As late as 1777, when the Royal Standard Dictionary was published, the predominant pronunciations of “either” and “neither” in England were “ee-ther” and “nee-ther.” But that gradually changed. In its 1907 edition, The Oxford Dictionary remarked that “eye-ther” was more prevalent in the “educated speech” of Londoners. H.W. Fowler predicted in 1926 that this pronunciation would “probably prevail,” and by 1965, when Sir Ernest Gowers revised Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, it had “almost wholly displaced” the long e pronunciation.

For a long time, the United States stuck with “ee-ther,” for the most part. In 1873, the philologist W.D. Whitney harrumphed that the ”eye-ther” pronunciation had “spread …by a kind of reasonless and senseless infection, which can only be condemned and ought to be stoutly opposed and put down.” A 1928 satirical sketch called “The Lady Buyer” noted of that personage,

always, standing her in good stead, and ready at the tip of her tongue is her crystal-clear, British pronunciation of “either.” She says the staunch word with such hauteur as to make one forget other mistakes and even feel apologetic for having noticed them. Nothing on earth could make her whisper “ether” in the darkest corner of a stock-room. She knows it would ruin her socially.

Memorably, “eye-ther” was one of the British pronunciation choices (along with “to-mah-to”) in Ira Gershwin’s 1937 lyric to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” In 1961, Hans Kurath and Raven McDavid called “eye-ther” “a sporadic feature of the cultivated speech of Metropolitan New York and Philadelphia…. it is in all probability a recent adoption from British English.”

My ears tell me is that “eye-ther” and “nIe-ther” are currently on the rise in America, especially among young people. My own millennial-generation daughter, despite having two parents who say “ee-ther,” says “eye-ther.” On the pronunciation site Youglish, six of the first twenty American utterances of the word are “eye-ther” (all youngish people), and fourteen are “ee-ther,” including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

I would be interest in the observations of readers, both American and British–or any other English-speaking country, for that matter.

“BAL-let” (pronunciation)

New York Times critic Gia Korlas writes today:

It was dismaying that [Lara] Spencer, a host of “Good Morning America” on ABC, would openly laugh at the news that a 6-year-old boy had elected to study ballet. Listing Prince George’s curriculum on Thursday morning, she ticked off “religious studies, computer programming, poetry and ballet.”

She pronounced it, “BAH-lay.”

And then she continued. “Prince William says George absolutely loves ballet,” she said, looking mystified while she stifled laughter. “I have news for you, Prince William. We’ll see how long that lasts.”

I’m not sure why Korlas thought the pronunciation of “ballet” was noteworthy. But it caught my eye because that’s the way the British give the stress in the word, whereas Americans put the accent on the second syllable. (The vowel sound in the first syllable, for both British and Americans, is like the “a” in “cat,” so perhaps Korlas was struck that Spencer said it to rhyme with like the first word in “Bah, humbug.”)

It’s one of those cases where the Brits seem (to me) to make a big point of not attempting to adopt the original language, in this case French. Other examples include MAHN-ay (the painter), PASS-ta (the Italian noodles), Cuh-RACK-iss (the Venezualan capital), and JOCK-o-vitch (the Serbian tennis player). At least they don’t put a “t” in ballet, as they do in “fillet” (or “filet”) and “valet.”

Spencer is American, which I found out from Wikipedia, which oddly calls her a television “presenter” in the British manner. I wonder if she cleverly used the the British pronunciation of “ballet” because she was talking about British people. Ms. Spencer, if you happen to come upon this post, please enlighten us!

“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.


I’ve written before about a trend I first noticed in my students, then observed in the wider world: eschewing the common or standard spelling, pronunciation, or version of a word in favor of one that is or seems more British. Examples include amongst (instead of the traditional among);  the British spelling grey (gray) and the faux-British spelling advisor; and pronouncing often as “off-ten” and either as “eye-ther.”

I’m far less certain about the causes for the trend than that it exists. Hypercorrection would seem an obvious explanation, though it’s puzzling why this would present itself especially among the young, or at a moment when formality is otherwise on the decline. Maybe, come to think of it, it’s a reaction to the casualness that’s rampant everywhere else.

