Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When linguistic variation goes too far

All right, enough is enough. Yes, Canadians say 'paesta' while Americans say 'pahsta', and 'Maezda' while Americans say 'Mahzda.' That's all perfectly fine, and all within the range of normal regional variation. But for once and for all, no matter how cool you may think he is, Mr. Audacity of Hope is, in fact, an American. Therefore, there is only one correct way to pronounce his name, and that way is not 'BARAECK OBAEMA.'


M@ said...

Just for the record, I never say "paesta", "Maezda", or "Baraeck Obaema" -- and I'm 100% Canadian. I support your campaign, though, to get them to dear god please STOP SAYING IT LIKE THAT.

Totally with you on this.

Trevor J said...

Hmm... as a non-North American, I'm a little unclear as to what I'm supposed to be hearing when I read those sounds. Any possibility of further clarification for those of us playing along at home..?

Mé said...

I'm still trying to get used to Barrack Obama over Obama Barrack.

BTW: it's "Mun-tree-ahl" not "Mahn-tree-al."

(I didn't write the first M@ comment.)

James said...

"Paesta" looks to me like it's supposed to be pronounced "pay-sta". I don't remember ever hearing that pronunciation... But then, I don't recall ever hearing "aboot" either.

Mr. Audacity of Hope is, in fact, an American. Therefore, there is only one correct way to pronounce his name

There's only one way to pronounce things in the US? The country that gave us Boston, Brooklyn, New Jersey, Mississippi, etc accents?

It'd be interesting to gather up some Americans from all the states and record them saying "Barack Obama" -- I'm sure you'd find some far more extreme versions than "Baraeck Obaema".

West End Bob said...

Thanks for attempting to correct the Obama name pronunciation. It always annoys me when I hear Canadian media mis-pronouncing it.

That said, James has a good point. Local rednecks are even more annoying with their pronunciations of LOTS of words . . . .

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Seriously? *peering* Are you seekritly part American or something?


Yeah, one of my American friends is demanding sound files because she can't even imagine the Canadian version. I have a lot of work today, but I'll see what I can do.


I didn't say there was only one correct way to pronounce "things" in the U.S., I said there was only one correct way to pronounce "Barack Obama" in the U.S. It's his name!

Oh, and nobody actually says 'aboot,' by the way--it just sounds like that to Americans.

Anonymous said...

As an American who moved to Canada a few years ago, I have to say that the most difficult part of living in this great land is overcoming the vast linguistic divide. Canadian is hard. I've already gone through 3 interpreters! These people are incomprehensible! Supposedly it's English they speak, but to my ear it's a rough patois of gibberish and English. Let's call it Gibberglish.

I was in a grocery store yesterday. A woman walked down the aisle toward me, and it was obvious that she needed to get around me. Instead of saying, "excuse me," she said, "Surrey." I replied, “Surrey?” In England?” An inscrutable bunch, they are.

And have you noticed the way they pronounce “for” as “fur?” As in, “What’s it all fur?” No fur here, buddy! And those nutty maritimers! “Let’s go take a ride in the kurr,”

Just what is a kurr, anyway?

By the way, I do hope everyone understands that I'm just joshin' around here.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Silly American! Don't you know that Surrey is in B.C.?

Carole said...

Heeeeey. Isn't there a familiar name listed in the bibliography of that there "Canadian raising" link?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Shhh, don't blow my cover!

L-girl said...

I hate that too! Thanks IP!

Q. Pheevr said...

James's comment about U.S. dialect variation suggests a point about the distinction between phonetic and lexical variation that might be worth making explicitly here.

I.P., if I understand correctly, is saying that it's incorrect to pronounce Barack Obama's name with the phoneme /æ/, as in typical Canadian pronunciations of pasta or drama, or just about anybody's pronunciation of cat or Alabama. The fact that (many) Canadians have /æ/ in drama, pasta, and some other words where Americans have /ɑ/, is a lexical fact about these words. Canadian English makes the same phonological contrast between /æ/ and /ɑ/ that occurs in General American English—both dialects use this contrast to distinguish between odd /ɑd/ and add /æd/, for example. It's just that there are a few words where these two dialects have different phonemes. In CE, the first syllable of drama has the same vowel as the penultimate syllable of Alabama, while in GAE, the first syllable of drama has the same vowel as the first syllable of omelette.

