Rhymes with "black" and sounds like "Alabama"

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You'd think it was the end of the world. Apparently, the Nuance Communications-powered text-to-speech system on the new Amazon Kindle mispronounces Barack Obama's name, saying something like "buh-RACK oh-BAM-uh" instead of "buh-ROCK oh-BAH-muh". Why is this little tidbit worth a piece in the business/media section of The New York Times? The answer is, it's not. It could have been an OK lead-in to a technology piece about how text-to-speech systems work, and how they can fail — often spectacularly — on unknown words, especially names. Granted, adding the (pronunciation of the) name of a political figure such as Barack Obama to the system's dictionary is a simple enough thing to do (which is how Nuance will in fact fix the problem, if it hasn't already), and it was clearly an oversight worth pointing out to the company. But then again, the version of Firefox I'm using right now (3.0.4 for the Mac) has been underlining both of the President's names in what I have been typing thus far, incorrectly guessing that I'm misspelling something, and I'll bet you won't see some NYT reporter wasting their time on such a triviality.

What is it about names with 'a', anyway? Barbara Partee noted some time ago the President's pronunciations of Pakistan (PAH-kee-stahn) and Afghanistan (uhf-GAN-iss-tan), a distinction I noted several years ago with respect to Lakshmi Singh of NPR. There are lots of things going on here, many noted in those posts and the associated comments. The problem for a text-to-speech system is that the "ah" sound in Barack and the "a" sound in rack are both often simply spelled with the letter 'a', with little else to indicate the distinction between the two vowel sounds. (Note how I shift the syllable divisions in my pseudo-phonetic transcriptions above to accentuate the distinction; "ah" can end a syllable, but "a" needs to be followed by a consonant.) And although the distinction between the two sounds is phonemic in English (distinguishing rock from rack in American English, for example — and note the clear spelling distinction there), it's not like there are loads of polysyllabic words that are distinguished only by "ah" vs. "a". (I could produce some numbers, but I'm not gonna bother — I'll just make the claim and see what happens.) So if a word's pronunciation is unknown, and it's spelled with 'a', there's a whole lotta guesswork that a text-to-speech system needs to do, and it's bound to make mistakes.

And besides, names are just different. Some insist on particular pronunciations of their names, and others play it a little more loose. My own (admittedly completely anecdotal) experience is that people who have spent significant amounts of time living in different countries where different languages are spoken, like the President and like me, tend to not insist. (I doubt he cares much that several correspondents for the BBC pronounce his first name such that it sounds like "barrack".) The evolution of the pronunciation of my own last name is a good example. Until I was 12 or so, I pronounced it "BAH-kuh-vick", which is how my brother still pronounces it. (My parents are Spanish speakers and have the Spanish "a" in that first syllable, which is somewhere between the two English vowels we're talking about.) Then we traveled to the former Yugoslavia to meet some of my father's extended family there, and I learned about the accent on the final 'c' (ć), which I use myself when the word processing technology easily allows (but I don't insist on it). The sound is something like the English "ch", so I started following my father's model, saying "BAH-kuh-vich" most of the time but occasionally using "BAH-kuh-vick" (e.g., if I need to clarify how the name is spelled to someone who needs to write my name down or look my name up).

When I went to grad school, several people (beginning with my advisor, I believe) started publically pronouncing my name as "BACK-uh-vich" — that is, with the "rack" vowel instead of the "rock" vowel I had used up to that point. I noticed this, of course, but it didn't strike me as incorrect or anything like that; in fact, I liked how it sounded and have been using that pronunciation myself ever since. (I think it started more unconsciously than I'm recounting it now, but whatever.)

More examples like this one can surely be found. I'm now recalling that my former UCSD colleague Masha Polinsky, who pronounces her first name "MAH-shuh" (in English), was regularly called "MASH-uh" by a member of the campus administration (who shall remain nameless). I always figured that this was an effort to distinguish Masha from another person on campus named Marsha; I don't think the administrator in question speaks an r-less dialect such that "Marsha" is "MAH-shuh", but 'r' before 'sh' is not terribly distinguishable from 'sh' alone, at least after the "ah" sound (hence the "warsh"/"Warshington" phenomenon, pretty much limited to these words and any derivatives). But it could also just be the ambiguity of 'a'.

