Thursday 24 February 2011

cavalla, cavally

There’s a village on the island of Montserrat called Cavalla Hill. It can be reached only along a particularly steep and narrow road, but is home to the largest remaining Methodist church on the island since the loss of Bethel to the volcano.

I have been struck by the fact that there is considerable variability among Montserratians concerning the pronunciation of the first word in this place name. Some call it kəˈvalə, which I suppose is what you would expect from its spelling (the double ll signalling stress on the preceding vowel, as in umbrella, vanilla).

But many others make the final vowel i, and I have the impression that this is the general popular form, used by those who know it mainly as a spoken rather than as a written name. Yet even this group are divided in two. Some people stress it on the penultimate, but others on the initial syllable. The majority, it seems to me, say ˈkavəli. Since I too heard the name spoken before I saw it written, I too tend to give it initial stress and final i.

I haven’t been able to find out where the name comes from. Most placenames in Montserrat are geographical descriptors (Little Bay, Lookout, Woodlands), religious names (St Peter’s, St John’s, Salem), transplanted British or Irish names (Plymouth, Kinsale, Olveston), or based on former estate owners’ names (Tuitts, Brades, Nixons). But Cavalla Hill doesn’t seem to fit in any of those categories.

Dictionaries and Wikipedia tell us that cavalla is the popular name of several species of fish, including Caranx hippos and Scomber scombrus, aka the horse-mackerel. Not being a fisherman, I have never heard this word in use and do not know how fishermen pronounce it.

Webster’s Collegiate, however, gives not only cavalla kəˈvælə for the name of the fish, but also a variant form cavally kəˈvæli. (It also reports that the etymology is Spanish caballa, from a Latin word for ‘mare’.)

The OED, which does not record the spelling cavalla at all, gives the word only as cavally kəˈvæli.

There is also a river in West Africa called the Cavalla or Cavally.

It is not clear why a hill in Montserrat should be called after a fish or after a West African river.

The main point of phonetic interest here is the alternation between final schwa and final i. It puts me in mind of the Grand Ole Opry (= opera). According to Wikipedia, the term opry is quite recent, though, having been coined in 1928 by a Texan broadcaster, George D. Hay.

Are there other English words in which final ə alternates with i? I suspect there are, but I can’t actually think of any.


  1. In Norfolk, the happY vowel is ə in older speech and i in younger speech.

  2. wikipedia says that montserrat's largest ethnic group is west africans - based on that I'd have thought it was relatively clear why they named something after a west african river...

  3. Cartoon character Yosemite Sam used to ask for a "Sasparilly" for Sasparilla/Sarsparilla

  4. Anonymous: Historically, place names would surely have been chosen by estate owners (= English or Irish), not by slaves.

  5. Just a little correction, in Spanish "caballa" means "mackerel", the femenine form of "horse" "caballo" is "yegua".

  6. "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny" (rhymes with 'Jenny') was once a popular song in the American South (i.e. Southern states) and reflected, I believe, a popular pronunciation for Virginia in the past. In addition there is another song entitled "I'm Alabamy Bound" (for Alabama). I have heard (the State of) Georgia pronounced Georgy in the Appalachians.


  7. Is there any English speaker using COMMA for the second vowel of karaoke? (I would guess no non-rhotic speaker would do that because the resulting intrusive R would make it sound way too weird, but googling for "karaoke pronunciation" I've found several dictionaries giving pronunciations with COMMA for the second syllable.)

  8. The Greek city of Kavala (Καβάλα) supposedly derives its name from Italian cavallo, which means 'horse' and whose plural form is cavalli. Kavala appears as Cavalle in older French sources. I have no idea how this would be relevant to a place name in Montserrat—just reporting what came to mind when I saw the name 'Cavalla'.

  9. army, I've observed that the second vowel of karaoke has been distressing you intermittently for some time. I can confirm that I have never heard an intrusive R after it, and that as a NS I would think that too weird to believe possible.

    You may have missed some relevant input on this from me that was lurking in the undergrowth of one of my marathon posts. It concerned John's blog entry on 'Naomi', which he had just heard a returning officer in one of the previous week’s UK election results pronounce as naɪˈəʊmi. I adduced 'karaoke' as another case where vowel-sequence-challenged speakers insert a linking or intrusive ɪ or j. I have hacked it out from the undergrowth of my prose for you:

    Extraordinarily enough the only dictionary I found which holds out for [ˌkɑːrəˈəʊkɪ] is Collins, which is usually pretty permissive. Other dictionaries, even American ones, give precedence to [ˌkɑːriˈoʊkɪ] etc. I haven't found any which give [ˌkɑːraɪˈəʊkɪ] etc., but I have heard it in various forms. I took them to be stabs at a more authentic rendition of the Japanese vowel sequence, giving more evidence of this "linking or intrusive i". So contamination from naïve naɪˈiːv doesn't seem so far-fetched to me as it does to you. (John)

    But what do you expect from returning officers? The one who sacked Portillo pronounced one of his names ekˈzeɪviə.

    I include the last paragraph as it coincidentally shows the lengths to which the /kz/ enthusiasts we have been talking about can go. The usual pronunciation of the name Xavier is of course ˈzeɪviə.

  10. Oh, and I've hear attempts to spelling-pronounce 'extraordinary' such as ˌekstrɪˈɔːdɪnərɪ!

  11. How about calvary? It's a perfectly respectable name for a Methodist church and is regularly tonguetwisted in popular speech. The pronunciation ˈkavəli is the expected pronunciation with the cavalry/calvary transposition.

  12. Meant to add: calvary is especially appropriate for a church on a hill.

  13. I question Webster's assertion that caballa is from Latin. It seems more likely that it's a back formation on the analogy of caballo.

