‘Omni is everywhere’: why do so many people struggle to say Omicron?

Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post criticized Joe Biden and his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci for both mispronouncing the new Covid variant as “Omnicron” rather than “Omicron”.

Biden’s detractors have seized on the mispronunciation as evidence of some sort of cognitive decline, but the president is far from alone. Daily Beast media reporter Justin Baragona confessed he “can relate” to Biden’s mispronunciation, and he’s not the only one: various digital news outlet URLs include the misspelling, suggesting that the mistake was in an early draft and only corrected after the article was published.

According to linguists, the error is to be expected. We don’t often have cause to introduce entirely novel words to our common vernacular as adults, especially ones from unfamiliar languages.

“Most of us don’t speak Greek – I think that’s fair to say,” Dr Taylor Jones, a linguist and post-graduate studies lecturer, told me.

According to Dr Jones, it’s typical for us to take words from other languages and Americanize them, and the habit isn’t specific to English speakers: “Every language just takes from other languages and ‘nativizes’ the sounds.”

Omicron already presents a challenge before introducing any new, unwanted letters: “Of the Greek letters, we barely use it [unless you’re a Futurama superfan, where the fictional planet Omicron Persei 8 makes frequent appearances], and as a three syllable word, there are a lot of potential pronunciations if you aren’t sure how it’s said,” Dr Lisa Davidson, chair of the linguistics department at New York University, told me. The first syllable could be OH or AH, it could be MY-cron or MEE-cron or even MIH-cron. Dr Taylor pointed out that I was actually merging the first and second syllable with my pronunciation: OM-ih-cron.

“Omni, though,” Dr Taylor said. “Forgive the inadvertent pun, but that’s everywhere.”

Omnipotent, omniscient, omnivore, omnibus, omniplex, and omnipresent: omni as a prefix is a much more familiar sound to the English-speaking brain, or “speech production area” (linguist-speak for “mouth”, generally).

“In that sense, it serves as kind of a magnet,” Dr Davidson said. “It’s a stronger mental representation, so it draws in strings of sounds that are close, like omi–. There’s lots of research showing that if you present people with strings of letters that don’t exist as words in English but could, they’ll pronounce it like the most frequent existing word that has the most similar set of letters.”

Dr Davidson recalled a paper she was recently sent “that shows that if you make an error of a newly learned word on a recall task, you’re more likely to keep making that same error (rather than a different error, or the correct pronunciation).” So people who are irritated by the mispronunciation may want to work on their serenity; it’s likely to stay with us for a while.

source: theguardian.com