A final note in a more selfpromoting vein. (For those keeping track of the categories at home, here's where the Awesomeness comes in.) On Sunday night, 10:42pm PDT, my wife Karen Shelby gave birth to our baby girl Katya Aurelia Baković Shelby, pictured on the right. As my colleague Sharon Rose pointed out — jokingly, and in reference to our student Cindy Kilpatrick's dissertation research — we chose a first name that is technically unpronounceable ("phonotactically illegal" in the lingo) as an English word: the 'ty' sequence is a palatalized voiceless coronal stop [t], kind of like a "ch" sound but not quite. Even an approximate pronunciation of a [t] followed by the palatal glide [j] is not found in English (well, except for British English, but then only before [u]; tune is homophonous with toon in American English, but sounds something like "tyoon" in British English). But Katya's name also has an 'a' — two, in fact, but the second, unstressed one will just be schwa ("uh") in English anyway — so I expect there to be some people in her life who will say "KAT-yuh" instead of "KAH-tyuh". I won't care much, and I hope she won't, either — even when she's President.


  1. Sili said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 7:02 am

    Congratulations! (You damn breeder.)

    I don't have a phonetic ear, but to me Opera's speech synthesiser sounds like it's saying [ˈbɛəɹæk əˈbɑːmə].

  2. Lukas said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 7:12 am

    Maybe people will just end up calling her Katie or Kat or some other thing, close enough but within the rules of phonotactics. Doesn't matter really, what a sweet little kid! Congratulations on that.

  3. Sarah said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:19 am

    She is precious! Congratulations.

    I don't know how I feel about "KAT-yuh," though. To me the origin of the name Katya is so clear I would never dream of pronouncing it with [æ] in the first syllable. Maybe that's just because I've taken Russian, but I think even my friends who have never seen a word of any Slavic language would say KAHT-yuh.

  4. Sarah said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    Sorry, I meant KAH-tyuh.

  5. Faith said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    She certainly is cute. Hope there's on-site childcare at Language Log Plaza.

  6. Dan T. said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:05 am

    A former co-worker of mine named Tanya insisted on the pronunciation "TAN-yuh"; I never quite got it straight whether the "a" was supposed to be like in "man" or like in "cat", but at any rate she didn't want it pronounced like "Tonya", although that's the prefered pronunciation of many other Tanyas.

    A current co-worker is named Kisha, and pronounces the "i" like in "fish", although many other Kishas (including one on a team that just got eliminated from the reality show The Amazing Race) pronounce it "Keesha". I used to know somebody with a name pronounced "Keesha", but she spelled it "Kecia".

    There can be enormous variation in spelling and pronunciation of personal names, and in how the one maps to the other.

  7. mollymooly said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    "I could produce some numbers, but I'm not gonna bother — I'll just make the claim and see what happens."

    "Minimal pairs for English RP" by John Higgins lists these ah-a pairs most of which are only relevant in nonrhotic accents. The ones that aren't are
    ante auntie *
    ants aunts *
    Basil Basel *
    Bass baas *
    caff calf *
    cam calm *
    can Calne *
    cans khans *
    cant can't *
    glacier glassier *
    have halve *
    lack lakh *
    massed mast *
    Pam palm *
    Sam psalm *
    tarry tarry ** [tarry "dawdle" vs tarry "greasy"]

    although since American English uses "ah" in many more loanwords than British English [cf. the aforementioned BBC people], there may be others.

  8. Dan T. said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    Interesting… some of those pairs I pronounce the same, some differently, and a few have words not in my vocabulary so I'm not sure how to pronounce them.

  9. comwave said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 10:14 am


    Katya is the youngest of the babies whose names were on LL, isn't she?
    Congratulations, once again!

    And welcome, Katya!

  10. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Dan T. at 10:05 am: The existence of certain splits and mergers in some dialects and not in others could make for interesting conversations about the pronunciation of personal names. I can imagine a hypothetical dialogue:

    Tanya: Hi, my name's "Tanya", not "Tonya".