This is not at all the same thing as the phonetic differences among the accents James mentions. There's considerable variation from one dialect to another in how each vowel phoneme is realized phonetically. These differences are pretty much categorial—they affect all instances of any given phoneme, not just a few particular words.

For example, in American dialects that have the Northern Cities Shift, the phoneme /æ/ is consistently realized as something like [ɪə], and the phoneme /ɑ/ is pronounced [æ], more or less. So odd sounds like [æd], and add sounds like [ɪəd]; the two phonemes still contrast, but they don't sound the same way they do in GAE or CE.

So, if someone from (e.g.) Wisc[æ]nsin says Ob[æ]ma, that's not a mispronunciation, and I don't think I.P. would call it one; that's just how they pronounce /ɑ/. But if a Canadian says Ob[æ]ma, that is a mispronunciation; it's equivalent to a Wisc[æ]nsinite calling him Ob[ɪə]ma.

I.P.'s statement that "there is only one correct way to pronounce" Obama's name is a statement about the sequence of phonemes that constitutes a proper name; it doesn't rule out the possibility of different phonetic realizations of that sequence of phonemes in different dialects. It's a true statement at a more abstract level than the one at which I think James was interpreting it. (Taking it to an even more concrete, specific, phonetic level would produce an interpretation that I think everyone would agree is absurd, in which if it's correct to say "Barack Obama" with falling intonation at a normal speaking volume, then it's incorrect to say "Barack Obama?" with question intonation, or to shout his name, or to whisper it.)

Still, I do have one nit to pick here with I.P.: what's the crucial difference between Obama and Mazda? They are both proper names, after all.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Okay, I know you can't see me, but right now? I am glaring at you for turning my fun little post into work.

You're right about there being a contradiction in my being okay with M[ae]zda but not Bar[ae]ck Ob[ae]ma (forgive my kludge-IPA), since both are proper names. I'm similarly lenient about names for places, though. Names for human beings are just different to me, somehow--immutable even in the face of regional variation.

People from Wisconsin don't say Wisc[ae]nsin, by the way--that's a common Canadian mishearing of that variant just as 'aboot' is a common American mishearing of the raised variants of the au-diphthong. It's actually a somewhat fronted (but not raised) [a].

Q. Pheevr said...

But this is fun!

Yeah, I concede that /ɑ/ in Wisconsin is really more central [a] than front [æ], although it certainly does sound very much like my /æ/. I was stretching the phonetics just a little to make the point that not all [æ]s are equal. (I never have understood why Americans hear [əbʌwt] as "a boot," though; it sounds much more like "a boat.")

And I agree with your sense that people's names warrant a higher standard of fidelity than place names (which often differ from one language to another anyway) or brand names. In any case, it's really hard to know what the "right" thing to do with Mazda would be. (Should we say [mɑzdə] or [mæzdə], treating it as an English word? Or should the z be [ts] as in Mozart, since it's originally a German romanization? Or should we aim for [matsɯ̥da], which is, after all, a person's name, too? And if so, how close would we anglophones obliged to try to get, given that we don't generally go in for voiceless high back unrounded vowels?)

Deanna said...

IP, Q. Pheevr is actually helping your argument for those of us who don't have linguistics backgrounds. Before reading his lengthy comparisons, I was agreeing with james: "I don't say 'paesta'! I don't know anyone who says 'paesta'! What are you talking about?". But as soon as he presented the sound comparisons (drama and Alabama versus drama and omelette) it all began to make sense.

But it still doesn't sound like 'paesta' to me, anymore than about sounds like aboot.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


It's hard to represent sounds in written text without IPA--'paesta' was my attempt at doing so. But regardless of the specific letters I used to make the sound, surely you've noticed that Canadians and Americans pronounce words like 'pasta', 'drama', and 'Mazda' differently, right?

Anyway, my point isn't about that, it's about this poor guy's name. Canadians have every right to pronounce all sorts of words however is normal for them, but please, leave this poor guy's name alone! I don't put up with it when Germans pronounce the 'J' in my first name as a 'Y,' either.

Josh Gould said...

Off-topic, but, have you seen this, IP?

Québécoise ambulante said...

Well, IP, there is a prescriptivist vibe in you, after all... (in some very specific contexts, I grant you that)... =)

And, just for the record, mé, it's mon-ré-al, not Mun-tree-ahl ;o)