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Pronunciation-Wrestling June 24, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Accents, Canada, English.

In my last project at work, we dealt with a US telecommunication company. We had a team consisted of about 6-7 colleagues from the US and 4 of us from Canada, all ‘locked’ in a conference room somewhere in the vicinity of Seattle.

Since our client was a telecommunication company, the word ‘Mobile’ came up extremely frequently during our discussions. It was very interesting to notice how different people pronounced the word differently. In brief, people from the US pronounce the word as ‘Moble’ (rhymes with ‘Noble’). The rest of the world pronounce it as ‘Mobile’ (rhymes with ‘File’).

This means all the representatives from our client said ‘Moble’, as for most of our US colleagues. The only exception was a colleague with an Indian heritage. On the Canadian side, 3 out of 4 of us actually spoke English as a second language. Somehow, we naturally adopted to ‘Moble’ right from the beginning of the project. We just follow how the client said it with no complaint. The only person insisted on saying ‘Mobile’ was a native Canadian (meaning born and raised in Canada).

I came back to Toronto afterwards and talked with my boss about the project. She was another native Canadian, so she said ‘Mobile’. But then I found myself kept on saying ‘Moble’ and couldn’t switch it back!

I remember I was in another project many years ago. The team consisted of mostly Americans, with only a few of us from Canada. There was an issue with a database flag ‘Z’. Our US colleagues would say ‘zee’, but our Canadian colleagues, in attempt to keep up with our Canadian pride, would say ‘zed’. Somehow, everyone insisted on pronouncing it his own way and no one bothered to suggest to unify the pronunciations at least in the discussions. At one point, I was shocked to hear my team lead, a native Canadian, began to say ‘zee’. From then on, I knew we had lost the wrestling.

As a matter of fact, the ‘Z’ alphabet was once used as a Shibboleth. It was
known in American history and popular culture for distinguishing American males who fled to Canada from the US to escape the military draft in the 1960s. But thanks to the American cultural influences in the past few decades, such as Sesame Street and the Alphabet song (American version), ‘zee’ is now adopted more and more by many young Canadians.



1. Thomas (babelhut.com) - June 24, 2008

That’s pretty interesting. I’ve heard non-American friends say mobile (rhyming with Nile) before but I never really thought about that difference before now. I think most Americans would say “cell phone” instead of “mobile phone”, but we use the word “mobile” (rhyming with noble) in related phrases like “mobile technology”. I was trying to think of why we pronounce it like “moble”, and I think it might be because we see it as an adjective coming from the word mobility. Our pronunciation of “mobile” predates cell phone technology though. A trailer park is an area of land filled with mobile (moble) homes. Is “mobile home” a term in Canadian-English usage?

2. Thomas (babelhut.com) - June 24, 2008

oops, I think I left something a little unclear:

mobility -> mobile (moble) in the same vein as nobility -> noble. I think this connection happened unconsciously and unintentionally (like how “a napron” became “an apron”).

3. Edwin - June 25, 2008

Thomas, thanks for your comment.

I guess what fascinates me the most is the fact that people are engaged in conversations and pronounce the words differently. But this does not seem to bother them much.

This does not just happen for English. I have heard Mainland Chinese speaking with Taiwanese Chinese, Latinos speaking with people from Spain. The difference in pronunciations does not seem to exist for them at all.

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