Friday, November 13, 2020

Pecans and Aunts

Words are pronounced differently throughout the country - just about anything with an "a" in it, for example - but very few words are sometimes pronounced differently by the same person.  Two of the most prominent, the two above, work from the same set of sounds.  People generally say ant or aunt the same way in every context, but sometimes, and individual aunts will be referred to by the other pronunciation because well, that's their name. This happens more often when two sides of a family have a different preference.  The children grow up with a preferred pronunciation for the generic, but some of both pronunciations for individuals. There is also the even more regional Aint or even Ayunt in the south, such as Andy of Mayberry's Aint Bee. Both sides of my family used the traditional Boston-area aunt-with-a-"u" version, but my mother's second husband came from North Haven and used Ant. I found it jarring when he would refer to my mother's aunt as Ant Sal, because...because that wasn't her name. Of course Aunt Sal wasn't her name either.  Her name was Selma, and Aunt was a title. And yet, when you are an aunt or an uncle it is your name to some people, and that might even start extending to friends and neighbors as well.

Pecan is even more complicated, because not only the vowel sound can vary, but also which syllable is accented.  Most people have a single pronunciation for every use of the word, puh-CAHN, or pee-CAHN, or PEE-can, or pee-CAN. Others vary it depending on whether they are talking about the pie, the tree, or the plural of them in the bag at the store. Even people who use one of the "can" variants in every other setting might shop for pecahns at the store, and so buy pecahns to make a pecan pie. The pie is particularly tricky, because for some it is one of those phrases in which none of the syllables is accented: Pee Can Pie or Pee Cahn Pie. Even those who accent one syllable or another in the phrase tend to do so in an underplayed manner. Others will change their pronunciation if there is a modifier in the front, especially "Georgia." Because that's their name, don't you know, regardless of what the nut is called in general.

The other most common word with variable pronunciation in the same mouth is "route." One grows up with a preferred pronunciation, but might visit a place for vacation a few times as a child and adopt the other for a specific road.  Rout 17 is the best root to go.


RichardJohnson said...

Born and raised in New England, of flyover parents. Aunt: my aunt is not an ant. Pecan: pu-CAHN. Either from my mother, or from living in TX. I vote for my mother, as she or her mother made the first pecan pies I ate.

I was made aware of regional differences when a childhood friend pronounced "route" differently from me: raut(your rout) instead of my rute (your root). While both our parents were from flyover country, he didn't come to New England until he was 7, whereas I had, at that point, spent all my life there. I tend to keep my old pronunciation when the route is numbered: Route 1, Route 101, etc. However, when I talk about "take that route," with no number, I often pronounce it "raut."

One difference, for which I can make no regional claims, is "roof." I grew up pronouncing it as in "put" or "woof." When at State U, I and another from my high school found out that a mutual friend, who was from 30 miles away, pronounced it "rufe." Or did the mutual friend point it out? (I also pronounce "root" as in "put." I don't know if that came from childhood or from all my math courses in college.)

Another pronunciation tale from college days at State U is that a friend said that I and 2 others from the same high school- call it Alma Mater High- spoke with an "Alma Mater accent."

RichardJohnson said...

Our old friend: NYT Dialect Quiz.

Donna B. said...

Southern "aunts" get their name depending on... who knows? I was going to comment that it made a difference if their first name began with a consonant or vowel as to whether it would be "aint" or "ant" but that didn't quite hold up. I'm Aint Donna, my sister is Ant Carol, and we have an Ant Delane and an Ant Annie and an Aint Evelyn. Aint Wilma, Ant Wanda, Aint Vea, Ant Muriel, Aint Julie, Ant Eunice, Aint Bennie, Aints Mary and Margaret. Also an Ant Juanita and an Aint Juanita. These are scattered over both sides of my family. There are no "awnts".

One thing all my ants and aints would agree on is that its' "pehCAHN". You didn't even mention that one.

