Babel and Clerks (II)

Previously, we've discussed how the pronunciation of names differs, and the commentators' consensus was that people's names should be pronounced the way they themselves pronounce them. But what if it's a place whose name we're talking about? A fictional place or one whose inhabitants have long been dead? Whose pronunciation is 'right' then?

A new (BrE) film/(AmE) movie coming soon to a (BrE) cinema/(AmE) movie theater near you is called Babel. (And yes, of course film and cinema are words in AmE too. But they're not as basic/everyday in the AmE vocabulary as they are to BrE.) In BrE, this is pronounced 'BAY-bel'. In AmE, it usually sounds like babble. (American Heritage gives the BrE pronunciation as a second alternative. Oxford doesn't acknowledge the AmE pronunciation.) If any name should be pronounced differently in different places, it's most fitting that it should be this one. According to the story in the Bible, it was at the Tower of Babel that humanity came to all speak different languages and misunderstand each other.

Another film around these days is Clerks II. Better Half calls the original Clerks 'clarks' (as the word is pronounced in BrE), and I always "correct" him, because sales clerk (the clerks of the title work in a convenience store) is an Americanism--thus the AmE pronunciation is more fitting. (I can't hear the 'clarks' pronunciation without thinking of someone who looks like the man to the right.) In BrE the people who ring up your purchases at the (BrE) till/(AmE) cash register are called shop assistants. (The words till and cash register are used in both countries, but in AmE till refers only to the drawer with the money in it [or the removable tray in that drawer], not to a location in the shop/store where you pay for things.)

So, anyhow, having heard BH talk about going to see 'clarks two', I asked for tickets to 'clarks two' when we went to see it this weekend. The (English) box office person didn't understand me at first, then said "Oh, Clerks", using the AmE pronunciation. I thought "Here's a woman who knows her American independent cinema." Then we handed our tickets over to the ticket-ripper and he said "What's this movie about?" and I realised that everyone working in the cinema/theater was no older than 10 when the original Clerks came out. I was already a university lecturer by that time. You know you're old when the films you think are hip are actually twelve years old already.

(If you're a fan of Clerks, then it's worthwhile to see the sequel for the warm-fuzziness of it all--if one can say such a thing about a film that features an 'interspecies erotica performance'. If you haven't seen the original, you won't see the point and will only be offended by the terrifically horrible acting by Bryan O'Halloran.)


  1. What sorts of AmE say Babel in that way? I say BAYbel (and grew up in Eastern New England).

  2. In the western US I have only heard 'babble.' But then pronunciations vary so much from west to east this is understandable. The one variation that drives me mad is the pronunciation of Nevada. It seems everyone east of the Rockies wants to say NevAHda instead of NevAAda (forgive my amature attempt at indicating inflection).

    Of course, I have been chastised in the past for pronouncing the 'S' in Illinois, so I am as guilty as the next guy.

  3. 'Film' is often pronounced in Ireland as 'Filum' - see Fr Ted for an authentic rendering. Maybe the "lm" is difficult to say and it's easier to inster an extra vowel sound.

    We've also had an incident recently where Irish speaking parts of the country now have their names listed in Irish on maps/road signs/... This has upset the people of Dingle (now An Daingean), because it is a popular tourist destination and they are worried that tourists won't know the Irish name! There's even a website dedicated to the problem!

  4. Most AmE say Babel that way, EO'C. This wouldn't be the first time that New England speech is a bit closer to UK--they had more recent UK and Irish immigration than most parts of the country.

    Cannily, the trailer for the film doesn't include a pronunciation of the word--they tell the story of the tower (a bit--without mentioning the tower), then show the title.

    DM, the 'filum' pronunciation is most typically Irish, but it's also heard a lot in South Africa and occasionally in AmE.

  5. DM may be able to confirm this, but I believe that the extra vocalic syllable he mentions in 'filum' occurs commonly in IrE (hey, I've invented an abbreviation) when a letter L is followed by another consonant. For example, I've heard Irish friends pronounce the name Charles (not my name, btw) as Char-luz.

  6. Great contribution, GY! Thanks!

  7. My husband's family are from the North East, but were Irish immigrants way back when, and they say 'fillum'.

    Erm, I'll be one of those guilty of being ten years old when Clerks came out. I saw Chasing Amy at a sleepover aged 14, though.

    In Asda - now owned by Walmart - shop assistants are called Checkout Operators. That's Newspeak for you, innit.

  8. You're not getting off the hook for being young that easily, Rebecca. As your penance, I think you should wear rainbow (BrE) braces/(AmE) suspenders and listen to the Osmonds, like I had to in the 70s.

  9. This IrE thing is getting to me. I don't perceive the Irish pronunciation of 'film' as 'filum', rather I take that as stereotype motivated by the IrE tendency not to vocalise the 'l'.
    I think it's rather nice that IrE has resisted vocalisation of both liquids, 'l' and 'r', while other British dialects just diphthongise or lengthen the preceding vowel.
    What happens when an 'l' or an 'r' occurs after a diphthong, I wonder?
    I can't even think of an adequate example!
    Back to biblical nonsense, if you say 'Babble', then is Cain's brother 'Abble'?

