I nudged my husband, a New Yorker whose artist father used to supplement the family income by manning a parimutuel window in racing season. "How do you pronounce that racetrack?" I asked. "AK-kwi-duhkt,"* he said, using the a of "pat" and "sack."
That's how I say it, too -- and I'm a Midwesterner with no connection to racetracks beyond a typical history of girlhood horse-craziness. But I don't think I would have noticed the AH pronunciation if the aqueducts in question had been Roman waterworks. Aqua, in my dialect, starts with AH, so aqueduct, when it isn't a racetrack name, could reasonably do the same.
But what do I know? According to Charles Harrington Elster, author of "The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations," all the AHs would be better as AKs. When he published the first edition of his book, in 1999, the only aqueduct pronunciation American dictionaries recognized was AK-kwi-duhkt, in his transcription, or ˈækwɪdʌkt (IPA, or so I hope as I type).
By the time of his 2005 revised edition, he reports, things were changing. Some dictionary editors had been "seduced by the popular, broad-a variant." Not only that -- Encarta and the New Oxford American were listing the upstart first! Most dictionaries, however, "continue to countenance only AK-kwi-duhkt, which has always been and still is the only cultivated pronunciation," he says.
Isn't it only natural for the AK of aqueduct to be gradually overpowered by the much commoner AHK of aqua? That's no excuse, says Elster; my AHK-wuh for aqua is just an earlier example of "uncultivated" pronunciation. It wormed its way into American dictionaries only in the 1930s, spread by people who had studied a little Latin and took to pronouncing aqua in what Elster calls a "faux-Latin" style. By this account, aqueduct is following aqua down the road to pronunciation hell.
Elster would like us to use AK (ack!) for all the initial-stress aqua words, which would certainly be neat. But just like those early-20th-century Latin students, we pick up words at different times and places, not in orderly family packs; we don't sort our pronunciations by etymology. I say aquaculture and aquatint with AH, and aquifer and aquiline with AK -- who knows why? A discussion of the question at Wordnik last summer showed I'm not alone:
I just realized that I use /æ/ for "aqueduct" but /ɑ/ for "aqua", which seems terribly inconsistent of me.
The classicist in me insists upon 'a' as in 'father' for both.
Oh, weird -- I hadn't thought about it before, but if it's a Roman aqueduct, I'll say it with the "a" in "father," and if there are no Romans in the sentence, I'll say it with the "a" in "cat."Maybe Americans will eventually give all the aqua words an initial AH sound, with New York's Aqueduct, as a proper name, holding out till the last. Or maybe not. If you feel like betting, $2 on Uncle Smokey in the seventh might be a safer play.
*Since I quote Charles Harrington Elster below, I've used his phonetic representations.