    Dan: Is that with the vowel of "man", or the vowel of "cat"?

    Tanya: What do you mean? "Man" and "cat" have the same vowel.

    Dan: Not to me they don't.

    Tanya: Well, geez, then I guess I'm not sure which of those two vowels you should use. I never thought about it before.

  11. Ellen said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    Some of those minimal pairs are pronounced the same for some of us. And some aren't minimal pairs for some of us because we pronounce the l's (palm, calm, psalm; also not the ah vowel, but instead the aw vowel, which I think is the one that looks like a backwards C in IPA). Actually, the only one on the list where I know both words and it's a minmal pair is the last one, but neither has the æ vowel.

  12. John Lawler said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:23 am

    News from the "warsh"/"Warshington" front:

    As a native speaker of this dialect (DeKalb county IL), I'd like to point out that I also make a strong distinction between /a/ and /ɔ/; indeed, I have both in my name: /ʤan/ and /'lɔlər/. And the vowel that occurs in my speech in both "warsh" and "Warshington" is in fact /ɔ/, though /a/ does occur in the only other prerhotified /ʃ/ word in my dialect: the interjection "Garsh!".

    That opens a whole nother kettle of fiche — frinstance, feminine names Tanya, Tonya, and Tawnee use three different stressed vowels (respectively, /a, o, ɔ/) in my usual pronunciations, though of course it is only polite to accede to anybody's favorite pronunciation of their name — it's theirs, after all.

  13. Max said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    What distinction do people make between "man" and "cat" if they make one? I've always thought my dialect (South African) made most vowel distinctions… of course, most people probably think that (I notice when Mary pronounces her name like "merry", but she doesn't notice that I make a distinction).

  14. dr pepper said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Hmm. I don't distinguish between the a in man vs the one in cat, and i'm not sure i'd notice if someone else did.

    On the other hand i do distinguish between the short o and au, even though i don't always produce it. To me the usual pronunciation of Tanya us not tonya but taunya.

    As for your baby, i'd probably say kat-chu: short a, short u, with the consonant in the second syllable barely touched. Which reminds me of how americans tend to say cat-chup as a compromise betweem catsup and ketchup.

  15. Flooey said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 11:47 am

    On the name front, Andy Ihnatko (internationally-beloved technology writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, among other things) was apparently contacted by Apple before the release of Mac OS 10.5 and asked how to pronounce his name, and the voices in that release do pronounce his name as he specified. In his comments on that, he mentioned that he actually pronounces his name differently than the traditional way it's pronounced, which means that they chose to pronounce it correctly for a particular famous Ihnatko rather than pronouncing it correctly for the majority of Ihnatkos out there. A real dilemma for text-to-speech creators, as well as interesting to think about how much context it can take just to pronounce a word correctly.

  16. david said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    I've always called him 'Berack Obamma' and no-one has ever corrected me. As a Brit, I feel very 'fake' pronouncing it in what for me amounts to an american accent. Is it very important to get this right?

  17. dw said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

    The biggest problem with "Barack", for me at least, is the orthography. I can't think of any other word in English (even including proper names) where "ack" is realized /ɑk/. Compare Ehud BARAK, the former Prime Minister of Israel, whose name was much more universally pronounced /bəˈrɑk/.

  18. Devon Strolovitch said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    I'll never stop wondering how a German colleague in grad school named Irene ("ee-RAY-nuh," with the appropriate /r/) could be unfailingly called "eye-REEN" by her linguist advisors…

    My first name, "Devon," seems to be uncommon enough that it often gets heard as "Kevin" or "David", both phonetically-similar more prevalent alternatives. This was especially true while I was living in France. When introducing myself by pronouncing my name "au naturel" (DEH-vin), it seems the unstressed final syllable just went off into the ether — French doesn't have much in the way of penultimate stress, so French speakers seemed not to "hear" the whole name and did their best to come up with a more familiar alternative. That left me with a few choices as to how to help them "see" it — in other words, pronounce it such a way that they could relate it to a spelling while still retaining enough "phonetic identity" to make it fell like "my" name. The best option seemed to be something like "Deveune" — the "eu" getting as close to an English schwa as I could hope. Seems Bill Clinton must've had more or less the same problem, though I usually heard his name pronounced as though it were "Clintonne" rather than "Clinteune". Either way, it was interesting enough that I neve heard the "spelling pronunciation," i.e. with a final nasalized vowel (as option I never contemplated for my own name either).

