Long and Short A’s

September 16, 2006 By: erik Category: Geeky, Musings 868 views

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I recently posed the following question to some family and friends via email…

I was just having a discussion with one of the other guys in my company, formerly known as “Mage”, about how people mispronounced the company’s name so that it rhymed with “badge”.

Our theory is that for every four-letter word in American English that is in the form “?a?e”, the “a” is long (pronounced “ay”). For instance: cage, maze, fate, tame, lake, …

Can you think of a counter-example? Think about it during your idle brain cycles today. My closest attempt was “pí¢té”, but that got disqualified for being French. Hard to believe there’s an English pronunciation rule without an exception.

I’m proud to announce that we have a winner. Paul Nystrom has spent the past several years teaching English to Japanese high school students in Japan. If anyone knows the subtleties of proper pronunciation, it’s someone teaching the language to foreigners.

Paul says that words like “hare” and its rhyming siblings (“bare”, “care”, “dare”, etc.) are not pronounced with a long A. In pronunciation syntax, “sane” is “sān” (long A), but “care” is “cí¢r”. There is a pronunciation guide proving his correctness here.

Good job, Paul. Too bad there wasn’t any prize.

Although I got a correct answer to the question that I posed, my question, like many, was flawed. I was reasoning under the false assumption that a vowel is either long or short, without considering other í¢ whatchamathingies. The original hypothesis that there is no precedent for people to people mispronouncing “mage” so that it rhymes with “badge” (short A) is still not disproven. What the question should have been is:

Can you come up with any words in the (American) English language in the form “?a?e” where the A is short?

Any suggestions? Paul?

  • Yes, I’m glad that you finished with the qualification, because I was about to say, “Hey, that still doesn’t quite work”. The whatchamathingie “a” is hard to replicate with the GE that follows. Anyway, I hope someone comes up with something.

    You also should mention our theory that it’s mispronounced a lot because it looks so much like “image”.

    Alan (the A in Mage)

  • Hey, Alan. It’s probably late now, but we could change the pronunciation if you (“the A”) wanted to wear a hat.


    It looks good on you! 🙂

    P.S. I’d wear a feather (Mí‚GÉ), but then we’d look French.

  • Prof Dan

    flagellate.  Also, that point about the pronunciation of the “a” in care being different from the “a” in “sane” all depends on how one looks at it, how one categorizes the sound.  Perhaps  it is the same underlying “a” sound that gets tweaked by the transition to the “r” sound.  This is at root a question of what “sound” means.  If you said “sane” with the same “a” sound as “care,” it would still be understood as the same word, which tells us that those two sounds are simply variants of the same sound, in English.  Technically speaking, the difference between the “a” in care and the “a” in sane is not a phonemic difference, but merely a phonetic one.  And there are two good terms to look up.  🙂

  • Prof Dan

    Also garage, and triage, although at root those were once French, and planet.  The pronunciation depends on when in history they were borrowed.  For example, “cattle” and “chattel” are the same French word, borrowed at different times in history, and “chief” and “chef” are another example.