Comparing Apples to Oranges: Pronunciation Variations That Can Make You Go Bananas

“Do you say day-tuh or dah-tuh?”

“What’s the right way to say ‘orange’?”

“Why did you skip the ‘i’ in ‘foliage’? Isn’t is foh-lee-ij? That’s what my dictionary says.”

Have you heard any questions or comments like that? I get them from students and my own children. Not surprisingly, my kids are bolder with their opinions and have told me at times that I’m flat out wrong with my pronunciation. I then eagerly engage them in a search for proof.

I’ve been compiling a list of words and geographical names that have more than one pronunciation in American English. Eventually this list will give birth to at least one online video. If you’d like to contribute suggestions, please do! Data, orange, and foliage are among the couple dozen words I’ve jotted down.

I’ve occasionally addressed pronunciation variations in my videos, but more often I find the opportunity to discuss these points when teaching live. I like to offer two things to help my students: some insight into the preferences of the general population and some tools to confirm acceptable variations.

Finding insight. A Google search will reveal some regional pronunciation differences within the U.S. Business Insider offers a collection of 22 maps showing how words like caramel can be pronounced a variety of ways depending where the speaker is from. This is key: students should be aware that pronunciation varies throughout the U.S. Even two speakers who adhere to standard American English most of the time may say a particular word differently, especially if they grew up in different parts of the country.

I also like to give my own observations. For example, growing up in western Pennsylvania I sometimes heard “creek” said as krick and “Monday” said as Mondy. Since leaving my hometown of Pittsburgh, I’ve learned to make my English more standard. (I even learned to say “sneakers” instead of “tennis shoes” in the company of New Englanders!)

Online tools. When I have doubts about how to say a word, I like to start with a few dictionaries and compare the pronunciations listed. One dictionary is never enough for this kind of query. I check at least three. We can expect to hear differences between American and British English, but is there consistency among American English speakers?
– Is there more than one way to pronounce the given word?
– Which variation is listed first?
– Is there agreement between dictionaries?
These are the kinds of questions I ask aloud as I model a search for answers. In an online lesson, I screen share with students to teach them this process.

Sometimes a dictionary will list pronunciation variations, but only one variation has been recorded as the model. When students want to hear a range of models, they need to go elsewhere.

YouGlish is one of my favorite online tools. I love the option of filtering for American English only and the possibility of reading the transcript. Users can quickly click through the search results and get a sense of which variation is used more or which variation is being used in what context. In the first 25 samples of “foliage,” I hear  foh-lee-ij more than foh-lij, but speakers on gardening shows seem to prefer the latter.

Forvo is another useful resource, and although words are preferred over whole sentences, contributors identify themselves by their country of origin. This allows you to narrow your search quickly and if you wish, you can easily do a rapid back-to-back comparison of two speakers. There are currently 27 uploads for “orange” and that’s enough to reveal the wide variation among American English speakers. You could challenge students to recognize models of “orange” said with one syllable vs. two clearly pronounced syllables. Can they also hear “or” vs. “ar” at the beginning?

Why all this fuss about listening to so many models? It’s about training our ears to accept a range of sounds. Variations happen, and for communication to be successful, we have to be ready to deal with someone saying a word differently from us, curbing the desire to say, “That’s wrong.” Though that was my reaction the other day when I heard a math teacher on YouTube say “differ” with stress on the second syllable! That was a teachable moment, however. My son and I briefly talked about it. In short, there are variations and there are errors. Online tools can help us distinguish between the two.

Does comparing speech models make you go bananas? Feel free to comment.

Photo credit: Fruit, Fruits, Apple, Bananas by Hans. Retrieved from the Public Domain at https://pixabay.com/en/fruit-fruits-apple-bananas-49741/.

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