“Organ-eye-zation,” etc.

I have in my repertoire one parlor trick. I do it when chatting with someone whose speech is generally unremarkable, but who employs a pronunciation like “global-eye-zation” (the vowel in the third syllable rendered /ai/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA) instead of the typical American schwa (“global-/ə/-zation”). I say, “I bet you’re from Canada, aren’t you?” And they invariably say, “Yes!”

It’s one of the few pronunciation that Canadians have retained from Britain; others are pronouncing the first in pasta as in cat or hat and the long o in process. You can hear this long i when Canadian hockey players and fans refer to teams as organ-/ai/-zations, and in the Canadian William Shatner’s rendition of civilizations at about the 25-second mark of the opening monologue of Star Trek (right before an infinitive is boldly split):

Although Shatner spoke the words, the character he played, James Kirk, is supposed to be from Iowa. The fact that the producers nevertheless allowed civil-/ai/-zations to stay suggests that to them (as opposed to me), the departure is subtle and maybe not even noticeable.

In any case, I predict my little trick is not long for this world. That’s because Americans have started to adopt the /ai/ vowel in such words. The data I have to support of this assertion is admittedly preliminary, but suggestive:

  • In 2014, when someone on the Word Reference.com Language Forums asked about the pronunciation of organization, two Americans responded that their countrypeople alternated between the  /ə/ and the /ai/ forms.
  • Again, on the crowdsourced pronunciation site Forvo, two Americans offer pronunciations of organization, and they split the same way.
  • The /ai/ version is creeping up more and more on NPR. Just in the past week or so, I’ve heard the reporter Shannon Dooling say author-/ai/-zation; a newsreader (I forgot to write down the name) say denuclear-/ai/-zation; and, on the WBUR program Here and Now, Dipayan Ghosh, a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School and the New America Foundation, say organ-/ai/-zation. Dooling graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (though she did get a master’s at the University of British Columbia!) and Ghosh from the University of Connecticut. (After a version of this piece was originally published on the Lingua Franca blog,. Ghosh told me, via Twitter, “I think I’ve always said it that way because it’s how my parents — from Calcutta — have said it.”)

There is another, similar set of words, such as missile, agile, futile, mobile, hostile, and fertile. Brits pronounce the two syllables with roughly equal stress and use /ai/ for the i, while Americans accent put the accent on the first syllable and use a schwa, for example, missəl. An informant reports that in the corporate world, rhyming agile with mile is all the rage, and I’ve noticed more than a few Americans very British-ly refer to their phone as “my moh-bile.” But this trend awaits further research.

As for the –/ai/-zation words, I note that Ghosh is in his late twenties and Dooling in her thirties; the organ-/ai/-zation guy on Forvo and the NPR newsreader both sounded in that age group to me. And this fits in with a number of other words, spellings, and pronunciations that I’ve noticed gaining popularity among the young: spelling gray as grey and adviser as advisor; pronouncing often as off-ten and sometimes going full oftentimes; saying neither to rhyme with MacGyver rather than beaver; using whomever even when whoever is called for; and saying amongst and amidst instead of among and amid.

What the new uses have in common is that they either are or appear British and therefore (?) fancy. If this blog has proved anything, there is a general American desire to seem British and fancy. But why would this generation act on it more than other generations? I confess I’m stumped.

23 thoughts on ““Organ-eye-zation,” etc.

  1. I think it is a desire to appear educated and sophisticated because we all know any thing European is better that anything American.

  2. I remember a Canadian colleague once telling me he pronounced ‘cyclical’ so that the first syllable sounded like ‘sick’ rather than the British ‘sigh’. I wonder what the US version is?

  3. Conversely, US English often gives us ‘anti’, ‘semi’, ‘multi’ with the ‘eye’ sound whereas BrE speakers say ‘antee’, ‘semee’, ‘multee’.

    1. Exactly. That was the first thought that came to me when I read Ben’s article, only I couldn’t remember which words they were. Thank you.

