Tuesday 24 August 2010


Two correspondents have separately drawn my attention to mysterious goings-on in Nevada, where a local politician is pressing for official recognition of the pronunciation -ˈvædə, with the “alternate” -ˈvɑ(ː)də being “also acceptable”.
Ben Rutter says
I saw this today and thought it might have a place on your blog. Can you legislate for variation in pronunciations?!?

—while Jürgen Trouvain refers to an article in German:
[This] article from the online service of the "Tagesschau", the most popular news magazine in German television, highly reputed for decades, might be of interest.

(The banner illustrating the Tagesschau article, reproduced above, has got its IPA symbols slightly confused. No one is at all likely to say nəˈvədə. The deprecated version is nəˈvɑdə, or with length marks nəˈvɑːdə.)

Reading further in the Politics Daily report, you can see that something deeper is involved than a run-of-the-mill disagreement over how to pronounce some ordinary vocabulary item. The pronunciation that most British people use, -ˈvɑːdə, is evidently perceived by Americans as “the Spanish pronunciation”.
Mortenson says he's not asking Nevadans to change. He just wants the Spanish pronunciation recognized.

This accords with the common but inaccurate identification by Americans of Spanish a with their own LOT vowel. (The British, in contrast, are perfectly happy to identify the Spanish vowel with English TRAP, as in Málaga, Spanish ˈmalaɣa, anglicized as ˈmæləɡə).
So what lies behind Mortenson’s proposal seems to be the deep-laid but irrational fear among many Americans that English is somehow being displaced by Spanish.

The Tagesschau article refers also to a number of German placenames whose spelling does not indicate the pronunciation unambiguously: Itzehoe, Coesfeld, Stralsund, Bleckede, Varel, Grevenbroich, Troisdorf and Poing, which are respectively ɪtsəˈhoː, ˈkoːsfɛlt, ˈʃtraːlzʊnt, ˈbleːkədə, ˈfaːrəl, ɡreːvn̩ˈbroːx, ˈtroːsdɔɐf, ˈpoːɪŋ — to which we might also add Duisburg ˈdyːsbʊɐk (blog, 29 July).


  1. German placenames can drive you crazy. Here are some more:

    Laboe –bøː
    Bad Oldesloe –loː
    Oeversee øːvɐ–

  2. Is it that American PALM is less back than British PALM, and American TRAP is less open than British TRAP, and each maps the Spanish /a/ to the closest one in their own accent?

  3. I don't think American PALM is anything but fully back [ɑ], always excepting Eastern New England where it actually is [a]. But it's true that American TRAP in unshifted dialects is too far forward to be a good representative of non-English /a/. In any case, I don't think the word "inaccurate" applies to such phonological adjustments, any more than the (transatlantic) mapping of Spanish /ɣ/ to English /g/.

  4. @ John Cowan: I have to disagree about FATHER being fully back. It may be in some accents, but fully back FATHER sounds extreme to me (as an American). I think it's more typically advanced from fully back.

    I always thought Americans who said /nəˈvɑːdə/ were trying to sound English.

    Also remember there are some Americans who have an open central or even open front FATHER vowel in, e.g., Chicago. For these people, /nəˈvɑːdə/ would be pretty close to the Spanish pronunciation (except longer). Well, the vowel in the second syllable would be pretty good anyway.

  5. 1. According to Accents of English, "GenAm /ɑ/ ... is a central fully open unrounded vocoid, ranging to (retracted) [a] to (advanced [ɑ])." (vol i, p. 130). And in accents with the Northern Cities vowel shift, it can be as far forward as [æ].

    2. It seems a little unfair to criticize American identification of the PALM/LOT vowel with Spanish [a] as "inaccurate", when, as we have seen, it can be very close to it in quality. If we are going down that road, then surely British identification of TRAP with Spanish [a] deserves the same criticism?

    3. According to this article, the "incorrect" pronunciation of Nevada with PALM/LOT has been heard from George W. Bush, John Kerry, newsmen Brian Williams and George Stephanopoulos, as well as others. I doubt they were all trying to "sound English".

  6. Charles Boberg has written many papers on "foriegn-a" nativization, specifically in Canada and the US. His most recent paper on the topic was published in Language Variation and Change in 2009, 21 pp355–380, called "The emergence of a new phoneme: Foreign (a) in Canadian English." He points out that the typical pattern of nativization across dialects is:

    British: dr[ɑ]ma, p[æ]sta
    US: dr[ɑ]ma, p[ɑ]sta
    Canada: dr[æ]ma, p[æ]sta

    Some of his acoustic data seems to show that in Canada, these foreign-a words are actually somewhere between TRAP and FATHER.

    As for what Americans want to sound like, Lauren Hall Lew, Elizabeth Coppock and Rebecca L. Starr have done research on whether or not congressmen say Ir[ɑ]q or Ir[æ]q, and found some significant correlations with Ir[æ]q and conservatism. You can find a little blurb about that here: http://users.ox.ac.uk/~engf0129/iraq.html

  7. First let me say that I haven't looked up any press about the issue. But a priori, I can see reasons for pressing for Nev[æ]da that have nothing to do with Spanish. The reason is that people from Nevada say Nev[æ]da. As far as I can tell, it's only people not from Nevada, like myself, that say Nev[a]da and the like. So this may be a case of wanting the local native pronunciation to be somehow "official".

