Pecans and Aunts

Words are pronounced differently throughout the country – just about anything with an “a” in it, for example – but very few words are sometimes pronounced differently by the same person.  Two of the most prominent, the two above, work from the same set of sounds.  People generally say ant or aunt the same way in every context, but sometimes, individual aunts will be referred to by the other pronunciation because well, that’s their name. This happens more often when two sides of a family have a different preference.  The children grow up with a preferred pronunciation for the generic, but some of both pronunciations for individuals. There is also the even more regional Aint or even Ayunt in the south, such as Andy of Mayberry’s Aint Bee. Both sides of my family used the traditional Boston-area aunt-with-a-“u” version, but my mother’s second husband came from North Haven and used Ant. I found it jarring when he would refer to my mother’s aunt as Ant Sal, because…because that wasn’t her name. Of course Aunt Sal wasn’t her name either.  Her name was Selma, and Aunt was a title. And yet, when you are an aunt or an uncle it is your name to some people, and that might even start extending to friends and neighbors as well.

Pecan is even more complicated, because not only the vowel sound can vary, but also which syllable is accented.  Most people have a single pronunciation for every use of the word, puh-CAHN, or pee-CAHN, or PEE-can, or pee-CAN. Others vary it depending on whether they are talking about the pie, the tree, or the plural of them in the bag at the store. Even people who use one of the “can” variants in every other setting might shop for pecahns at the store, and so buy pecahns to make a pecan pie. The pie is particularly tricky, because for some it is one of those phrases in which none of the syllables is accented: Pee Can Pie or Pee Cahn Pie. Even those who accent one syllable or another in the phrase tend to do so in an underplayed manner. Others will change their pronunciation if there is a modifier in the front, especially “Georgia.” Because that’s their name, don’t you know, regardless of what the nut is called in general.

The other most common word with variable pronunciation in the same mouth is “route.” One grows up with a preferred pronunciation, but might visit a place for vacation a few times as a child and adopt the other for a specific road.  Rout 17 is the best root to go.

14 thoughts on “Pecans and Aunts”

  1. My father and grandfather both pronounced barrel as baarrel. The A as in Ahh!

    They also used terms that were probably common in rural Illinois or Iowa.

    They described distance in “rods.” I can’t recall if my grandfather’s siblings used the same pronunciation. I was a child when I knew them. He had 9 brothers.

  2. An interesting case is the internet “router” (a device which picks routes).

    Even though I drive root 66, I rout traffic.

    I heard someone talking about an “internet rooter” and it made my head hurt. Until I heard this person speak, everyone I ever spoke to talked about routers, not rooters.

  3. Ah, pecans. My daughter is choosing art that represents her for her stained glass living room window – they will be a set of 3 and for her they are fairly abstract representations of the Brazos River, a pecan tree, and a group of pecans. Today, my husband’s first cousin told us stories I’d never heard before but were wonderful (and as he told them in his understated, aw shucks way, his remarkable ability) tales of grafting pecans, of being given a two=year early discharge from the Air Force so he could take over and start grafting the pecan trees on the Brown of Brown & Root’s pecan grove on one of his many ranches. (Though what it showed about the Texas old boys’ network of Brown, LBJ, etc is not so, perhaps, attractive, it says much about Donnie’s skill.)
    Just thought I’d throw these in, assuming at least some of the Texans might appreciate it.
    But yes, most I know here and in Nebraska uses the pecan of short vowels and second syllable but less heavy stress, though the other is not uncommon even within families.

  4. @ Kiztent – When people mispronounce a word, it just means they have read it before they heard it. That’s not always a cause for embarrassment. It is sometimes, though, because a person might have been expected to have discussed things with people who use a word. A constitutional law professor might take little shame in saying corpse-man, but a Commander-In-Chief is announcing that he does not have some basic qualifications for the job.