    Who'd've thunk that French spelling, of all things, could help clarify a pronunciation…

  19. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Um, Eric, you're quite behind on your Firefox updates. I think it's time you updated to 3.0.10, for your own safety.

  20. Greg Morrow said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 2:40 pm

    Mollymooly's list of RP minimal pairs is heavily contaminated by the path/Bath split. A fair number of them are the same (/æ/) to me (American border south native). In addition, all of the l-preceding examples are /ɔ/ instead of /a/.

    Two countries, divided by a single language.

  21. scratchdaddy said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

    re: Max and Dr Pepper on distinguishing vowel sounds

    I don't distinguish "man" and "cat" either, but I do distinguish between "there", "they're", and "their", even though I don't think anyone else I Know does. For me the first one rhymes with "care", the second with "flayer" and the third with "heir". I know some people pronounce "heir" like "air", but for me it's closer to the first syllable in "error".

  22. Dan T. said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    To me, "there", "they're", and "their" are identical, but "Mary", "merry", and "marry" are all different.

  23. mollymooly said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    Mollymooly's list of RP minimal pairs is heavily contaminated by the path/Bath split.

    Do you mean the trap/bath split? "path" rhymes with "bath" for nearly everybody. Others at Wikipedia: Phonological history of English short A

  24. dw said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    What distinction do people make between "man" and "cat" if they make one?

    My guess would be "man" = [mẽən] ("a bit like the vowels of "idea" nasalized"), while "cat" = [kæt] (probably like your pronunciation of "cat"). I don't think this split is phonemic, except for New York and the mid-Atlantic states.

  25. Nathan said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 5:21 pm

    My (Utah) speech probably lacks many vowel distinctions made by other accents; I have no /ɔ/, for example. I have a two-way distinction in these low vowels: just /æ/ in the front versus whatever the back one is. So in a few minutes of thought I came up with a number of minimal pairs, and I'm sure the list could keep going for a while:

    back, balk
    bag, bog
    bat, bought
    flag, flog
    flack, flock
    hag, hog
    hack, hock
    lack, lock
    lag, log
    rack, rock
    sack, sock
    sag, sog
    tack, talk
    whack, walk

    And of course, both of the stressed syllables in Barack Obama are back vowels for me.

  26. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    My real first name has the vowel from "sit", but people sometimes incorrectly pronounce it with the vowel from "seat". If somebody makes this mistake, and if they (like me) are a native speaker of North American English, then I will correct them. However, if I have reason to believe that they don't distinguish between "sit" and "seat" (as is the case with e.g. many people whose first language is Spanish or Italian) then I won't correct them.

    It makes sense to concede to individuals' preferences when pronouncing their own names, but I think we have to draw the line at requiring people to learn a distinction not made in their own language in order to pronounce one person's name in the way that they prefer.

    The following has never happened to me, but it hypothetically could. Being from Western Canada, I pronounce "cot" and "caught" the same. Suppose I met somebody with the last name "Stock" who doesn't have the cot-caught merger, and suppose that when I say their last name, it sounds more like "Stalk" to them. My intuition is that they don't really "get" to "correct" me. They might say, "No, with the vowel from 'hot' or 'clock'", to which I could reply, "But I *am* using my hot/clock vowel."

  27. D.O. said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 7:11 pm

    A famous Russian story (sorry, don't have a pointer) tells that it is not possible to write [ivan'ov] (sorry again, I'm not good with IPA, 'a' here is schwa) for an English speaker to pronounce it correctly. The story is set in London, 1st half of XX century, I believe.

