Friday, June 11, 2010

Well, shut my mouth!

Language is a living thing, ever moving and changing. This phenomenon is noticed only by the old, who have had the benefit of long observation. The young are too busy knowing everything to pay much attention.

By “ever moving and changing” I do not mean -- today, at least -- the coining of new words to describe new inventions (iPod, iPhone) and new technologies (Twitter, Facebook), nor do I mean the putting together of existing words in ways they weren’t previously (car park, space suit, Rachael Ray). And I am definitely not referring to regional accents of the kind one might hear while visiting Alabamistan (“Ah had a rot noss tom last Froddy not”) or Australia (“G’dye, myte!”) or Long Island (“Oy thought Oy would doy; let’s tu-alk over cu-offee.”).

No, Madam Speaker, today I rise to speak of what seem to be, in the overall scheme of things, sudden changes in pronunciation, which like Ol’ Man River, jes’ keeps rollin’ along. [Note. If you don’t click on that link, you will miss something truly special. --RWP]

It’s nothing new. England experienced the Great Vowel Shift centuries ago, which some researchers attribute to the mass immigration to the south east of England after the Black Death.

What this older member of the human species has noticed over his many, many years is how pronunciation of certain words seems to change rather suddenly, even without benefit of Black Death. For example, most Americans used to say Car-uh-BEE-an when talking about that little sea near Central America until President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it the Cuh-RIB-ian. Then the Him-uh-LAY-as became the Him-AHL-yahs. Okay, it pares down the number of syllables from four to three in both of those words, a significant saving of 25%. The world might be better off with a 25% reduction in syllables. Or maybe we’re just trying to sound British. (There are worse things. I don’t think anyone on this side of the pond has said Luh-BORE-a-tree yet, though.)

But how and why did Yom KIP-per morph into Yomka POOH-er? That’s just strange. Maybe we’re all trying to sound snobbish.

As a child, I heard about a disease called di-a-BEE-tis and now everywhere it’s di-a-BEE-TEES. Same thing with the plural of the word “process” -- no more PRAH-cess-iz; it's proh-cess-SEES. Maybe we’re all trying to sound like scientists.

Some people say to-MAY-to and po-TAY-to; others say to-MAH-to and po-TAH-to. Some people say EE-ther and NEE-ther; others say EYE-ther and NYE-ther. Maybe we’re trying to sound cultured. I understand in Scotland they say AY-ther and NAY-ther. No one has yet determined what Scots are trying to sound like.

Proper nouns have their own difficulties. Take the state of Louisiana, for instance. LOO-is-iana and LOOZ-iana are both acceptable, but not loo-WEEZY-ana, because the place was named for Louis, not Louise. New Orleans is especially problematic. Depending on who is talking, we have noo-or-LEENS, noo-ORLY-ans, and NAW-lins (residents say it the third way). The preferred pronunciation of Louisville, Kentucky, seems to be LOO-a-vul. Outsiders may not realize it, but old-timers in Missouri, Cincinnati, and Miami all end their place of residence with an -uh, not an -ee.

I could go on and on, but I’d like to open the comments now for pronunciation changes you have noticed.

We now return you to regular programming. This has been a public service announcement.


  1. MR NIXON-BRAGUE You mistakenly described me as a "liberal". I am not. The only labels I accept are Yorkshireman, Hull City supporter, Americophile and top spaghetti chef. So to language. I was just thinking... We have an American living on this island. His name is Bill Bryson and he was raised in Iowa. Over here he is a very popular writer. Perhaps one of his lesser known works is "Made in America". It's all about language development in the USA and when I read it, perhaps ten years ago, I found it spellbinding. With your keen interest in language, I think it is a book you would greatly enjoy and I hereby instruct you to order a copy from Amazon... unless of course you have already read it - in which case ignore this order from a spaghetti munching "European" Obama fan.

  2. YP, the first part of your comment should be on the previous post. Just sayin'....

    I have had Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way in my bookshelf for several years now but not Made in America. I also have Charles Harrington Elster's There Is No Zoo In Zoology and Cecil Hunt's Word Origins: The Romance of Language. But you are right; Bryson is the most interesting of the lot.

  3. Youch, YP, you are letting too much info out too quickly, it doesn't suit the Obama "surprise, we snuck our agenda on you, and now you are to board the train" mode. Don't get me started, the man is a socialist rabble rouser with not a whit of substance. And by "socialist," I mean "communist," and by "rabble rouser," I mean "teleprompter-reading mesmerist who suffers from megalomania."

    But, I digress. Language is fascinating to me, and even my children think I have an accent. One was born up north, the other here in Columbus, but both have the central Ohio way of speaking. My "accent" is northern Ohio, which is not dissimilar to Chicago, and a little less "northern" than Wisconsin. The kids like to hear me say "bag, "doll" and "root." They hear differences that I can't discern.

    Sorry for the political comment, Rhymes, but things are close to a tipping point in this country, and I feel the need to educate!

  4. Which is socially acceptable:

    am-BLANC, or amBUlance?

    How about gen-U-ine and genu-in?

    Don;t know same, but he;s clearly on another post.



  5. Here in western Arkansas it is Am-Boo-Lance, But we also have four "tars" on our truck.

    An Arkies Musings

  6. "pronunciation of certain words seems to change rather suddenly, even without benefit of Black Death."

    Now, why do I think that is a very funny remark?

    Very interesting, language(s). And I'm getting the impression that the only Obama-fans do not live in the USA. How did he become your President?

  7. Sam, what a wonderful phrase, "teleprompter-reading mesmerist who suffers from megalomania"! Have you noticed how many times he says "I" in his speeches? Or "unprecedented"?

    Reamus, gen-u-wine seems to come from the red states, gen-u-inn from the blue states. Same thing with EYE-tal-ian and ih-TAL-ian.

    Hello, richies! For my UK readers, "tars on trucks" refers to tyres on lorries.

    Carolina in Nederland, in the Bush-Kerry election of 2004, Bush won 51% to 48% (Ralph Nader received 1%), with 122.3 million voters going to the polls. In the Obama-McCain election of 2008, Obama won 53% to 46% (and 1% went to others), with 132.6 million voters going to the polls. Interestingly enough, the voting-age population of the U.S. was 221.2 million in 2004 and 231.2 million in 2008. It wasn't so much that 5% of the electorate switched as that 10 million new voters voted for the first time. Read into that whatever you like (young, restless, foolish, whatever). That was two years ago. He talks a good talk, but his actions do not match his talk. Today BHO's approval rating has plummeted and many pundits are predicting a one-term presidency for him. Watch our midterm elections this November.

    My thanks to everyone who commented.

  8. P.S. - My source for the figures I quoted in the previous comment was here. And the highest percentage of U.S. voters going to the polls in the last 50 years, it says, occurred in the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960.

  9. I don't know if Louisville is still pronounced "Luahvull" but that was its proper pronunciation in the past by those "in the know." There are other things I've noticed on commercials and stuff, but can't think of them at the moment. I think those who voted for President Obama are getting disillusioned as they realize that he is not what they had hoped. The media refuses to bash him, but there isn't much to say good, so there is mostly a deafening silence where he is concerned.

  10. Well, what a coincidence. I have just done a post that includes pronunciation too. But that of Te Reo Maori...