  10. Aidhoss, when you say 'not vocalise the l', do you mean not say it, or not voice it? Unvoiced liquids are pretty rare in English, so I'm assuming the former, which would mean that you're saying that the Irish say 'fim' instead of 'filum'? It's really clear when someone's saying 'filum', since it's a syllable longer. Really, people do say it! Lots of 'em!

    2004 San Francisco Irish Film Festival
    Filum 04
    San Francisco Irish Film Festival
    March 10th and 11th 2004
    Filum 04 (a play on the Irish for “film”) is a celebration of new Irish cinema that is achieving international acclaim with movies such as The Magdalene Sisters, Veronica Guerin and In America.

    Google 'film' and 'filum' together, and one gets lots of hits, from Ireland, Scotland and England.

    And, no, Abel is pronounced 'able'. But why should we expect words/names to rhyme in English pronunciation? Just look at steak and teak, cough and rough, cow and mow.

  11. Could I not as least listen to the Bay City Rollers, who were the UK/poor man's answer to the Osmonds?!

  12. No, you have to listen to Paper Roses, which is the song that most tortured BH in his English-upbringing.

  13. Charles isn't a that commen here, but I have heard people say both "Char-els" and "Char-less". The latter I would regard as a bit of an affectation and might be saved for theatre lovies or for our former taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey, who was a bit of a colourful character up to the day he died.

    I'll keep an ear out for other words that have an "l" and have gained an extra sound.

  14. Remember that Wall Street boss Gutfreund who apparently insisted that his staff pronounce his name "Good Friend". What about the common American pronunciation of the German names ending in "stein" as "steen"? Except for Eensteen, of course.

  15. I heard a Scottish person add a vowel between the /r/ and the /l/ of world the other day. Also done in Irish English, DM?

  16. "a Scottish person" = a Scot.

  17. You're right Lynne, it's an unfortunate term, but perhaps more unfortuantely it's the one I use most. By 'vocalisation' I mean its becoming a vowel.
    Google "l-vocalisation", you'll soon see what I mean.
    What I mean is, the Irish have a tendency to say [film] rather than the fast-emerging [fium]. 'film' isn't the best example, so consider these: 'walk' is usually [wo:k] (or [wa:k] for AmE) and 'golf' is quickly becoming [gowf].

  18. We have to make a distinction here between the two /l/ sounds in English. The /l/ in film is a 'dark l', pronounced by raising the tongue at the back of the mouth. In some dialects of BrE, but certainly not all of them, the dark l is reali{s/z}ed as more w-like.

    In Irish English filum as I perceive it, the l is a 'clear l', which is the type we have at the beginnings of syllables. That's pronounced (usually/by most people) with the tongue tip touching the gum ridge ('alveolar ridge') behind the front teeth.

    So, standard BrE, AmE and IrE all have an l in film, but the two-syllable Irish pronunciation has a different l.

  19. No - if I try saying Charles with an extra vowel between the r and the l, I get something which sounds a bit Scottish, so I don't think it is done here. The Scotts do have good way of dealing with "r"s near "l"s. A Glasgow rendering of "squirrel" is quite wonderful!

  20. In Irish itself, essentially all consonant clusters get an intrusive schwa, and this is characteristic of "deep' varieties of Hiberno-English as well.

  21. dearieme: "What about the common American pronunciation of the German names ending in "stein" as "steen"? Except for Eensteen, of course."

    -"Do you also say FROH-derick?"

  22. That's because a lot of "stein" names (though not Stein itself) arrived here via Russia, where they had become "stain". From "stain" to "steen" isn't much of a move.

  23. The movie/film/cinema/etc thing is one of the many examples where Australian English is a bit of a compromise between British and American dialects. The most common terms here are "movie" and "cinema" (except in professional circles, where "film" is more preferred).

    However, to me at least, a movie has to be fictional, so I would never describe "An Inconvenient Truth" (for example) as a movie. In that case, I would use the word "film" instead. I'd also use "film" for a feature that isn't long enough to count as a movie.

    I have been told that the cinema complex within walking distance of where I live is the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. I don't know if that's true or not.

  24. I have an Irish friend called Pam. She likes to watch filums. Sometimes, when introducing herself to people she will point to the palm of her hand, to suggest that her name rhymes with 'palm'. I have seen this completely baffle BrE speakers, for whom Pam and palm are not homonyms.

  25. Surely the Irish pronunciation is 'fillum', with a double L, not 'filum'? The latter spelling would be pronounced the same as 'phylum', would it not?

  26. Also, I have an Irish friend who pronounces Bible 'Bibble'.
    Which book of the Bibble is Babble in?

  27. The observation of Irish people pronouncing "Charles" as "Char-less" might be a result of the same principles as "fillum" (and the name Colm, pronounced like "column"), and/or it might be channelling the Irish equivalent of the name, Shearlais ("Shar-less").

  28. David Crystal's new dictionary of Shakespeare's words as they would (by his calculation) be pronounced states that Shakespeare would have said


    as the Irish do still.

    I thought this might be deduced from scansion but no, the evidence is even more convincing. An alternative First Folio spelling is philome.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)