December 19, 2007

Binge, don't purge

I'm spending the holidays with my wife's family in Louisville, KY this year. At breakfast this morning I picked up yesterday's Courier-Journal and started laughing so hard I almost coughed up my oatmeal. I wasn't reading the comics -- it was the headline for the top story in the business section that had me going.

Yum executive Hearl will retire
Eaton to be new development chief

At the risk of over-explaining the joke, more context may be necessary.

"Yum" refers to Yum! Brands, Inc., based here in Louisville, spun off from PepsiCo and home to such familiar restaurants as KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut (read more about it on Wikipedia). Given that kind of business, I should think that a chief operating and development officer with a name that sounds like eatin' is an improvement over one with a name that sounds like hurl.

Louisville Speaking of Louisville: the t-shirt pictured on the right (click on the picture for a larger version) is an example of how local folks are both aware and proud of at least one particular feature of their speech: the different pronunciations of the name Louisville itself. Here's what the Wikipedia entry for Louisville, KY has to say about this variability in pronunciation:

The variability of the local pronunciation of the city's name can perhaps be laid at the feet of the city's location on the border between the Northern and Southern regions of the United States. Louisville's diverse population has traditionally represented elements of both Northern and Southern culture.

There's probably more to it than this, but this sounds about right.

Go to the pronunciation section of the Wikipedia entry to listen to examples of these pronunciations -- none of them very natural-sounding, in my view, but you get the general idea. The description of the pronunciation is, linguistically speaking, very unsophisticated ("The name is often pronounced far back in the mouth, in the top of the throat."), but of course a more sophisticated description would not really matter much to most folks visiting that page.

This section also points out that "[n]o matter how Louisville is pronounced, the 's' is always silent", which makes Louisville, KY different from other Louisvilles in the U.S. (in Colorado, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee). This is no doubt due to the fact that Louisville, KY is explicitly named after King Louis XVI of France, and of course in French the 's' is also silent.

One interesting aspect of the pronunciation of Louisville as (roughly) "Luhvul" is the quality of the vowel in the first syllable. To me, the vowel tends to sound pretty much identical to the vowel in the second syllable, right down to the l-sound at the end -- you might represent this orthographically as "Lulvul", but that doesn't quite capture it. The phonetic issue involved here happens to be discussed (with respect to something else entirely) in this post by Ben Zimmer last month.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at December 19, 2007 01:13 PM