Thursday, January 5, 2012

Open wide and say "aqueduct"

Listening to the news this morning, I heard an item about Gov. Andrew Cuomo's backing for a proposal to establish a casino at "the Aqueduct racetrack" in Queens. Pronounced AH-kwuh-duhkt,* with the of "father"  in the first syllable.

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 soundwith 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. 


Jonathon said...

I think I pronounce all of those with AH.

Kay L. Davies said...

Sounds like the guv'nor has opened a whole can of worms with his pronunciation, and it occurred to me to wonder how the owners of Aqueduct feel about the way he pronounces the name of their racetrack. However, another thought occurred almost instantly after the first thought—he can pronounce it any way he likes, as long as he's backing their proposal.
(By the way, I say ah-qua for the color, but ak-wah-tic for aquatic. I seldom need to say aqueduct but, when I do, I use ak.)

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

Clare said...

Isn't this the same as the trend exemplified in "pah-sta for "pasta"? Italians don't say "pah-sta."

Jan said...

Kay, it wasn't the governor who pronounced Aqueduct that way, it was the radio announcer -- just for the record!

Vireya said...

They are all AK in Australian English. I've never heard an AH for any of them here.

Ø said...

Clare, which Italians don't say "pah-sta"?

Ø said...

This Mammoth Book of Fossilized Wrongness, or whatever it's called, sounds like a treasure for anyone who both loves and hates language peevery. But only if you are very strong: otherwise there is the danger that it will leave you paralyzed, unsure of how to pronounce basic words that you never had to think about before. Really, I wonder how this guy wants me to say "faux-Latin". Or "viaduct": there's an idea. Let's all start saying VEE-a-duct and see what happens.

Richard Hershberger said...

"This Mammoth Book of Fossilized Wrongness, or whatever it's called, sounds like a treasure for anyone who both loves and hates language peevery."

Indeed it is: this is my Amazon reader review from 2000 of the first edition:

Read in the proper spirit, this is an absolutely hysterical book (in whatever sense of "hysterical" one choses). Elster's methodology is simple enough: for any given word he defers to dictionaries and pronunciation guides from the first half of the 20th century. Works from the 19th century are cited if they support his conclusion and ignored if they do not. Works from the second half of the 20th century are cited, either to support his conclusion or to decry the corruption of the language.

So far this is fairly uninteresting. The reader could simply buy an old dictionary from a used book store and get the same information. The humor comes from the justifications Elster presents. Is his favored pronunciation used by most educated people? That proves his point! Is it used by virtually no one? That proves the need for this book! If he favors an anglicized pronunciation of a borrowed word, well, we are speaking English and the foreign pronunciation is pretentious. If he favors the foreign pronunciation then only ignorant buffoons anglicize it! If a word is used in print more than in speech, and many readers phonetically (mis)pronounce it, he will chastise them for not checking in a dictionary. This is often followed by the information that the unapproved pronunciation in fact occurs in modern dictionaries. Apparently we are being chastised for not checking an *old* dictionary.

Best of all are those instances where it is his ox being gored. These are rare. Ordinarily his devotion to authority is slavish. But the few occasions are worth the search. He will go on for pages explaining how on this occasion the authorities are wrong and that in this rare case the pronunciation used by everyone (read: Elster himself) is correct. Check out his discussion of "modem" for a good example.

If you want a guide for pronunciation, buy a good dictionary. If you want a treasure trove of humorous bathroom reading, this is for you!

Bryan M. White said...

I always pronounce it with a soft "a" like in "alliteration" or "attendance" Then I pronounce the "e" with a very, very long "e" sound, like "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee" which I usually sustain until the person I'm talking to gets fed up and leaves the room.

I'm joking, of course. I think usually say it the way the Governor does, with the "AH" sound.

Don said...

But there's something about an AK-wa Velva man.

languagehat said...

Oh man. Once again I discover the language is leaving me behind in its wake. This is the first I've heard of the AH- pronunciation, and I don't like it one bit (though as a true descriptivist I will defend to the death everyone else's right to say it). But then, I still cringe when I hear "Bei-ZHING."

Picky said...

I believe that here in the UK all these aquathings are AK

John Lawler said...

Having spent my life elsewhere, I knew the spelling of the racetrack but don't remember hearing it pronounced.