  8. I agree with poster Ryan. I have always said "Nev[ae]da" because I thought that's how the folks who lived there said it. It never crossed my mind that Nev[ah]da was "Spanish."

    And, to make things yet more complicated, there is a town in my state called "Nev[ay]da," so we really have to be on our toes to make sure we're pronouncing the word correctly. Context is king!

  9. @Larry

    Also remember there are some Americans who have an open central or even open front FATHER vowel in, e.g., Chicago.

    I can't tell if you mean "in the city of Chicago" or "in the name 'Chicago.'" The accent characteristic of Chicago does indeed have an open central vowel in the word "father," but the traditional pronunciation of the name "Chicago" in the city of that name has the THOUGHT vowel, not the CALM vowel.

  10. @army1987: I think so, although of course there are complications in that some American accents do have a back PALM and an open TRAP, and some British accents (e.g. conservative RP) have a raised TRAP. I think the length of PALM in most British speech may also be relevant: the Spanish vowel does not usually sound long to my ears.

    Quite often the American PALM anglicisation of "foreign a" doesn't actually sound very different to my ears from my own TRAP versions, e.g. many Americans sound to me as if they're saying Bar[TRAP]ck.

    (But note that the usual British tendency towards TRAP doesn't actually apply to "Nevada"...)

  11. BTW, if the goal is to "sound Spanish", using English /ð/ would make more sense than /d/ for Spanish /d/ = [ð]. (By comparison, English /v/ rather than /b/ is used in the first syllable for Spanish /b/ = [β]. I guess that's just because of the spelling.)

  12. @ MKR: My mistake. I meant "in the city of Chicago." I suppose I also meant the other thing to some extent as well, although pronunciations with THOUGHT also occur, as you mention. There's a weather man on WGN that actually uses THOUGHT in Chicago, for example.

    @ VP: "I doubt they were all trying to 'sound English'". Yeah, you're probably right, but it sounds that way to me anyway anytime people use FATHER in a few too many words.

  13. @ JHJ: I've never understood why people in England say Bar[TRAP]ck when everyone I've heard say it in the U.S. says Bar[FATHER]ck. I'm not saying the English have to pronounce the name of every American person and place the way Americans pronounce them, but it is the name our president and it shouldn't be that difficult to use FATHER instead of TRAP. Get with it guys.

  14. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think it's the RP convention to use TRAP for words that aren't perceived to be English, for instance in pasta, lapsang (souchong), mafia. It's counter-intuitive to Americans who know that "the English" have BATH=FATHER, as opposed to their own BATH=TRAP.

  15. @Ben: I think there are a number of reasons. First of all, the spelling suggests TRAP. Then I suspect that a lot of British people are unaware that PALM/FATHER is the usual American pronunciation; as I said, some Americans' PALM/LOT actually sounds like my TRAP to my ears, so their "Bar[FATHER]ck" doesn't stand out as different from the way I say it, and if British people are hearing his name from other British people, they're not hearing the American pronunciation anyway.

    Another point is that an unexpected use of PALM/FATHER can seem pretentious, so may be avoided even when it might be more accurate.

    I'm also not sure why I should adjust to American pronunciation of an American name (given that it's just another example of a British TRAP/American PALM variation which applies to a large number of words) any more than I (or indeed Americans) should start pronouncing Grants and Alexanders from southern England with PALM...

  16. JHJ, your last point doesn't consider that Grant and Alexander are long established with the BATH vowel, that is according to the accent =TRAP or =FATHER. In practical terms, this is only one small step below rhotic vs non-rhotic (eg at the end of Alexander).

    I'd find it awkard to see the vowel in Barack as BATH (with the two realisations) rather than as being different vowels in the accents in the first place, "full" FATHER or TRAP.

    Also, I don't think that an American Bar[FATHER]ck is simply heard by an Englishman as Bar[TRAP]ck, even though the two vowels can be very close, in fact even for the same RP speaker sometimes. GenAm FATHER and RP FATHER are too similar - that would be a good explanation if RP had something ɔ-like for FATHER.

  17. @Lipman: it's not BATH, rather a sort of "anti-BATH" (although northern England aligns with RP, unlike BATH); you could call it PASTA. The variation isn't as well established as with BATH, but it's heading in the same direction.

    As for your last paragraph, I'm English, and have often heard American pronunciations of (presumably) Bar[FATHER]ck as Bar[TRAP]ck, probably because American FATHER (in many accents) can be quite fronted and doesn't have the distinctive length that British FATHER vowels usually do.

  18. As a Californian, I have always heard Nev[æ]da by Nevadans and Californians. I always assumed "the other pronunciation" is what they say "back East."

    The American West is full of very loose interpretations of Spanish names, and I figured that it was a good guess by people who'd never noticed how Nevadans say it. The fact is that there are lots of city and regional names whose local pronunciations could not reasonably be guessed by an outsider.

