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Just Say Suck
Perhaps I should be more forgiving. At this point, however, I think it’s too late to change. I am perfectly happy, it seems, to hold people fully accountable for their sins of pronunciation.

The day I have dreaded for so long arrived last week. I knew it would come eventually, but it still hit me hard. I actually heard someone say that they had managed to successfully “access a web page.” That may not seem alarming because you are reading this, not hearing it. My torment came from how the word was pronounced — “assess,” rather than “ak-sess.”

I had waged a brief, hopeless war in the 90s against the conversion of “access” into a verb. I knew I could not win against any coinage backed by the full force of the digital revolution, which had adopted the new usage without question. Part of me recognized that it filled a growing need in that province of our brave new world. I still don’t like hearing it, but I have come to accept (“ak-sept”) it.

This new experience with the word, however, has delivered a setback to my belief system. As an avowed Prescriptivist, I tend to fret over any change to the language, including to its pronunciation. Perhaps I just like having a reliable set of rules that we can all go to when communication needs to be clear and precise. Or maybe I’m just a control freak. Either way, I don’t feel comfortable with the Descriptivists’ philosophy. For them, acceptable standards of usage are simply reflections of whatever convention happens to be current at any given moment. If enough people are using the language in a certain way, then that fad becomes a guidepost for other users.

To me, this is chaos. There are no rules in a Descriptivist universe, only whims that shift with the latest meme. I have no doubt that those subscribing to such a doctrine lead lives uncomplicated by stress or lexemic guilt, but such an existence is not for me.

My theory is that the trend away from the hard /k/ sound in access and other similar words began with some folks’ dislike of the sound of the word succinct. The correct prescriptive pronunciation here is “suck-sinct.” It is my belief that people didn’t like to hear the ugliness of “suck” come out of their mouths and began (mis)pronouncing the word as “sussinct.” This misplaced value judgment has now opened the door to a changed pronunciation of other double-c words.

Descriptivists no doubt shrug their shoulders at such mutations. It is my curse that I cannot. What is happening here is a loss of clarity. I prefer the use of “ak-sess” to “assess” because assess is already a word, and it means something entirely different from the new one. Among other things, this is highly unfair to a perfectly good word. Assess has now lost its integrity, at least as a spoken word. It has become two-faced, with two etymological lineages, and two confused meanings.

There would be no such confusion with the mispronunciation “sussinct,” of course. Saying it, in fact, simply creates a whole new word. Still, I sense that it is wrong to do this. Do we need a new word? Do we just forsake the old word? Is the only reason for this change our delicate sensibilities? Do we really want to abandon the opportunity to say “suck” any time and place we want without fear of objection?

So, you see that there are consequences to these willy-nilly changes in our language. I do not endorse the Prescriptivist view just because I am a control freak (that’s just a happy accident [ak-sident]). In my view, we are tempting the forces of darkness each time we countenance these “harmless” alterations to our native tongue.

Let me acknowledge, however, that spellings that employ the double-c are a problematic oddity in the English language. As you know, the unaspirated allophone for the phenome /k/ with an accompanying palatal coarticulation is not always called into play in such a configuration. Accordion, tobacco, impeccable, accuse, and many other words fall in this category. So do some of our Italian imports, such as broccoli and piccolo.

Yes, it’s confusing, but are we going to let that keep us from doing the right thing? Of course not. There are layers and layers of sound linguistic reasoning we could delve into here that explain how all this works, but I don’t want to bore you with that. Instead, let me bore you with this sad truth: follow the rules, or everyone will suffer.

There is no Language God to enforce this edict, and no Language Hell to threaten as punishment. As a control freak, then, my only power is your common sense. I know I can count on you to try to do the right thing. In that, I wish you suck-sess.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon