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Silent No More: The Case for Changing Our Pronunciation

At its December 2009 meeting, the APS Board of Directors was unanimous in support of a proposal by the APS Pronunciation Committee to change how we say the words psychology and psychological (and psychologist) to include the initial “p” sound. In keeping with APS bylaws, such a change in pronunciation needs to be decided by a vote of our membership. If approved, members would be required, or at least strongly encouraged, to pronounce the “p” sound in the name of our science.

The word psychology has a long and hallowed tradition, having been coined in the 16th Century by the German theologian Melanchthon based on the Latin psychologia, meaning “study of the breath” — exactly what the word means for today’s researchers. From then until early in the last century, the initial nonvoiced bilabial plosive in psychology was said aloud. Psycholinguists speculate that nonpronunciation of the “p” can be traced to none other than James McKeen Cattell, who idiosyncratically left the sound off, and to his students and colleagues, who imitated his affected way of saying psychology in the hope of posthumously getting a Cattell sabbatical award. Thus the silent “p” has its origins in sycophantism, much like the Castilian lisp. Since Cattell’s time, the “p” has remained silent.

However, increasingly the trend among both professionals in the field and laypeople alike is to once again pronounce the “p,” and the APS initiative represents an attempt to keep our relatively young organization in step with the times. This change would also better distinguish our Association from other organizations whose members continue, anachronistically (and, we think, pretentiously), to leave the “p” silent. In the halls of psychology departments, and at meetings, it will no longer be difficult to tell who is a member of which organization. How you pronounce psychology will be like a badge of loyalty: Are you a scientist or are you … something else?

And there is a final, long-term consideration. The trend in written English is toward simplification of spellings to conform to how words are commonly pronounced. Witness the words plow (formerly plough), catalog (formerly catalogue), and the increasingly common CUL8R (“see you later”). If this trend continues and English speakers continue to leave the “p” silent, the time may soon come when psychology is spelled sykolojy. Our acronym would then become ASS. Nobody wants that.

So, we respectfully submit, let’s look again at the pronunciation of our Association’s middle name. Think it over, members, and decide.

As an added note, the APS Pronunciation Committee is also currently considering a motion to pronounce the first, silent “c” in science as a hard “c” (i.e., “skience”). If approved by the committee, this proposal will also be put to a vote. Stay tuned!

PS — Happy April Fool’s Day from your staff at APS.

Observer Vol.23, No.4 April, 2010

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