In any case, I have a new specimen for the case: the pronunciation of the word for your mother’s sister. In the United States, there are two main alternatives. One is to sound like the insect, “ant” (“ænt” in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Centuries ago, it was pronounced that way throughout the British Isles, but then much of southern England switched to “ahnt” (“ɑnt” in IPA). And that’s the second U.S. pronunciation. In the nationwide dialect survey conducted by Bert Vaux of Harvard around the turn of the 21st century, 75 percent of the respondents reported saying “ant” (shown in blue on the map below) compared with 9.6 percent for “ahnt” (red).

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 10.10.56 AM

Clearly, the “ahnt” pronunciation — along with an additional 2.5 percent who reported rhyming the word with “caught” (“ɒnt” in IPA) — is concentrated in New England. (It’s how Rosalind Russell–born in Waterbury, Connecticut–says the word in the 1958 film Auntie Mame.) In addition, it is the “typical” pronunciation among African-Americans, according to Algeo and Butcher’s The Origins and Development of the English Language.

Vaux, now at Cambridge University, has continued his investigations under the project title Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. The results for aunt would seem to confirm my anecdotal observation and hunch that a change is afoot: A mere 60 percent of respondents now report saying “ant,” and 25 percent either “ahnt” or “awnt.” Hot spots for the latter include (besides New England) Virginia and the Upper Midwest.

I conducted my own semi-scientific test and listened to the 20 most recent times Americans have said the word on National Public Radio’s air. Eleven said “ant,” including Tom Hanks, Joe Biden, Gene Wilder’s nephew, and the hosts Rachel Martin and Terry Gross (the last was overdetermined, since Gross is a Brooklyn native in her 60s whom one would invite to a “cawfee tawk”). Of the nine who said “ahnt,” five were from the traditional African-American group. But there was also an 18-year-old New Yorker whose parents were born in Ecuador, a white drug counselor from Minneapolis, the reporter Hansi Lo Wang (a native of Philadelphia and a fairly recent Swarthmore graduate), and, in the biggest surprise, Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, a 64-year-old Chicagoan.

What’s missing is a generational study, testing the hypothesis that the growth in “ahnt” has been fueled by millennials. To paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, can someone please science that up for me?

Results are in

Thanks to all who participated in the survey on pronunciation of the “-man” suffix in such words as “policeman” and “gunman.” I reported on the results yesterday on the Lingua Franca blog.

One finding I didn’t report was the difference between U.K.  and U.S. respondents. For certain words it was rather dramatic.

Here is a graph showing respondents from the U.S.:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.47.01 AMAnd this one shows U.K. respondents:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 10.55.27 AM

Generally speaking, U.K. respondents use the schwa more often than do American ones. Here are the three words with the biggest difference:

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 11.06.47 AM

My hypotheses for this relates to the general idea expressed in The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, that reduced-stress schwa-vowel “-man” tends to occur in “well-established formations.”  The three words in the chart above are nothing if not well-established–and were established in the British Isles long before there even was a United States.

Also supporting the hypothesis is results on “lineman,” which I threw into the survey without thinking about the fact that it’s a mainly American term, either as a football position or the job memorialized in Glen Campbell’s song “Wichita Lineman.” (Google Ngram Viewer shows much greater use in the U.S.) Sure enough, U.K. respondents–to whom it’s unfamiliar–significantly outnumber Americans in reporting an equal-stress  /æ/ vowel in “lineman.”

“Negotiation” report

A couple of weeks ago, I posted two polls to try to determine whether pronouncing “negotiate” as “ne-go-see-ate” is, as I suspected, a Britishism. A commenter astutely noted that I had rather muddied the waters by remarking that I can’t stand that pronunciation. At that point it was too late to change the question, so I have to live with a somewhat poll that probably underreported the “see” pronunciation.

In any case, the results indicated that it is indeed more common in the U.K., with 11 percent of the respondents reporting favoring it, than in the U.S., with 3 percent.

A number of the comments shed some light on the subject. A couple of people remarked that “ne-go-see-ate” is the common BBC pronunciation. One Englishwoman said she used it herself, as a result of having gone to drama school. An Englishman said he used both pronunciations, favoring “ne-go-see-ate” “to press a point.”

An Irish woman who blogs as “Mollymooly” very helpfully provided a census of her own behavior on a variety of such words:

Definitely -s-

Probably -s-

Either -s- or -sh-

Probably -sh-

Definitely -sh-

Now -sh- once -t-

Finally, I e-mailed John Wells, editor of The Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. He replied that he had no statistics on the matter but, on the question of whether “ne-go-see-ate” is more common in the U.K. than the U.S., he had a one-word answer: “Certainly.”

