6 Words With Multiple Correct Pronunciations

Monday, March 43 min read

“You say toe-MAY-toe; I say toe-MAH-toe.” This idiom refers to the idea that while two people may have slightly different ways of expressing something, they both may be correct. But in a more literal sense, there are two correct ways of pronouncing the word “tomato.” When there are multiple correct pronunciations for a word (and we’re not talking about homonyms, which are words that are spelled the same way but have different meanings and pronunciations), it can be a result of different accents, how the word evolved in different geographical locations, or another linguistic quirk. How do you say the following terms? Don't worry — there are multiple correct answers on this pop quiz.


Common pronunciations: “COO-pon” or “CYOO-pon”

Are you using a “COO-pon” or “CYOO-pon” at the store? According to a 2003 Harvard Dialect Survey, over 66% of Americans use a “COO-pon,” while around 31% use a “CYOO-pon.” The latter pronunciation has a first syllable that sounds like “queue.” Both pronunciations are used around the country with no significant division based on geography. The older pronunciation of “coupon” is “COO-pon,” which also comes from the French word coupon of the same meaning, but that doesn’t make the other pronunciation any less correct. Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists both options for pronunciation.


Common pronunciations: “PEE-can” or “puh-KAHN”

Whether eaten raw or roasted, candied or baked into a pie, pecans are among the most popular nuts in the country. They are the fruit of the hickory tree, which is native to the American South. “Pecan” was derived from the Algonquian word pakani, meaning “a nut too hard to crack by hand.” According to a survey by the National Pecan Shellers Association, the pronunciation has clearly marked borders. In the Northeast, 70% of people say “PEE-can”; in the South, 55% say “puh-KAHN.” The rest of the country is split down the middle, or uses one of several hybrid pronunciations.

The Harvard survey lists six options for pronunciation: “PEE-can” (17.03%), “pee-CAN” (9.02%), “PEE-kahn” (13.19%), “pee-KAHN” (28.60%), “pick-ANN” (1.48%), and “pick-AHN” (20.92%). And over 6% of respondents said they pronounce “pecan” differently depending on whether it’s used alone or not, such as in “pecan pie.” According to the experts, all pronunciations are correct.


Common pronunciations: “DAY-tuh” or “DAH-tuh”

“Data” was adopted into English from Latin as the plural form of “datum.” Today, it is treated as a mass noun, which takes a singular verb (e.g., “The data was collected” rather than “The data were collected”). Given that “data” was taken from Latin, some experts point to Latin rules for pronunciation: If the stressed syllable ends with a vowel, it takes a long English sound, so it would be “DAY-tuh.” However, either pronunciation is accepted; again, Merriam-Webster Dictionary includes both pronunciations.


Common pronunciations: “CAR-mel” or “CARE-a-mel”

“Caramel” was adopted into English from French in the 18th century. While most will agree that it’s a delicious dessert topping, that’s where the consensus ends. The heated debate over whether “caramel” has two or three syllables wages across the country, with no clear dividing lines. According to the Harvard study, 38% of respondents use two syllables, “CAR-mel,” while just over 37% use three, “CARE-a-mel.” Northerners tend to use two syllables, while Southerners usually use three. A look into the etymology of “caramel” reveals that the pronunciation “CARE-a-mel” is older. The French pronounce it “care-a-MELLE,” which is likely the origin of the pronunciation. Similarly, in the U.K., it is pronounced “CARE-a-mel,” in the same way nearly 40% of Americans say it.


Common pronunciations: “ant or “ahnt”

This word for the sister of your mother or father comes from the Old French word ante, which has the same meaning as in English. The most popular pronunciation of “aunt” is the same as for the insect ant. According to Harvard, around 75% of U.S. residents say “ant,” while less than 10% say “ahnt” with a long “ah” sound (which is how it sounds in British English). The rest of the respondents use less common vowel sounds — 0.58% of respondents (mainly in Louisiana) pronounce it as “aint.” “Ant” is used throughout the U.S., but “ahnt” is primarily used in New England cities.


Common pronunciations: KAA-lih-flau-ur or KAA-lee-flau-ur

In English, this vegetable was initially called “cole florye” from the Italian cavoli fiori, meaning “flowered cabbage.” The discourse over its pronunciation lies within the second syllable — “lih” or “lee.” According to 63% of survey respondents, the second syllable is “lih,” which internally rhymes with “sit.” Still, over 31% of respondents believe the best pronunciation is “lee,” which rhymes with “see.” There does not seem to be any correlation with geographical location in the survey; it appears that it comes down to personal preference.

Featured image credit: millann/ iStock

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