  5. There are a slew of regional pronunciations up here behind the cheddar curtain and my best wag is that these come from the very German/Norwegian/European lineage of people that live here – Wisconsin isn’t like San Diego, for instance, where nobody who lives there is from there. In general, very few people move to Wisconsin (because, I assume, it is basically uninhabitable for 4 months out of every year), and most who are here were born in Wisconsin. I came from Rockford, IL to Madison 25 years ago. It is 70 miles away but a world apart, as they say. I think the most interesting pronunciation is using “beg” for the word “bag”. The first time it happened to me I was a bit slack jawed as I was at a store and the checkout clerk asked me if I wanted a paper or plastic “beg”. Many word substitutions up here as well (drinking fountain = bubbler).

  6. In places like ours where either “Ant” or “Awnt” are deemed acceptable I think the variation in part is due to the name that follows. If the sound of the name goes better with one or the other, and I think its mostly the initial phoneme, it will be so dubbed.

    I have an “Awnt Connie”. My kids have an “Ant Georgianne”. I think each flows better than if the titles were reversed. Of course it might just be force of habit. Try out a few of your own!

    Ant Agnes
    Ant Alice
    Awnt Olivia
    Awnt Augusta

    And so forth.

  7. @ Dan – “Bubbler” is also used in the coastal New England accent, from Rhode Island to Maine. Stories vary, but the most likely is that it started in Wisconsin, eventually became a brand name used by Kohler a few decades later, and had its best sales in New England. It is also used in parts of Australia.

  8. Re: Awnt/ Ant : I have noticed that up here in rural , red county PA, that among Black people I have talked with , Awnt Joesie, is almost always used. In my family/ friend circle , lower class first Gen citizen US, Neighborhood, and workplace , it was Ant Josie. Also, a friend of ours from Louisiana , my Sunday School teacher and friend , said Awnt Josie and was quick to point out one day when we we talking about pecan pies, that a pee can was not used in her Pecahn pies..

  9. When I moved to California to start college, I remember a definite California accent. It was a little like the “Valley Girl” speech that was talked about in the 70s. I have forgotten the specific words that were so characteristic. Of course, I had a Chicago/midwestern accent. When I went home for summers, I could pick it up.

  10. e-ther or i-ther. Had to look it up:

    In the UK, /i/ is used more in Southern England, and /e/ is more usual in Northern England. In North America, /e/ is the most common, but /i/ is predominant in some regions. Note that even if one pronunciation is more common in a region, the pronunciation used varies by individual speaker and sometimes by situation.

    Dad pronounces either with an i, Mom pronounces it with an e. Confusing for a kid.

  11. In my neck of the woods (southeastern Ohio), the word creek is pronounced “crick”. You might also be able to catch a “feesh” in the “crick”.

    If you go to Columbus (about 50 mile) you might catch a “fish” in the “creek”.

  12. In East Texas/Louisiana there’s bayou. To be pronounced bay-oo, long a, long oo rather than bi-you. probably a Cajun thing.

    Creek/crik is a western thing, creek used in more formal contexts and crik in informal conversation by the same person. I know I use both, probably picked it up from my father. The western usage usually denotes an intermittent stream probably because most here are. A lot of intermittent rivers too. Brook doesn’t seem to have made it west of the Mississippi. We also have arroyo, wash and gully, probably like the Inuit are supposed to have many words for snow. Water is important out here.

    Then there’s potato, pronounced tatter (long a, if you please).

  13. Regarding ee e-ther or eye i-ther.. my grandmother used both but gave these distinct meanings. “Take two throw pillows from the cedar chest, into the living room, and put them at EYE-ther end of the sofa.” That’s not giving the helper a choice about which end on which to drop two pillows, that’s instruction to put one eee-each pillow at one eee-each end of the sofa. “At dinner we’ll have your choice of pie or cake, EEE-ther one.” That’s pinning down or fencing out the choice of both.

    Nee-ther and nii-ther got similarly distinct usage. When two people objected and one of the two was grandma herself: “NII-ther your Aunt Mary nor I care for rhubarb.” But if reporting on two OTHER people: “NEE-ther Nixon nor Humphrey deserve MY vote, it’s time for some new faces back East.”

  14. I am an Australian. When I was 14 (early 1970s) my classmate and good friend was a Texan, of both Texan parents.

    Pecan pies were a new thing in Australia then, and went well with our developing cafe culture.
    My friend’s mother corrected my pronunciation.
    “It’s puh-CAAN.”
    “A pee-can goes under the bed.”

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