespread. Eventually dictionaries report this new pronunciation as standard and the original pronunciation, passed parent to child, mouth to ear for many generations, is lost. At least it is lost most places.

I was reminded of this particular form of linguistic change over the last week, which I spent in Kiln, Mississippi. I was there with a group of forty-some volunteers from Connecticut, doing Katrina reconstruction work. (I’ll blog about that later, when I have pictures to share.)

Rural communities like Kiln do not attract a lot of in-migration. As a result, they tend to be linguistically isolated and thus relatively stable over long periods. And place names, because they are often used as shibboleths, are particularly stable. There are no kilns in Kiln anymore, but the name is pronounced as it always was—kil. (Phonetically, that short i in the middle sounds more like a long eeeey to this Yankee, but the word rhymes with bill or mill in the local dialect.) There is no n sound at the end of the word. Aside from asking locals how they pronounce the name of the town (a notoriously unreliable way to find out that information, as locals everywhere like to preserve their shibboleths and make fools of strangers), I confirmed this pronunciation independently by noting that the local video store is Kiln-n-Time, not Kil-n-Time.

But I had a hard time convincing my traveling companions that the local pronunciation is in fact the older pronunciation and that kiln is a reading pronunciation. Everyone in the group had encountered the word away from its social context—perhaps in a pottery class or in a history book, but not in a place where one’s father or the father of one’s friend went off to work every morning at the local kiln.

The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary shows only the single pronunciation kil. Recent dictionaries show kiln as the more common pronunciation and kil as less common. Given the percentage of the population for whom a kiln is not an everyday thing, this is not surprising. But the good people of Kiln, Mississippi, don’t pronounce the name of their town the way they do out of ignorance. The rest of us pronounce it the way we do out of ignorance.


Anonymous said...

I originally surfed in to see if you knew how to pronounce Kiln, Mississippi. When I found you did, I stayed to look around and decided to subscribe.

Rachel said...

Interesting post, I'm a ceramic artist and teacher and I've been firing kilns for at least 11 or 12 years. I knew, at one point, that kil was the correct pronunciation, or maybe I thought it was correct some of the time. But now I usually pronounce the "n." I never remember talking about the difference and I can't remember when I first heard kil (or the n version, for that matter) and I can't remember why or when I started always pronouncing the n.
thanks for making me think differently about something I think about every day.

Erik Painter said...

I have been a potter since my first class at age 7 in 1969. That was in Massachusetts. Then I was in California, and Washington State. Also at the yearly NCECA conference. And owned a pottery school for 12 years. Some of my teachers learned pottery in the 1940s. I have never personally heard kiln without an n. I have heard about it but never heard it.
I would suggest that there has always been two different pronunciations that have waxed and waned over time and place. The word comes from cyline so at one time the n was there. I hardly think that the early Webster reference means much. He did not do a dialect survey at the time. The NE ( and Ca and WA who derived from it)tends to retain final sounds. The American South tends to drop them.
I'm not really convinced that what I have heard and used all my life by everyday and famous potters is somehow "incorrect". There must but just dialect differences. I don't believe that my teacher who learned at Otis in the 1940s was just wrong or red it and never heard it. He was a potter his whole life. The only think I can think of is that he was influenced by the potter Marguerite Wildenhain, a Bauhaus potter. Perhaps her German/English upbringing led to a west coast change in pronunciation?