I’ll take that as a yes.


“Negotiate,” for U.K. residents

I only have two linguistic pet peeves, both of them idiosyncratic. I don’t like it when people say “a couple things” (instead of “a couple of things”) and I don’t like it when the word “negotiate” is pronounces “ne-go-see-ate.” I had never thought of the latter as a Britishism until I  recently heard an interview where an English person used it.

I thought I’d find out from NOOB readers if the word is pronounced differently on either side of the Atlantic. I only seem to put in one poll per post, so depending on your nationality, please respond to the appropriate poll.

I’d love to hear about any other pronunciations, and the news from Canada, Australia, etc., in the comments


Glo’al sto’ no’ heard in Bri’ish poli’ socie’y?

The dirty if not very surprising little secret of this blog is that the majority of its readers are U.K. residents, who are surprised or possibly amused that Americans have been picking up their lingo. And it’s to these Britons that I address a question.

I was reading an article in the New York Times by critic Alastair Macaulay about the quality of dance in Broadway musicals. At the end, he wrote:

As a Briton going to shows on Broadway, may I add what a fun surprise it is to hear, in two different productions, the British glottal stop? Lauren in “Kinky Boots” speaks of going to “I’aly”; and Mrs. Wormwood in “Matilda” says “Bu’ I’ve go’ a baby.”In Britain the glottal stop is never heard in polite society. In America, however, it’s an exotic thrill.

That rather gobsmacked me. I have written about the current popularity of the glottal stop in the U.S., and I thought it was widespread in Britain. I certainly hear it all the time from Jamie Oliver and Ricky Gervais. But perhaps they don’t belong, in Mr. Macaulay’s view, to “polite society.” In any case, I await the reactions of NOOB readers.


Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 12.52.59 PM

I recently became aware of the product featured above. The thing that struck me as odd (as I believe it would most Americans) is the unusual spelling of what we know as yogurt. I suspected it was a Britishism because of Alan Rickman. To be more precise, there’s a scene in the movie “Love, Actually” in which Rickman is trying to buy some jewelry for a woman not his wife, and the sales clerk (played by Rowan Atkinson) won’t let him just get on with it. Rickman finally says in exasperation: “Dip it in yogurt, cover it with chocolate buttons!” He pronounces yogurt with a short in the first syllable–that is, to rhyme with hog–and that’s consistent with the yoghurt spelling.

(If you want to hear Rickman say this line, check out this hilarious YouTube mashup:


According to the OED, up until the mid-twentieth century, various spellings for the word (derived from Turkish) abounded, including yoghurd, yogourt,yahourt, yaghourt, yogurd, yoghourt, yooghort, and yughard. Subsequently, according to this Google Ngram chart, yogurt (red line) has prevailed in the U.S., and has roughly tied in the U.K. with yoghurt (yellow and green lines).

Screen Shot 2013-03-23 at 1.47.36 PM

Google Ngrams only goes up till 2008, and when more recent data come in, I’m sure that as a result of companies like the Minnesota-based Mountain High, U.S. yoghurt (blue line) will be on the upswing.


Rapper Chief Keef
Rapper Chief Keef

I have remarked on the fondness of young Americans–especially African-American rappers and/or people from the New York metropolitan area–for the glottal stop. Now it appears that another of Cockney characteristic, th-fronting, is ready for its U.S. closeup.

Th-fronting is a feature of Cockney–and now, apparently, of Estuary English–in which a th sound is pronounced like an f (as in I fink instead of I think) or v (as in the way the TV show “Big Brother” is commonly referred to in U.K. red-top tabloid headlines: “Big Bruvva”). Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G is a heavy user, and it’s been prominent recently in hip U.S. references to the Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as “Keef.”

That same word actually represents the only indigenous U.S. use I’m aware of. It’s in the name of a teenage rapper from Chicago: Chief Keef. His website reports that he was born Keith Cozart but is silent on how Keith became Keef.

NOOB readers are a clever lot, and among them are probably one or two hip-hop fans. If so, I would be grateful for any enlightenment on the phenomenon of th-fronting among the rappers.