    I can pronounce most Spanish words adequately, but when speaking English I have no trouble mapping the Spanish a to my PALM/LOT/THOUGHT vowel. I don't have anything closer.

  19. JHJ "Another point is that an unexpected use of PALM/FATHER can seem pretentious, so may be avoided even when it might be more accurate."

    That's sort of the point I was trying to make earlier. Except I said "English" instead of "pretentious". I'm not saying English people are pretentious of course. I'm just saying that when a fellow American uses PALM/FATHER in more words than I do, it sounds pretentious/ English to me, because I've always been aware that English people use PALM/FATHER more often. It's alright when you guys say /nəˈvɑːdə/, /vɑːz/ (vase) or /ˈplɑːzə/. I just don't like it when Americans do.

  20. some British accents (e.g. conservative RP) have a raised TRAP
    I've heard accents in which the only vocoid within the ballpark of cardinal [a] is the starting point of PRICE; the key to the IPA transcription of Welsh on the English Wikipedia used to have English aye as an example of Welsh /a/.

  21. Re Barack Obama: I think that the common British pronunciation is B[TRAP]rack, with first syllable stress, like the word "barracks".

    My guess is that this may be connected with the orthography of his name. There are no English words I can think of (even foreign loanwords) where "-ack" is pronounced with the PALM vowel. Southern Englishmen have no problem using PALM/BATH in "Iraq", for example, so there obviously isn't any phonotactic constraint against a two syllable word ending in stressed [PALM]k.

    In addition, Barack Obama's father, who was also called Barack Obama, pronounced his own name the British way (with first syllable stress and the TRAP vowel). This is reported in "The Bridge", a biography of Obama published last year. Since this name was probably Romanized by the British colonial authorities in Kenya, it would make sense that the spelling would reflect British linguistic norms.

    Why, then, does the current President pronounced his name Bar[PALM]k? I have heard two explanations:
    * It corresponds to the Swahili pronounciation of the word (whereas the first syllable stress is the native Luo pronunciation). In this case he probably adopted it when he visited his family in Kenya for the first time.
    * We know that Barack was known as "Barry" for most of his youth. Perhaps, at the time he (re)adopted "Barack" he either didn't know about his father's pronunciation of the name, or he delberately avoided using it, either to make it sound more exotic or as a conscious rebellion against his father.

  22. Larry: I should have said simply "back" rather than "fully back", and I did specify "unshifted" accents; that is, those which have not undergone either the Northern Cities or the Southern Shift.

    For me "Nevada" is an ordinary LOT=PALM word; I am not trying to sound English at all, still less attempting to impress people with my sophistication. There are some isoglosses that cross the Atlantic to include my dialect, such as the absence of any THOUGHT=PALM merger, but overall it is decidedly part of AmE.

    Ryan: People from Louisiana say /luziænə/, and so do I, because when I was a child my best friend was from there. But that doesn't make it likely to become the usual AmE pronunciation, any more than /ʃɪkɔgoʊ/ is likely to take over.

    Speaking of which, MKR, about a third of Chicagoans speak AAVE, and presumably have the usual merged LOT=PALM vowel in their city's name.

    JHJ, vp: I would actually expect BrE to use /ˈbærək/ anyway, given its aversion to final stress. In any case, Dholuo is tonal, so any initial stress in Barack Sr.'s name cannot be derived from it.

  23. Certainly "Barack" is often pronounced with first syllable stress in Britain. My impression was that it was always pronounced that way when he was first in the news but that later some people switched to stressing the second syllable.

  24. Uh, Larry? I'm right with you on words like vase /vɑːz/, and especially dance "dɑːns" (I once had a teacher who insisted on that one), but /ˈplɑːzə/? I've never heard it pronounced any other way. And we have lots of shopping centers called "plazas." It's almost intuitive to read certain East Coast accents as pretentious. They've been used on TV to symbolize "rich and pretentious" since long before my memory.

  25. @John Cowan:

    BrE has an "aversion" to final stress? BrE, like AmE, has thousands of words with word-final stress.

    If we restrict our attention to words of two syllables, a tiny fraction of them have different stress patterns in BrE and AmE. Of those, a large number are French loan words, most of which have AmE final stress and BrE initial stress (e.g. ballet, Bernard), although there are some which are the other way round (e.g. m(o)ustache, princess).

    If we exclude French loan words, I don't think there is a clear difference in stress preference between BrE and AmE. There _is_ a clear difference, however, in the AmE has the LOT-PALM merger, which means that AmE speakers are used to seeing PALM-LOT words with orthographic "-ck", such as "rock". BrE readers are not.

  26. Vase and dance are different issues: the former may be pronounced with PALM, FACE or even THOUGHT, the latter only with BATH, but BATH can be =TRAP or =PALM.

    vp, your four examples for stress in French loans nicely show the complexity, with each having different factors.

  27. And of course [ˌkɒləˈrædoʊ], not “Spanish” [ˌkɒləˈrɑːdoʊ], lest the Mexicans want it back.


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