Pecans, Emus, and Vertebrae

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April 22, 2021 by libroshombre

            You’d think after three decades in Alaska my hackles wouldn’t still rise when someone pronounces “pecan” as if they’re describing a porta-potty urinal, and verbalizing “rodeo” as “ro-DAY-o” is almost as troublesome.  However, there’s a profound distinction between using the wrong word and merely pronouncing the right word oddly, as a brewer and a leather merchant discovered, when they both named their beer brand and leather company Huruhuru.  Hell’s Basement, a Canadian brewery recently marketed a new beer called New Zealand Pale Ale Huruhuru, which they thought meant “feather” in Maori but actually means “pubic hair.”  The leather shop called “Huruhuru” thought it meant wool, feather, or fur and even got approval for the name from the New Zealand’s Intellectual Property Office’s Maori advisory committee.  It goes to show that lots depends upon who you ask.

            A good example is the controversy surrounding National Public Radio’s Research, Archives, & Data Team’s decision that the correct way to pronounce emu, Australia’s national bird, is “ee-moo.”  “Ee-moo?! NPR’s ‘Absurd’ Pronunciation Starts New Emu War in Australia,” an article from, said “This ruling was met with outrage, with comments labeling the decision ‘absurd’ and ‘a travesty.’  Many Twitter commentators incorrectly assumed ‘emu’ stemmed from Indigenous Australian languages, but Nick Enfield, a professor of linguistics at the University of Sydney, said this is not likely the case.”  Experts believe “emu” comes from the Portuguese calling a cassowary, which is also a very large fowl, “ema” which was a corruption of the Arabic for “big bird.”

            “Hold on!” you say.  What’s this about a “new emu war”?  It’s due to Australian politicians being similar to politicians everywhere.  The Australians suffered tremendous casualties in World War One, and their grateful government gave surviving veterans farmland in Western Australia that turned out to be in “agriculturally marginal areas.”  During the Great Depression the government offered subsidies for the farmers to increase their wheat production, and failed to follow through with the promised payments. 

            Then an estimated 20,000 emus migrating inland from the coast discovered how the farmers had made ideal habitat by clearing farmland, increasing water supplies, and building rabbit fences that couldn’t stop a hungry 80 pound bird.  By 1932 there was secession talk in Western Australia, and the farmers, who’d witnessed firsthand the effectiveness of machine guns, petitioned government to provide some Lewis guns to thin the emu herds.  The government agreed, but only if army personnel fired the weapons, the Western Australian government agreed to pay for transportation, and the farmers provided the troops’ food, housing, and ammunition.   In return they sent an army major, a sergeant, and a gunner who killed 300 emus.  After they left, the emus returned, the farmers petitioned again, the soldiers returned and 986 birds were killed, but the rest were undeterred.  The ensuing anti-emu petitions in 1934, 1943, and 1948 were all rejected, but improved fencing eventually addressed the problem.

            In “Sound and Fury: How Pronunciation Provokes Passionate Reactions,” another article, BBC Radio presenter David Crystal wrote that “people would write in and complain about the pronunciations they didn’t like.  In their hundreds.  Nobody ever wrote in to praise pronunciation they did like.  It was the extreme nature of the language that always struck me.  Listeners didn’t just say they ‘disliked’ something.  They used the most emotive words they could think of.  They were ‘horrified’, ‘appalled’, ‘dumbfounded’, ‘aghast,’ ‘outraged’.”  He suggested that one reason for such strong reactions is because “pronunciation gives us a clue about a speaker’s ethnic group and social class … always a potentially sensitive subject.  Another reason is that pronunciation is not only the foundation of clarity and intelligibility, it also expresses identity.  When we hear someone speak our language, we not only recognize the words that are said, we recognize who is saying them … My BBC critics were not usually suggesting listeners couldn’t understand what speakers were saying; they were complaining about the way they were saying it.  Some criticisms were aesthetic: a pronunciation might be called ‘ugly’ or ‘sloppy’.  Some expressed dislike of an accent … but typically, when people talked about unacceptable pronunciation, they weren’t thinking of the content, but the delivery.”

             It’s a slippery slope between helpful verbal advice and pedantry, which is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a narrow, often ostentatious concern for academic knowledge and formal rules.”  Grammar nazis, for instance, are an example of people practicing grammar pedanticism, while others specialize in vocabulary and pronunciation.   Reading “How To Pronounce the Digraph AE in English,” the Daily Writing Tips blog led to looking up “digraph,”  which Merriam-Websters defines as “a group of two successive letters whose phonetic value is a single sound (such as ea in bread or ng in sing).”  With that under my belt, I was ready to learn that “ae functions chiefly as a suffix to denote the plural of Latin borrowings that retain a hint of their original ‘Latin-ness’, chiefly in the realm of scientific vocabulary” and usually ae is pronounced as a long e  “Algae,” for instance, should be pronounced al-jee.  Plural baby bugs are lar-vee, not lar-vuh or lar-vay. Same holds true for sundaes, faeries, and aeries, but not Mick Jaeger, who pronounces his name “jah-ger.”

            Merriam-Webster disappointed Crystal with their recommended pronunciations of vertebrae (ver-tuh-bray), and says it’s ver-tuh-bray, but the American Heritage Dictionary goes along with Crystal and advises saying ver-tuh-bree.  I suggest following the recommendation of Aesop (ee-sop):“look before you leap,” and the best place to do that is by calling a librarian, because if you want any answer, Google it, but if you want the correct answer, call your public library.

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