The ‘Pajama’ Bane

Who says people over 60 don’t move quickly? I certainly do, when I’m listening to NPR and I hear the first word or two of a promotional announcement for the Pajamagram company. My arm shoots over to turn off the radio in a nanosecond or less — so annoying do I find the way the announcer pronounces the second syllable of pajama like the thing you spread on toast. (That’s “jæm” in the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA].) Everyone knows that, following from the original Urdu, it’s supposed to rhyme with palm! (In IPA, the syllable would be rendered “jɑmbut in this post I’ll indicate this vowel sound with “ah.”)

Looking into the matter, I was shocked to find I am only half right. Bert Vaux’s Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes found the nation almost equally divided, with 49 percent saying it the right way and 48 percent saying “pajæmas.” Not surprisingly, it breaks down on regional grounds. A few years ago, Joshua Katz made heat maps from Vaux’s data; here’s the pajamas one:

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I’ve spent a total of maybe eight months of my life in the blue zone, so the division rings true.

This brings up what is probably the only point on which I agree with Donald Trump. During a rally in Reno in October, he said:

Heroin overdoses are surging and meth overdoses in Nevahda. Nevahda. And you know what I said? I said, when I came out here, I said, nobody says it the other way. It has to be Nevahda, right?

Well, wrong. Apparently, in his effort to pander to the locals, Trump got bolluxed up. In fact, Nevadans say “Nevæda” and get ornery when others don’t.  The state’s then-senior senator, Harry Reid, was quick to point out Trump’s blunder.

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Like my fellow New Yorker Trump, I say “Nevahda” and am not inclined to call the whole thing off. However, even though we are honoring the original Spanish pronunciation of the word (which means “covered in snow”), we are wrong — at least going by a “when in Rome” philosophy.

In the fourth edition (1936) of The American Language, H.L. Mencken observed, “In such proper names as Alabama, Alaska, Montana, Nevada, and Colorado, the flat a of has is often heard, especially in the States themselves, but a broad a is not unknown.” It’s an interesting list. Alabama and Alaska are loosely derived from American Indian words, so belong in a different discussion. The other three are all Spanish words. It would never occur to me to say anything other than “Montæna,” but I do the “Nevahda” thing with “Colorahdo.” I also (wrongly) say “Gonzahga” for the college in Spokæn. And that’s not even getting into the way Easterners pronounce the neighboring state “Oregahn” instead of “Oregun.”

Nevada, Colorado, Montana, and Gonzaga are actually counterexamples of a broader phenomenon: compared with folks in Britain with whom we share the language, Americans are more likely to honor the vowels in words borrowed from other tongues. This is counterintuitive, as the Brits (some of them, anyway) are known for the broad a in “clahss” and “dahnce.” But it’s true, as the McGill University linguist Charles Boberg demonstrated — at least in regards to a — in a 1999 paper,  “The Attitudinal Component of Variation in American English Foreign (a) Nativization.” He writes (using the notation “/a:/” for the “ah” sound), “/ae/ is the default vowel in British nativization, /a:/ appears to become the default vowel in American nativization.”

This is the most true with words that have recently come over to English. In older words, such as alfalfa, fiasco, and pistachio, Americans go for the “æ.” But in newer borrowings, it’s “ah” all the way. Boberg gives as examples pasta, macho, and Mazda, all pronounced with an “æ” by the British and “ah” by the Americans. There are plenty of others. BBC announcers give our current president’s first name as “Baræck”; in a single report, I heard the NPR correspondent Philip Reeves (who started his career in England but whose family comes from New Zealand) say “mæfia” (for the criminal organization) and “kebæb” (for the thing you eat in a pita). In a particularly annoying TV commercial, an English chef boasts that if you put “shredded Parmesæn right on the heat!” in the pan he’s hawking, it will clean up easy peasy.


And it’s not just this vowel. British tennis announcers call the best tennis player in the world “Djahkovic” instead of “Djohkovic.” Famously, English 19th-century scholars and poets said “Ren-ay-since” for “Renaissance,” and “Don Jew-uhn” for “Don Juan.” Moving from pronunciation to stress, Americans generally pronounce two-syllable words from French, like ballet and valet, the way the French do, with the emphasis on the second syllable, but the British tend to put it on the first. (Sometimes they even pronounce the final “t,” as in fillet.)

Why, Nevada and other counterexamples aside, do Americans generally seem to honor original pronunciations, while the British abjure them? One possibility is we have more of a respect for other people and their languages. Another, suggested by Boberg, is that Americans are particularly sensitive to “the normative evaluation of /a:/ as more correct, educated, and sophisticated than /æ/.”

On the whole, I would go with Boberg. As an explanation of human behavior, insecurity trumps respect any day.

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