  4. The linguistics of Canadian English are a constant source of fun for “Terrance and Phillip” in South Park. Especially and particularly the “aboot” pronunciation of “about”

  5. Maybe it’s from the introduction of the internet and proliferation of media. If that’s true then it must go both ways. I’m an American living in Britain but ofc it would be hard for me to recognise a not-one-off-Americanism if I heard one! (Or maybe it’s just a fad!) I really enjoy this blog though!

  6. “others are pronouncing the first a in pasta as in cat or hat and the long o in process.”
    Interestingly, they also pronounce “Mazda” (the car and presumably the god) to rhyme with cat. Apparently the company takes this so seriously they have celebrities shoot commercials twice – once with each pronunciation. I was quite taken aback to hear it spoken that way when I was at UBC for my Master’s.

  7. As a Canadian who grew up in England in the 1950s I worked hard at getting rid of my English accent when I came to Canada. Most Canadians don’t use British pronunciations, but the CBC still clings to them. I never really noticed the pronunciations mentioned above. But there are a couple that really irk me. miss-eye-le and mo-bye-le.. Especially when the latter is used to describe a cellphone.

    1. The reason for the Mobile phone description is that is what it is.Cell is a description of how the mobile phone network system operates.As you drive your mobile phone moves from one cell to another cell.

      1. It’s just the difference between what Brits and North Americans call there phones. We call them cells, cellphones or smatphones.Brits call them mobile phones or mobiles. I understand the difference in language. What irks me is when North Americans use the British term.

  8. However, one example whether the British use a Schwa and the Americans use the ‘eye’ is advertisement. Most British people even today would still pronounce that word ‘ad-vert-uss-ment’ Wheres all Americans I have met pronounce it ‘advertize-ment’. (Though I saw an old interview from 1955 between Ed Murrow and Marilyn Monroe where he used the British pronunciation so evidently the US may have been equivocal on this in the past). The US way is becoming more common in the uk among young people though these days.

  9. Do they also do whilst? It’s very common here and I hate it but not as much as contribUTE, which everyone else in the country now says. I stubbornly refuse, while vaguely wondering if the Americans are to blame. About the long o, we still say long o progress, mostly, I think. We used to say long o project but nowadays I seem to hear nothing but short o project. Cellphone seems weird and mobile just dandy. And pasta is flat, of course and not parsta or pawsta. And we do say cyclical as in sicklickle. What else could it be? Sikelickle? Never heard that in my life.

  10. The two pronunciations of either and neither are in free variation in my variety of British English (pretty standard southern); and I always thought that often with a sounded t, and the bizarre ‘oftentimes’ were Americanisms; but perhaps I am wrong about that.

  11. British English speaker, I would slap my children if I heard off-ten. Surely it’s offen? And does McGyver not rhyme with beaver?

  12. Twenty years ago the American sportscasters Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick (in a co-authored book) described “organ-eye-zation” as (paraphrased from memory) “a Canadian pronunciation that any Canadian hockey player will tell you is a regional pronunciation native to a different province from his own.”

    On the other hand, both pronunciations of civilization sound kind of right to (non-Canadian) me, and I am not sure which one I would use in an unguarded moment. I may have been corrupted by Shatner at a young age,

  13. Why if the Americans don’t pronounce the hard ”a” in last, chance, grass, past, etc, do they use a hard ”a” in ”pasta”? The same question could be asked of the British, Australians, New Zealanders and other Commonwealth Englsih speakers, but in reverse.

  14. I would guess that most Americans would associate the long I in civilization, agile, and similar examples with a generic Southern or ‘hick’ accent just as soon as with some sort of British accent.

  15. Actually, the fact that Kirk was supposed to be from Iowa doesn’t necessarily render the pronunciation suspect. I grew up in Minnesota a *long* time ago and have always used organ[ai]zation–along with “aboot” and “eh.” A lot of the upper Midwest (but especially the Great Lakes) follows suit.

  16. As an American in my 20s, I had no idea that it was acceptable to pronounce “agile” in a way that DOESN’T rhyme with “mile.” “Futile,” “fertile,” and “hostile” can go either way for me. “Fragile,” “missile,” and “mobile” rhyming with “mile” sounds very British to me however.

    I also legitimately had no idea that “adviser” was an acceptable spelling. I can only imagine ever spelling it as “advisor.”

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