Pronouncing names

In the NYT on Saturday, a front-page piece (“Missouree? Missouruh? To Be Politic, Say Both”, by Sarah Wheaton) about the pronunciation of names, with a political connection.

The newsy part of the story:

In Missouri, a perennial swing state with a deeply divided electorate, it has long been one of the politically delicate calculations a candidate can make.

The question is not what position to take on abortion, economic stimulus or health care, though those issues have all proved thorny enough. It is how to pronounce the state name: “Missouree” or “Missouruh.”

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who is running for re-election, has endured accusations of flip-flopping for using both phrasings at a virtual one-to-one ratio, sometimes in the same sentences, a trait that prompted a former spokesman to call him “oratorically ambidextrous.”

His opponent, Dave Spence, a Republican businessman, said he is more consistent, exclusively using the Missouree pronunciation. But the campaign has also hedged: a biographical video features his wife saying “he’s going to be a great governor for the state of Missouruh.”

Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat in one of the most closely watched Senate races, typically uses Missouree in her advertisements. But when outside conservative groups sponsored attack ads in February, her campaign responded with spots that use the other pronunciation.

The dialect facts are roughly as represented here: both the final /i/ and the final /ǝ/ pronunciations are well-attested, both historically and in current usage. Folk dialectology associates the /i/ variant with standardness and formality, and with younger, urban speakers rather than older or rural speakers, and sees the /ǝ/ variant as “folksy” — old-fashioned, informal, rural — and I believe there’s considerable truth in that. (Perceptions of such associations often diverge from the facts of variation. But often, as here, they’re at least in the ballpark.)

What’s notable about Wheaton’s discussion is that it not only reports on, but appears to accept without question, the position that all variation is at root interpersonal: each person has a single (“authentic”) variant for any given variable, so that someone who uses more than one variant for some linguistic variable is behaving inconsistently and, on occasion, inauthentically; variation within an individual is attributed to “putting on” a variant, to adopt  a false personality or to pander to an audience.

This idea is monumentally mistaken: variation within an individual is everywhere, perfectly ordinary, and although this variation is connected to context in many ways, it’s rarely under conscious control (how could it be, given the enormous number of choices speakers have to make in milliseconds?).

Yes, people regularly adjust variants according to context, often by (unconscious) accommodation to the speech of those around them. And they (unconsciously) project different personas — manifested linguistically as different packages of variants in different contexts. Occasionally, they aim consciously for certain variants, or are coached to do so, but   only a tiny bit of variation can be controlled this way.

Still, political candidates are regularly pilloried for their style-shifting in different contexts: note “flip-flopping” and “oratorically ambidextrous” in the quote above, and the attitude in this continuation of Wheaton’s article:

The [Missouri] debate serves as a low-stakes case study for the age-old art of political pandering — that alternately endearing and condescending process of cultivating the “just like you” appeal that remains a central part of running for office. Other linguistic examples include presidential candidates dropping g’s before Southern audiences or changing the cadence of their speech before black audiences.

Of course, if politicians understood the nature of variation better, then they’d have less to bash their opponents with, and journalists would have less to write about.

(On the (very complex) history of the pronunciation of the name Missouri, see Don Lance’s survey here.)

One further point from Wheaton’s story, where she alludes to variation in the pronunciation of geographical names in particular (treating it as a matter of variation between people — “you say X, I say Y”):

There are states where locals cringe at mangling by outsiders or where regional accents signal deep local roots (New Yawk and Loo-si-ana) but Missouri is the only state where there is fundamental, if mostly good natured, disagreement about saying the state’s name.

Variation in the pronunciation of geographical names is in fact very common, but typically (as Wheaton notes) it’s a matter of local vs. outsider pronunciations (Oregon and Wisconsin are two well-known examples, and Cincinnati is another — phonologically, though not sociolinguistically, similar to Missouri).

Two state names where variation has pretty much settled into local vs. outsider pronunciations: Nevada and Colorado, with /a/ or /æ/ for the accented vowel (the first as outsider, the second as local). The /a/ reflects Spanish pronunciation, while the /æ/ seems to have come from the spelling, but cultural associations with spellings and the vowel qualities in question have driven the insider pronunciation to /æ/, so that /a/ is now derided by locals.

The pronunciation of A as /a/ in school Latin contributes a “fancy” association with /a/. So does the /a/ for A in a class of words in British English (dance basket laugh bath grass fast etc.); the facts are very complicated indeed, but /a/ in these words is seen by many Americans as “snooty” or “very elegant” (depending on their attitudes towards British English).

Meanwhile, /a/ for A also comes from a large collection of foreign borrowings into English, from various languages: Iran Iraq Pakistan; salami pastrami pasta; taco nachos llama plaza salsa; etc. There is variation on many of these items, and the facts of variation are different for different items. (Some have gone to invariable /æ/: patio tango.) But the overall feel is that /a/ is “foreign” while /æ/ is “English” (though both are perfectly ordinary vowels in English). These associations are especially strong for words historically derived from Spanish, in areas of the U.S. with substantial Mexican Spanish histories; I’ve had a number of Nevadans and Coloradans explain to me that /æ/ in their states’ names is “the American pronunciation”.

In the case of Missouri, though, two variants continue to co-exist, both with local values.


2 Responses to “Pronouncing names”

  1. Doug Harris Says:

    NPR’s Julie McCarthy, reporting from Pakistan, has been heard to mix the /ae/ and /a/ pronunciations for the last syllable of that nation’s name and Afghanistan’s within the same paragraph. Natives seem to agree on the /ae/.
    It’s nice to note that President Obama has been pretty consistent in pronouncing Taliban (/i/ /ae/) as do speakers in countries where that ‘gang of too many’ is extant.

  2. the ridger Says:

    Several years ago now a friend and I were driving to Tahoe from Seattle. We spent a night in Eugene and another in a small town in California whose name I can’t remember, at a B&B. When we came in the host said, “Are you the folks from Hawaii?” and I said, “No, we came from Oregon.” Another guest laughed and said “Not with that pronunciation you didn’t.”

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