Grim said...

I always say “aunt” with the “au-“ unless, as you say, I’m naming a particular Ant. But we say PUH-khan, I think.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Donne B. I think it's the same as my puh-CAHN, as I debated putting an "e" in there instead. It is quick and almost vowel-less, just the plosive "p" sound followed by CAHN. If a vowel must be assigned, it is the schwa, that black hole of vowels in the center of the mouth that can be represented by almost any other vowel. It is especially noticeable when pair with "r," and thus third, word, curd, herd, Byrd. Only the "a" escapes.

Your thought that it matters whether it is an initial consonant or initial vowel on the name of the aunt in question does not quite hold, but there does seem to be something there. There's a glimmer of a pattern there. I wonder if it has something to do with the pronunciation of the first vowel in the name, whatever it begins with, and whether it is a high vowel like "ee" or not. I suspect you are on to something, though I don't know if it's worth your time. That's the sort of sideways thinking this blog is all about.

We are moving to a world where we may not have the data (pronounced "datter" in NH, BTW) to know. Not many people have had multiple children in the last generation to give a good base for discussion, and that is only getting worse. Though they are all moving around more, so that may compensate.

Anecdote: When I am walking on the local Rail Trails and see a couple or a woman with three or more children, I am tempted to ask "Catholic, Evangelical, or Mormon?" I have not had the effrontery yet, but because I am getting old, I might risk it, thinking that any offense might be dismissed as just something from an ignorant old guy.

Donna B. said...

pah, peh, puh... p-CAHN works. I've never heard 'PEE' before 'can' or 'cahn' regardless the accented syllable, except when someone was trying to be "cute".

I have 17 aunts (6 from Mom's side, 11 from Dad's) and knew quite a few of my great-aunts. The variance in pronunciation also holds up in my generation (Aint Jan, Ant Lori, Aint Marilyn, Ant Cathy, Aint Brenda).

Families with more than two children today barring the younger being twins? Yes, not that common.

Texan99 said...

I never say anything but puh-CAHN in any context and never imagined doing so. "Route" is slipperier. I don't seem to have a strong preference built in. I hear it both ways so often that neither feels indisputably right. Maybe it's "rowte" when routing a wire around an obstacle, but "root" when choosing one to get to the store.

I wasn't brought up to say "AWWNT." If I said it I'd be joking or imitating someone's else's accent, most likely a Brit, as I've never figured out who in the U.S. talks that way. Ditto vahhhhze for vase. If I said anything but "vaice," it would be like the Monthy Python character making fun of the aviation student wanting to learn to fly an aeroplane: "No more buttered scones for me, mater, I'm off to play the GRAAHHHHND PIAAAAAHNO."

I say "gaRAZHE" for garage (certainly not GAIR-age), but I hear the harder soft-g sound a lot. I think I may have been taught to say fwah-yay instead of foy-yer, but I so rarely hear anything but foy-yer now that I'm never quite sure what will pop out when I use the word.

I hear in-SUR-ance about as often as IN-surance, even here in the South. If you let people move around too much or listen to too much TV, you can really mess up dialects.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ T99 - Awnt is universal in five of six New England states, and half of Connecticut, except among those who have moved in. It is even dominant in the African-American and Hispanic populations. It is standard in the Canadian Maritimes and in Britain. It was a tell when I heard it in college in Virginia that the speaker was from my area. I have heard that it is used dotted across the northern border all the way to Washington State, which makes sense, as those areas were settled by New Englanders. Portland Oregon's name was decided on a coin flip, the other choice being Boston. Yet awnt disappears fast going SW. Even in New Haven, as I noted, it is rare. GA-rajh is preferred in Great Britain, rare in the US.

Donna B. said...

Southerners are sometimes accused of adding a syllable to some words... mo-tay-el for motel... and gosh does my granddaughter sound cute saying that... BUT

Garage is only one syllable - groj. That's it.