  28. John Cowan said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    There are two ways in which historic /æ/ (not counting /æ/ > /ɑ/ in BATH=TRAP varieties) has broken up into two pronunciations. In parts of North America, there's a contrast of tenseness, whereas in parts of England and Australia, there's a contrast of length. In some varieties, the split is conditioned; in others it is not, and constitutes a new vowel phoneme.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

    I wonder if there is any difference, except for the voicing of the initial consonant, between Eric's desired pronunciation of "Katya" and the usual North American pronunciation of "got ya," usually respelled as gotcha.

    It was also interesting to see that Eric and Karen chose what looks like the Spanish double surname convention for their daughter, though (without the hyphenation that most Hispanics would use in the US) her name looks like three given names and the surname Shelby.

  30. Eyebrows McGee said,

    May 9, 2009 @ 9:46 pm

    @david: "Is it very important to get this right?"

    No, although I do find some of the foreign pronunciations charming. It's also worth noting that Obama lived in Chicago a long time, the land of a thousand unpronounceable surnames, so I can't imagine HE'D get worked up over it. Chicago names are such a linguistic mishmash that I grew up assuming it was normal to have to *always* pronounce your name for someone since consonants and vowels have all kinds of values in the various common Chicago ethnic groups.

    (Actually, the only one that made me giggle outright was a BBC correspondent trying really hard to say "Chicago" like a native during Obama's acceptance speech, and not really getting very close.)

    On the main point, I knew a "Tara" (Tare-uh) whose name in some of our colleagues' accents sounded like "Terror."

  31. John Atkinson said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    @dw: "The biggest problem with "Barack", for me at least, is the orthography. I can't think of any other word in English (even including proper names) where "ack" is realized /ɑk/."

    Yes, I wonder where that came from. In his ancestral language, Luo, one would expect the spelling (pronounced with stress on the first syllable, I believe; tone marks omitted). The Swahili equivalent, both the ordinary noun and the personal name, is , pronounced [ba'raka].

    His father was also Barack Hussein Obama. So presumably the unusual spelling dates back to _his_ parents.

  32. Aaron Davies said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 7:43 am

    @eyebrows: a long-standing "bushism" joke was that his pronunciation of "terror" (as in "war on") sounded like most people's "Tara", leading some to ask what Gone With the Wind had to do with anything.

    re: firefox: its dictionary is horrible. i'm not sure if it's a limited vocabulary, bad stemming rules, or some combination of the two, but i'm constantly running across fairly elementary technical terminology (from computer science, etc.) that it's never heard of.

  33. kip said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    I don't think "ty" would be unpronounceable for many American English speakers. As someone mentioned, "Katya" might rhyme with "gotcha" for most Americans, but if they pronounced it slowly I'm sure most would produce the "ty" sound with no problem.

    Now, if her name started with "ng", *that* would be unpronounceable for most English speakers.

  34. David Ivory said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

    I was shaking my head not understanding how you could use bah-ROCK as a 'pseudo-phonetic transcription' for Barack… that's just not the way to say it…

    … and then I realised that if I said ROCK with an American accent it worked fine!

    Then I was shaking with laughter!


    New Zealand expat in Hong Kong – which about explains my confusion!

  35. Xanthir, FCD said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    re: firefox: its dictionary is horrible. i'm not sure if it's a limited vocabulary, bad stemming rules, or some combination of the two, but i'm constantly running across fairly elementary technical terminology (from computer science, etc.) that it's never heard of.

    FF's spellchecker doesn't have stemming rules, or any other sort of reasonably advanced linguistic tools. It's just a big list of words that it knows. If you teach it a new word, you'll also have to teach it all the variants (particularly troublesome with new verbs).

    It doesn't even compensate for capitalization. Every word is in the dictionary twice, once in lowercase and once with initial caps.

    I don't think "ty" would be unpronounceable for many American English speakers. As someone mentioned, "Katya" might rhyme with "gotcha" for most Americans, but if they pronounced it slowly I'm sure most would produce the "ty" sound with no problem.

    If I were to pronounce it by myself, I'd end up with "Kaht-ya". If a proper russian speaker had pronounced it near me, though, I'd probably end up pronouncing it like "gotcha" as soon as I stopped paying enough attention to get sloppy. I might remember to slip the 'y' in there, but I might not.

