Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Confused Tongues

The Golden Globes are over and one side of a pronunciation battle has landed a palpable hit. Wielding the foils are those who say [bebl̩] and those who say [bæbl̩].(If your browser is showing some boxes: they indicate the [l] is syllabic.)

[bæbl̩] is almost ready to make the finishing touch. Everyone who I heard to say the title of Alejandro González Iñárritu's film pronounced it the same as "babble". This post is not meant to complain. My friend Daniel does not approve of this, saying simply "Not good." My initial reaction is surprise, forgetting that for a long time I was ambivalent about the pronuncitaion. At some point I decided to avoid ambiguity and I adopted the traditional pronunciation [bebl̩].

The pronunciation of proper nouns is the hardest language convention to prescribe (or so I'll claim for the sake of this post). There is a strong emotional attachment to certain pronunciations. Consider the profuse apologies on first day of classes when so many nervous teachers mispronounce names; consider dumbfounded and aghast reaction of my German friend when I told him that many speakers of English pronounce the name of the founder of the Jesuits [ɪgnejʃəs] instead of [ignasjo]. "But...but...That's not...fair!" he pleaded. It was a rule that he did not believe anyone should be allowed to break. But this demand for a proper or correct pronunciation of a name is rooted in the belief the individual who gives the name is the lord of its pronunciation, and that single vote must be respected. Few prescriptivists are willing to give this power to the individual.

Several weeks ago (on the morning of the Golden Globe nominee announcements) I posted a comment regarding the pronunciation of Babel on the American Dialect Society's LISTSERV mailing list. One respondent revealed that a misguided teacher taught him "that the word 'babble' comes from the 'Tower of Babel' (pronounced 'babble')." As a result he says "'Baybel' sounds almost like an affectation." I say to deride either pronunciation is the more conspicuous affectation.

I've already written about the etymology on this web log. So you don't have to read it I'll sum it up: The word babble does not come from Tower of Babel. The pronunciations in America are often identical, but one would be wise to not create a folk etymology.


  1. Sometimes reading your blog is like reading about how un-real Santa Claus is. I quite enjoyed my faith in the "folk etymology" connecting Babylon to babble. Darn it. What about Borges' "Library of Babel?"

  2. American Heritage, and by extension Bartleby.com, has a noun "babel" which means a confusion of sounds or voices or a scene of noise and confusion. They have two pronounciations first "babble" then "baybl." They reverse the order of their pronounciations for the propa noun. Inarritu could have meant the common noun and not the proper.

    And for the record I pronounce the founder of the Jesuits name [inEgo].

  3. M-W lists those meanings under the same entry with the 'long a' pronunciation first and the "babble" pronunciation 2nd.

    OED lists only the 'long a' and includes both meanings.

    Inarritu is from Mexico. He's more likely to have learned the American convention. And of course this goes right to the discussion of proper names and the those who give them.

    I wonder if the pronunciation is ambivalent in Britain as well.

  4. There is a certain amount of irony in the confusion over such a word, isn't there?

  5. Ha. Excellent.

    Casey: I wonder if that's part of the reason I decided to burrow into academia. It seems one grand point of inquiry is to prove that some myths are false.

    It's the same drive that made me tell my nieces and nephew to let all their little friends know that Santa Claus doesn't exist. But their mother had already taught them to be nice little people.

    I believe education is the more noble.

  6. Thanks for your research about the etymology of babble which solved an argument I was having with a friend.

    Michael, for the record, as British born and bred I have never heard the 'short a' pronunciation of Babel used, whether the proper noun sense was meant or otherwise.

  7. Thank you for the feedback David. I believe the OED provides the single British pronunciation without alternation for all meanings in a single entry (Babel - capitalised) that includes the place name the more general "A scene of confusion; a confused assemblage" and "A confused turbulent medley of sounds."

    The American Heritage Dictionary gives two entries with both pronunciations. For the place name (Babel - capitalised) the primary pronunciation is the 'long a'. For the more general scene of confusion (babel - not capitalized) the primary pronunciation given is the 'short a'.

    In the United States I have heard the short a almost exclusively for both; tho I grew up with the 'long a' pronunciation -- as my exposure was primarily to the biblical story.


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