Either vowel would do for me, and I would neither notice nor care whether someone else used a different one. My partner and I, although we grew up in the same small town, still disagree over basil (I say /'bæzɨl/ and you say /'bezɨl/), but we're used to people having strange pronunciations, since we come DeKalb /di'kælb/, Illinois.
Of course, DeKalb /di'kalb/ County, Georgia is the county that includes Atlanta; and across the Missouri River from Atchison, Kansas, where I went to college, there is a DeKalb /di'kæb/, Missouri /mɨzɚə/.

John Cowan said...

Clare, Empty: The Romance /a/ vowel (low central) can be assimilated into English in one of two ways, as the PALM vowel (low back) or the TRAP vowel (low-to-mid front). In American English, PALM is preferred for /a/, because the low-front pronunciation of TRAP (archaic by RP standards) sounds too different. This covers modern borrowings like pasta, and a few older words like drama. Ironically, Italians continue to use their open e instead of their a to represent English TRAP, pronouncing Andrew as Endriu rather than Andru.

I was stunned to find the OED listing aquamarine (of which aqua is a shortening) with the FACE vowel initially. Has any living person actually heard this?

John Cowan said...

I forgot to add that although the New York Racing Association, which owns Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga, is technically a private not-for-profit corporation, it is heavily subsidized by the state. Consequently, the real owners of AK-we-duct are the People of the State of New York — and we have spoken.

Ed Cormany said...

i'm baffled by the "faux Latin" criticism. what is the word aqua if not "real" Latin (i.e. a direct, unaltered borrowing)? and as far as i know, the way modern students are taught to pronounce Latin is fairly accurate (unlike the quasi-modernized, but now standard, academic pronunciation of Ancient Greek, which we have good reason to believe is very unlike how they actually spoke).

also, regarding "aquiline", it doesn't fit in the set, not just because its origin isn't Latin "aqua", but because neither of its Latin origins, "aquila" or "aquilinus", have primary stress on the initial "a". reshaping the vowel seems a bit more natural then, and i would think is less likely to raise eyebrows among Classicists (including myself, although i'm sort of a lapsed Classicist).

and, because i can't resist…i own one of Elster's books. i got it used when i was a kid, well before i knew what a linguist was. it is peevery of the finest form, and his insistence on using the word "beastly" – i.e., subhuman – to describe perfectly ordinary pronunciations, really rankles. i'm still a bit distressed that he's been doing work for Wordnik of late.

Jan said...

Ed, Richard: I agree with your general objections to Elster's style of peevery; my own special annoyance is the way he (and others) attribute motives to people whose pronunciations they dislike: "They're trying to sound fancy," etc.

However, his book is a very convenient place to look up the history of prescribed pronunciation. (He even covers the obsolete long-A "aqua" John Cowan mentions.) And in fairness, that "Beastly" is meant humorously; it began, logically enough, with the first of these books, "There Is no Zoo in Zoology" and "Is There a Cow in Moscow?"

Finally, I believe the accusation "faux-French" refers to giving a word a French(y) pronunciation when it is already established in an Anglicized form: Saying "niche" as NEESH instead of NITCH, for example. Obviously this is a difficult category to keep straight -- some words are Anglicized and some aren't, and if you learned "guillotine" in French class how will you know that it's "supposed" to be GILLOTEEN in English? But apparently making these distinctions was once a reliable shibboleth in some circles.

Gregory Lee said...

It's just another liberal versus reactionary split (like English-first). Liberals respect the traditions of other cultures, including pronunciations, and the others don't.

languagehat said...

It's just another liberal versus reactionary split (like English-first). Liberals respect the traditions of other cultures, including pronunciations, and the others don't.

As occasionally happens in these irony-drenched times, I can't tell whether this is to be taken straight or not. Surely no one could seriously advocate (for instance) pronouncing hamburger HAHM-boor-ger the way the Germans do, however liberal. (And of course the equation of political and linguistic attitudes is utter nonsense, or would be if it were serious.)

Gregory Lee said...

Languagehat wonders whether my comment about the liberal ah in "aqueduct" was serious. It was. In the "hamburger" example, I would never say the "a" as ah, because the pronunciation of words is first and foremost traditional, and I know that word. But when you get a break in tradition, due to a word being unfamiliar, people just have to make something up, and then you see attitudes about familiarity and sympathy with other cultures coming into play. The digraph pronunciation of "a", i.e., low front vowel, is rather uncommon among the languages of the world, so I think it would not usually be the liberal's first guess about the pronunciation of a new word.