“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.