    FWIW, I found most of the talk about distinctions in sounds in this thread particular amusing. As far as I could tell, every single one of them sounded identical in my dialect. Merry/Mary/marry, there/their/they're, heir/air/error, and all of the pairs mollymooly listed except the last one. For reference, I'm a native Houstonian.

  36. Max said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

    @dw: ah, that makes sense. I never considered that one of them might have two vowels.

    @scratchdaddy: for me "there" and "their" are the same (as are "heir" and "air"), but "they're" is different (the vowel in "they're" is almost the diphthong in "they" — it's slightly different but I'm struggling to figure out how)

  37. Ken Brown said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    Max said: "What distinction do people make between "man" and "cat" if they make one?"

    If you imagine the accent Tom Hanks used in "Forrest Gump" (which I suspect was meant as near parody) then "cat" might be said the way most English speakers say "cat" but "man" would be pretty much like the first part of "mayonnaise". I have no idea if many or any people speak like that in real life.

    I'm assuming the opening post is using "AH" for the broad A /ɑː/ almost all English speakers use in "father" and "A" for the vowel in "cat"?

    This non-rhotic broad-a Englishman genuinely doesn't know what is meant by the difference between "KAHT-yuh" and "KAH-tyuh." How does writing the "t" as the end of one syllable or the begining of another change the way it is pronounced? Or is "ty" meant to represent the tʃ sound in "church"?

    The "Pakistan" mispronounciation is I suspect an attempt to make the word sound exotic. For BBC journalists from the south of England at any rate. The broad A /ɑː/ that we use in bath/dance and so on is a perfectly natural sound for us to use in a word like that and is I think not far from the way many Pakistanis say it. But Southern English people often use the short A /æ/ of cat or trap when saying "Pakistan" – almost an affectation put on to make the word sound strange and exotic.

    I noticed the same with the name Kabul. Once upon a time TV and radio journalists in Britain said it in a way that sounded very un-English, with the stress on the second syllable (perhaps kæ'buːl in IPA) A few months after the invasion they had domesticated it to something that sounded like the name of an English town that if it existed might be spelled "Corble" (perhaps 'kɔ:bʌɫ)

  38. Dan T. said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    OK, some more pairs of words to see if you pronounce them the same or differently:

    Route / root
    Clique / click
    Buoy / boy

  39. Mark F. said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

    Ken Brown — Your reference to the first syllable of mayonnaise is right on. As a child in the southeastern U.S. before I learned to read, I thought of 'mayonnaise' as a two-syllable word, analyzed as man-aze.

  40. Dan T. said,

    May 10, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

    I remember a Reader's Digest humor article a long time ago that had the author mis-hearing "No man is an island" as "No mayonnaise in Ireland".

  41. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 7:50 am

    In the UK, posher people pronounce Tanya "Tah-nyuh".

  42. Duncan said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 9:39 am

    Woah there! Who you callin' 'British English'?

    "Even an approximate pronunciation of a [t] followed by the palatal glide [j] is not found in English (well, except for British English, but then only before [u]; tune is homophonous with toon in American English, but sounds something like "tyoon" in British English)"

    While that pronunciation is considered to be correct (and is found in the South of England) most dialects (or the dialects of the South of Scotland, the North of England at any rate and most urban colloquial dialects I can call to mind) pronounce 'tune' with a 'ch' sound very much like the sound in Katya; 'choon' (almost 'chin' in Glasgow) as opposed to 'tyoon'.

    Re RP: "cant can't *" – Which is a real giveaway that someone is speaking RP, because even in the home counties these are ordinarily pronounced the same. 'Can't' with a long 'a' sounds distinctly 'posh' to ordinary English speakers in Britain.

  43. Terry Collmann said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 12:45 pm

    "tune is homophonous with toon in American English, but sounds something like "tyoon" in British English

    I'd have said in Southern England English it's more like "tchewn".

    Duncan – "'Can't' with a long 'a' sounds distinctly 'posh' to ordinary English speakers in Britain.'

