or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, December 14, 2007

Out Loud

One of the most basic facts about English for learners is that we have two indefinite articles, one for use in front of consonant sounds and another for use before vowel sounds. The "sound" part is important, because we'll say "a one-sided argument" but "an only child".* You can't choose the correct article based on how a word looks: you have to know how it's pronounced.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following sub-head in a Salon.com movie article:

"The Kite Runner": Harry Potter vs. the Taliban, with a ululating soundtrack

"A ululating soundtrack"? Wha?

A few seconds' pondering suggested that some people must pronounce "ululating" with a "y-" sound at the front, like "usage" or "urine". I'd always pronounced with the first syllable as in "Ulster", so I was expecting "an", not "a", but as it turns out, both pronunciations are used. Mine is the first one listed in all the dictionaries, so I suppose it's the more usual one, but the second one seems to be correct as well.

The word is a Latin onomatopoeia: "ululare" means "to howl, to shriek". This word, in turn comes from "ulula", which is, delightfully, the Latin word for a screech-owl. It still exists in the taxonomic name for various noisy owls, such as the Northern hawk owl, Surnia ulula, and the great grey owl, Ulula cinerea**.

* Many British speakers of English take this avoidance of the glottal stop one step further; whenever a pair of words would result in two abutting vowel sounds, they'll insert an "-r-" between them. In North America we'd say "Victoria Adams", with a brief pause if not a full-fledged glottal stop, but they'll pronounce it "Victorier Adams" with no pause whatever. It's always sounded odd to my Canadian ears, but it's the same principle as "a/an".

**"Cinerea" is from the Latin "cinereus", "ashy grey", from "cinis", "ashes". Does that not remind you of another English word? It led to French "cendre", "ash", which in turn led to English "cinder".


Blogger Frank said...

That might be an American thing to pronounce it with a "y" at the front. That's how I say it and, the few times I've heard it said, that's how I've heard it.

BTW, I wondered if "uvula" was related, but no, it's actually from the diminutive of the Latin for a cluster of grapes and related to "Yew," which it is pronounced similarly to.

Friday, December 14, 2007 10:56:00 PM  

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