Wednesday 25 April 2012

mayoral elections

London is in the throes of electing a new mayor.
Reporting on the ITV news last night, the television presenter Alastair Stewart introduced an item on this topic as being about London’s meɪˈɔːrəl election, only to segue immediately into calling it the ˈmeərəl election.

There’s a well-known disagreement about how we pronounce the stem from which the adjective mayoral is derived, namely the noun mayor. In the UK (or in England, at least), we pronounce it as a homophone of mare. Both are monosyllabic, with the just SQUARE vowel, thus meə (or some might prefer to write mɛː). In the US, on the other hand, it is commonly disyllabic and rhymes with player, thus ˈmeɪɚ; though you do also get a monosyllabic variant mer (i.e. a homophone of mare), particularly when immediately followed by a proper name.

The OED offers a lengthy historical discussion of the pronunciation of the word. The nub is that

A disyllabic pronunciation existed in Middle English, where it was a variant of a more common monosyllabic one. … The disyllabic pronunciation survived in Britain at least into the 17th cent. … as one possible pronunciation, but other sources of similar date show that this was by then highly conservative in British usage. In North America, however, disyllabic pronunciations appear to have remained current in all periods.

I’ve sometimes wondered whether Mare Street in Hackney in northeast London ought really to be spelt Mayor Street.

Back to mayoral.

  • In LPD I give the BrE mainpron as ˈmeərəl, with an altpron meɪˈɔːrəl. For AmE I give just ˈmeɪərəl. (With hindsight, I ought to have included AmE meɪˈɔːrəl too, perhaps as the AmE mainpron.)
  • CPD/EPD, 18th edition, gives BrE ˈmeərəl, AmE ˈmeɪɔːrəl (sic), with no variants.
  • OPD and the online OED give BrE ˈmɛːrəl, AmE meɪˈɔːrəl, ˈmeɪərəl.
  • My main American reference dictionary, Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition, gives three pronunciations, the equivalent in IPA of ˈmeɪərəl, ˈmerəl, meɪˈɔːrəl.
  • Forvo has BrE ˈmeərəl, AmE meɪˈɔːrəl.

Time for a survey, perhaps; but even a preference poll isn’t going to reveal inconsistent usage like Alastair Stewart’s.


  1. Now I'm curious. Anyone happen to be near a library?

  2. I just asked my (Scottish) wife whether mayor rhymes with mare or player. She said she thought it was closer to the latter, but she actually thought all three were rhymes.

  3. "I’ve sometimes wondered whether Mare Street in Hackney in northeast London ought really to be spelt Mayor Street."

    Place-names of Middlesex (English Place-name Society, 1942) gives early forms as Merestrete (1550), Merestret and Meerstreete (1593), Mayre street (1605), Marestreete (1621), and Meare street (1741-5) and explains the name as 'probably ME mere, meare, "boundary" ... from the position of the hamlet on the parish boundary'.

  4. Interesting -- I don't know if I would rhyme "mayor" with "player" as an AmE speaker. For me "mayor" rhymes with "mare", but I have heard a variant that's slight more than monosyllabic. However, the medial glide is definitely not as constricted as in "player"; I wonder if this is a reflex of the morpheme boundary in "player" but not "mayor". My intuition is that monosyllabic "mayor" is more common in the US, but then I don't have quantitative data on the distribution. For "mayoral" I have penultimate stress; I can't swear to having ever heard initial stress here.

    1. My intuition is that the disyllabic pronunciation 'meɪɚ is more common in the US. But that's also my own pronunciation and mer (= mare) is your pronunciation. I'm noticing a pattern here. Hmmm...

  5. For me the citation pronunciations are /ˈmeɪɚ/ and /ˈmeɪərəl/ (or with syllabic /l/), but certainly /meɪr/ (not /mɛr/) does appear in my allegro speech, particularly in a position without sentence stress, as with a name following. It feels much more natural to say "Mare Bloomberg" than "Who's the mare of this town?"

  6. As an American living in the shadow of Chicago, I can report that your generalization is right. /ˈmeɪɚ/ is probably how I'd refer to the holder of that office in most situations. /meɹ/ if I'm speaking fairly casually. Or after the direct article. Chicagoans have been lampooned locally for saying /hɪ'zɑnɚ də meɹ/, spelled "hizzoner da mare". But that's vicious slander. We say /ðə/.

    1. In my experience (my father and his family are from the Chicago area), a lot of that "vicious slander" comes from Chicagoans themselves (Maybe that's what you meant by "lampooned locally"). I've never heard for the from Chicagoans either*, but a lot of them (especially guys) still insist that they use it and that saying d instead of ð is what characterizes a Chicago accent. As an outsider, however, the differences I notice are entirely with the vowels.

      * Well not from white Chicagoans at least. Chicago AAVE might be different. Hispanic Chicago speech may be different too.

    2. I'd agree—the vowels are the only real phonetic action in Chicago.

  7. I'm more likely to sayˈmɛərəl than meɪ'ɔ:rəl, but it's not a certainty. I'm sure I've heard the latter — probably in radio or TV reports. And it's a perfectly logical spelling pronunciation.

    Once heard, not completely forgotten — not until the word mayoral becomes a commonplace that I hear all the time. As I don't live in London or the other cities contemplating mayoral elections, there's no sign of this happening.

  8. As an ex-Brit living in the US, I would have put heavy money on 'meɪ.ɚ being the more common pronunciation.

    Of course, that may well be because I'm more likely to notice pronunciations that differ from what my mental dictionary expects.

  9. As an RP speaker living in (southern) England, I still think of "mayor" as having two syllables. I might often realise it as "mare" or something approaching it, but only to the same extent that I might also say "ozone lare".

  10. Peter Roach writes:
    "I checked ˈmeɪɔːrəl with John Esling, as our native-speaker American editor, and he says it is a perfectly acceptable American pronunciation. He sent me a YouTube clip, where there are a couple of "mayoral" examples in the first 12 sec or so, though since these come in a cartoon they cannot be taken too seriously. He is going to look for other examples."

    Any comments from Americans out there?

  11. Some more data from John Esling: he writes
    "I just did a one off search of YouTube, and the first try gave this:
    Wouldn't you know, the news anchor (very white-Northern-sounding for Texas - but that's what standarizing networks do) said the same as a Canadian anchor would - stress definitely on syll two. However, the black news reporter (at min. 0:26) stressed syll one."

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