    The really long "cahn't" a la Princess Anne sounds posh, but I certainly pronounce "can't" with a longer vowel than "cant", and I'm certainly not posh …

  44. fiona hanington said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 4:52 pm

    @Dan T. Who are you asking? I'll chime in from British Columbia:
    Route / root – same
    Clique / click – different (the first is sort of like "cleek")
    Buoy / boy – different (the first is sort of like "boo-ee")

  45. Andrew said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 5:37 pm

    From the UK:
    Route/root – same (normally, though I know the Army has route marches, pronounced rout)
    Clique/click – different (cleek, as above)
    Buoy/boy – same.

  46. Dan T. said,

    May 11, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    Perhaps there's a dialect where buoys and gulls are the same as boys and girls?

  47. Ginger Yellow said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 5:51 am

    UK, London, moderately posh: same as Andrew, except "buoy" rhymes with "gooey". Probably inherited from my American parents.

  48. dw said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 9:38 am

    Getting back to the main subject of this post, there is at least one real person who does rhyme "Obama" with "Alabama". John Cassidy, a writer for the New Yorker, has what sounds to me like a Northern English (maybe Yorkshire) accent. He pronounces "Obama" as /obamə/, rhyming in his dialect with "hammer". You can hear him say the word here at about 4:15 (about 2/5 of the way through) : http://downloads.newyorker.com/mp3/campaign/090109_transition.mp3

    This surprises me, because, according to my faithful copy of Wells, a Yorkshire accent should have a lengthened /a:/ in words like "father", but Cassidy is clearly avoiding using that vowel. Does anyone know how "Obama" is generally pronounced in the North of England?

  49. Ken Brown said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 1:12 pm

    Duncan said: "Re RP: "cant can't *" – Which is a real giveaway that someone is speaking RP, because even in the home counties these are ordinarily pronounced the same. 'Can't' with a long 'a' sounds distinctly 'posh' to ordinary English speakers in Britain."

    That is simply untrue. "Cant" and "can't" are different all over the south, or at least the south-east of England, regardless of social class. To most of the Millwall supporters in our local pub "can't" is a homophone of the first syllable of "carnival". Same's true in Brighton where I was brought up. For just about everybody the word has more-or-less the vowel of "father" or "cart"

    "Cant" is hardly a word in normal use, (apart perhaps from that rather strange minority who know the words to the Internationale!), but it would I think always be said with the vowel in (tin) "can" or "cat" .

    "Can't" and its opposite "can" are distinguished by the vowel. "Can" has the short-A /æ/ of cat or trap, or else a schwa in some positions. "Can't" is always broad-A /ɑː/. That's how we tell them apart. In ordinary speech the "t" is absent, or becomes a glottal stop. If somweone used the short vowel in "can't" they could easily be misheard..

  50. nascardaughter said,

    May 12, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    Beautiful name!

  51. Sparadokos said,

    May 13, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    My wife, who is Russian, is named Katya. We have heard a large number of pronunciatons: Kuh-TEE-yah, Kuh-TYE-yuh, KAHSH-uh, KAHCH-uh.

    For our first child, on our "birth plan", I wrote that her name rhymes with "got ya", so that she wouldn't have to endure mispronunciations of her name while enduring childbirth. That worked pretty well.

    By the way, beautiful name, and beautiful daughter you have. Congratulations!

  52. Constance said,

    May 26, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Beautiful name. I love how your wife's name is prominently with yours.

  53. Kati said,

    May 29, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    Congratulations! I applaud the bravery in picking your daughter's name. We copped out and went for one that can be pronounced relatively easily in at least two of the three languages my daughter's having to master. The choice was very limited indeed. I dread to think what will happen if we decide to go for a brother/sister!

  54. Portia said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 1:13 am

    As a fellow Utahn of Nathan, I have the exact same mergers he does. It's certainly interesting to hear your hometown airport pronounced as "sɔlt" Lake City, which sounds so foreign to our ears!

    I, too, do not understand the difference in transcription between syllabic-final and -initial "t" in the author's daughter's name. Of course, I would pronounce it in a way that I have not yet seen proposed: /kaʔja/ or /kaʔjə/, identical to how I would pronounce "caught ya!" I'm sure you can see parallels with the Utah pronunciation of Layton, Brighton, etc.

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