LINGUIST List 6.526

Sat 08 Apr 1995

Sum: American pronunciation

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Lars Anders Kulbrandstad, 0100

Message 1: 0100

Date: Thu, 6 Apr 1995 12:28:36 +0100
From: Lars Anders Kulbrandstad <>
Subject: 0100

Content-Length: 5613

Dear Linguists,

A couple of weeks ago, on behalf of a colleague, I posted a query about
some aspects of the pronunciation of American English. Here is his own
summary of the responses receiced so far:

Thanks to the 17 informative, often amusing responses.

Names: (in order of appearance):

Nancy Frishberg (
George Aaron Broadwell (
Sean M. Burke (
Peter Patrikis (
John David Stone(
James Kirchner (
Dan Alford (
Martha Guynes Morgan (
Lynn Santelmann (
Barbara Gould (
Jakob Dempsey ((
Mary Ellen Ryder (
Jack T.Wiedrick (WIED6480VARNEY.IDBSU.EDU)
Inge-Marie Eigsti (
Lee Hartman (GA5123SIUCVMB.SIU.EDU)
Alida C. Field (

Informants. Varied from professional linguists to interested layfolk.. A
few stated or gave clues as to their age, varying from early 20=EDs to about
60. Most (possibly all) seem to be native speakers of American English,
hailing from states ranging from Massachusetts and NY in the east to
California and Washington in west, and from the northern mid-west to Texas.
Most seem to have moved around quite a bit in the USA and thus feel able to
give a fair picture of pronunciation patterns that prevail throughout much
of the country.

Question 1. Am. pronunciation of _leisure_: /i/ ( as in _seizure_) or /e/
(as in _pleasure_)

JP Kirchner of Detroit informs me that Webster's 7th New College
Dictionary (1967) lists an /ej/ form (rhyming with _erasure_) as well as
the /i/ and /e/ forms, without indicating preferences. However the newest
American Heritage dictionary lists only /i/, which seems to agree with your

There was 100% agreement among you that /i/ was most common, and
overwhelmingly so. Sean Burke in California had never heard an American
say /e/, but if he did hear it, he would associate it with some speech
community such as New England or Canada. Barbara Gould, brought up in New
England, says that /e/ is sometimes heard in the Boston area in normal
speech. Almost all of you agree that they asssociate it with _mock
super-formal speech_, _social pretentiousness_, _affectation_ etc. It is
_stilted_, _stuffy_, _pompous_,_formal_ and _archaic_, reflecting an
_earlier, Eastern, upper-class pronunciation_ of the type only heard in old
films. It _just doesn't sound American_. It _sounds foreign_, more
specifically British (or Canadian). Some of you point out that it is used
only by Anglophiles as a deliberate Britishism, perhaps because BrE has
high prestige in certain circles, but John David Stone puts these users at
0.1% of the population! In view of your judgements, it was somewhat
surprising that one respondent (who shall remain nameless) confessed to
having occasionally used /e/ _to impress others_ . (Is this a type of
English for Special Purposes?)

In other words almost all agree that the /e/ pronunciation is a _foreign
element_ in American English. However, Martha Guynes Morgan, a linguist in
Texas, says that _it is not rare as /e/, but those who use it are perceived
as more refined. I expect /i/ in _leisure suit_, a type of attire worn by
lower middle class types. I expect /e/ in _at your leisure_.
(I think I'll leave you native speakers of AmE to argue that one out!!)

2. The presence or absence of /l/ in words like calm, palm, psalm, almond.

Here the picture was more complicated. If there is a pattern, it seems to
be that Eastern respondents favour the l-less form in all 4 words,
Westerners the l-full form, with Mid-Westerners vacillating.

Other comments suggest that /l/ is more common in almond than in calm. One
person feels that the less common words have retained /l/, which may in
part explain why the pronunciation of almond in those areas where almonds
are grown (and presumably an everyday topic of conversation) is without
/l/. You also point out that in such areas a the word almonds is
pronounced differently according to whether it refers to almonds on the
trees or almonds as a product. Some feel that /l/ is being reintroduced by
younger people as a sort of spelling pronunciation, a sign of what one
respondent refers to as the _nouveau literate_ .

All of which goes to prove that the language is alive and kicking, and that
people take a healthy interest in it.

So, once again, thank you for shedding some light on these questions. It
might interest you to know why I wanted to get some answers straight from
the horse's mouth. I am a native speaker of British English teaching EFL to
teacher trainees in Norway. More and more of my students have spent some
time in the USA and are very good models of American English, but we do get
into one or two arguments about what is _correct_ or _most common_ in
Am.E.. Since I cannot speak with great authority on this subject, it has
been good to have recourse to the Internet system. In the case of _leisure_
and _calm_ I must admit that I was particularly pleased to report back to
the students that your response had helped to settle the argument - and
that I was right all along!! The rest of that session was marked by abject
compliance from the students, and smug authority from me.


By the way: GA =3D General American (=3D_Network American_)

Ian Watering, lecturer in English
Department of Teacher Education
Hedmark College
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