    The Romance choice of lexis suggest that late Latin dropped equus (in favour of caballus) but retained equa. Hence Spanish yegua, Portuguese ega and Old French ive. Modern French has substituted the general word for 'beat of burden' jument.

    If google is to be believed, Italian did both of the above with cavalla and , plus asina on the analogy of asino.

    It could be that the planter named the hill, based on some experience with Spanish. Or perhaps the congregation named the hill after the church. And perhaps they perceived some unjustified link with Calvary.

    Naming a hill after a church would not be unique. The blues singer with the puzzling pseudonym King Solomon Hill was eventually discovered to have been one Joe Holmes, who took (or was assigned) his name from the King Solomon Hill Baptist Church (which was said to stand on King Solomon's Hill) and the surrounding King Solomon Hill Community — Joe Holmes's postal address.

  14. nycguy

    You took the words out of my mouth.

  15. The word missing from my paragraph on Italian is giumenta.
    So, if the translation site I googled is to be believed...

    Italian did both of the above with cavalla and giumenta, plus asina on the analogy of asino.

  16. Extry! Extry! Read all about it!

    Seriously, I grew up hearing the high vowel substituted for final schwa by older and more rural people all around me. Pronunciations like "Missoura" I take to be a hypercorrection of this. Rodger C

  17. Beatrice Portinary24 February 2011 at 16:24

    I agree with nycguy and David: ...Cavalla Hill. It can be reached only along a particularly steep and narrow road... so that we could say (in Spanish) that it is a real "calvario" to get there.

    And on final /i/- /ə/, what about Mamma-Mammy?

  18. Anonymous

    Walking My Troubles Away by the North Carolina singer Blind Boy Fuller (recorded in 1936) begins

    Paper boy hollerin' 'Extry! Have you heard the news?'
    Shot the brown I love, I got them walkin' blues
    I keep on walkin', tryin' to walk my troubles away
    I'm so glad trouble don't last alway

  19. In some dialects of Irish English and Scots, final -a is pronouced (basilectally) /-e/ or /-ɪ/ (instead of /-ə/) and usually spelt -ae or -ay.

    For example, the traditional Irish song Love Is Pleasing rhymes grey with Americay:

    For love and porter makes a young man older
    And love and whiskey makes him old and grey
    And what can't be cured love must be endured love
    And now I am bound for Americay

  20. @David Crosbie & Beatrice Portinary

    As a child I could never remember which meaning went with which word of cavalry and calvary.

    PS you Portinaris sure get around to all the good spots: Dante's big book, that altarpiece and now John Wells' blog.

  21. My father attests that, among older Irish-gaelic NSs in Conamara in the 50s, the phrase for "sick, ill, poorly" was "very bad", pronounced [ˈværə ˈbɑːd].

    There's also the folk-song rendering of "potato" as "pratie", where the "-o" alternation is [ə]->[i] rather than [oʊ]->[i].

  22. Pete

    And now I am bound for Americay

    One interpretation of what Robert Johnson sings on Sweet Home Chicago depends on a pronunciation of Iowa as I-o-way.

    I'm goin' to California, from there to Des Moines Iowa
    Somebody will tell you that you need my help some day
    Cryin' hey, baby, don't you want to go
    To that land of California, to my sweet home Chicago

    Personally, I suspect that what he sang was by [name of some forgotten] highway. But it could have been I-o-way.

    This was recorded in the same year as Walking My Troubles Away when Robert Johnson was an obscure singer from the Mississippi Delta and Blind Boy Fuller was a big recording star.

    The pronunciation of the final vowel of California is interesting — neither i nor ə, but (to my under-trained ear) a somewhat nasalised ø:.

  23. The Story of Country Music by Colin Escot flatly contradicts Wikipedia.

    WSM wan't a country music station. Its broadcast day was a mosaic of society doings, drama, news and music. Some of the music came from network feeds, and some was generated locally. One night, WSM manager, George D. Hay, had to segue from an opera coming in on the network to WSM's Barn Dance, and told the listeners to get ready from some "grand old op'ra."

    The name stuck — with the pronunciation that people heard, rather than the pronunciation that Hay actually used.

  24. In Bleak House (chapter 26), Dickens has Mr Bucket say: "that's where he is – on a sofy". Couldn't this point to a general feature of informal/Cockney English?

  25. @David Crosbie: yes, and in another Irish folk song, Goodbye, Muirsheen Durkin, the surname Carney is rhymed with "Californie":

    For as sure as me name is Carney
    I'll be off to California
    Where instead of digging praties
    I'll be digging lumps of gold

  26. Growing up in Alabama, I heard "okry" for "okra" fairly often. Also, is AmE (don't know how widely spread) "bologny" for "bologna" an example?

  27. There's a 2002 article in American Speech by the dialectologist Donald M. Lance discussing the 19th-century American commA=happY merger in final position, a kind of intensified Weak Vowel Shift. This was never universal in America, but followed the pattern of Scots-Irish settlement. The last cohort with this merger was born about 1960, so it is highly regressive, and the original qualities (modified by happY-tensing) have been restored from the spelling.

  28. David Marjanović17 March 2011 at 18:59

    And on final /i/- /ə/, what about Mamma-Mammy?

    No. -/ɪ/ is the nickname suffix; it occurs in German as well.

  29. In the Western United States, there's a sort of joke-pronunciation of "California", which becomes kælɪˈfoʊɹni . (Pardon my IPA; I'm not sure if it would be "oʊɹ" or something similar to it.)I don't know if people pronounce it that way in normal speech (or if they once did, but stopped).


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