Can you tell that my maternity leave has finished? Little, tiny posts nearly a week apart--how sad! But the real sadness is that I now know the point of maternity leave, and that point is CAKE. You go to get-togethers with other new mothers and everyone orders cake. You meet for coffee with friends and colleagues who want to meet the baby, but, what the hell, why not order some cake too? People come to visit, they bring you cake. The baby has a 'birthday' every month, so let's bake a cake. Yes, I have seen the cake. I have eaten of the cake. And now I must desert the cake.

So, here's your little cakeless observation of the week, brought on by Grover's newest toy--the one in the cent{re/er} of this photo (from Bright Starts). It took some work, but I finally convinced Better Half that this is a blue zebra. (Grover agreed with me from the start.) But I'm starting to wish that I'd called it a stripey donkey, because I am mocked (not by Grover, who is too bidialectal to notice and would be too polite to mention it even if she weren't) every time I say zebra in the way that I learned to say it, with the first syllable pronounced like zee (the American name for the letter that's called zed in BrE). In British English, the first syllable is pronounced as it would be in the French zèbre, i.e. zeb.

This is one of those pronunciation differences that is not the result of a general pronunciation rule that differs between AmE and BrE--instead, it's just a lexical oddity, like vitamin (first i as in bit in BrE, but like in bite in AmE) or tomato (you know the song). BrE is probably influenced by a tendency toward(s) shorter vowels and greater awareness of French, while AmE isn't. In spite of the fact that the only non-dual-citizen in the household (ha! who's the minority now?) will only accept the zeb pronunciation, the OED lists the zee pronunciation first. (People from other regions of the UK will have to let us know if they use the zee-bra pronunciation there. Zeb seems to be standard in the Southeast.)

On my listening to it (as you can see from my description of the sound in the last paragraph), it sounds like the BrE version puts the syllable break here zeb•ra, rather than here ze•bra, but as far as I know, that's against English syllabification rules, which favo(u)r complex onsets (i.e. a consonant cluster at the beginning of a syllable) of increasing sonority (i.e. the explosive /b/ before the more vowel-like /r/) over plosives in the coda (i.e. putting the /b/ at the end of the previous syllable). So, I'm assuming that I'm wrong about that syllabification (i.e., that it's just my perception of the less-familiar-to-me pronunciation and not the reality of it) and that both versions put the syllable break before the /b/--but I'd be happy for real-life phoneticians (rather than a dabbling lexicologist) to weigh in on the matter.

I pronounce it (to the extent that my American articulatory organs allow) in the British way when I say (BrE) zebra crossing (a pedestrian [AmE] crosswalk marked by stripes on the road--as seen on the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road). But when talking to my baby about toy animals, I revert to my mother tongue--now my mothering tongue.

P.S. Apologies for all the (annoying, I know) parenthetical comments, which make my sentences (oh, won't someone stop me?) so difficult to parse.

P.P.S. Two mentions in Language Log this week. Wow, I'm somebody now! Thanks Ben and Arnold!


  1. Growing up with a New Zealander father and American mother, I've heard an argument on this very subject. Zebras are interesting linguistically. Not too long ago I wrote about the weirdness of the zebra's extinct relative, the quagga, and how that name has arisen long since the quagga's extinction.


  2. Is vitamin (/ai/ US : /I/ UK) really just a lexical oddity? It seems to be part of an admittedly not too productive pattern: dynasty, privacy, and cyclamen seem to match vitamin.

  3. From what I understand, English does favor complex codas, certainly relative to languages other than English. In what languages do you have oddities like "strengths"?

    What's more, consider "better" in an Estuary accent: [bɛʔə]. If that were syllabified "bet-ter" or "be-tter", the /t/ in the onset would be realized as [t], not a glottal stop - which appears only in codas. So the only possible syllabication is "bett-er". Given the choice of zero coda or consonant coda, English is favoring the consonant coda.

  4. I just saw a BBC show that mentioned cervical cancer. The host emphasized the second syllable of 'cervical' and pronounced it so that it rhymed with 'like'. The two Australians there agreed with the one American that they would emphasize the first syllable and rhyme the second with 'lick', possibly schwaified (which word google tells me has already been discoverd, alas).

  5. While it is true that English syllabification rules favour complex onsets, a different rule takes precedant here - namely, you can't have syllables ending in weak vowels such as TRAP, KIT and the vowel here in question, DRESS. Therefore it's most definitely 'zeb.ra'.

  6. English syllabification is theoretically controversial, as approaches attempt to account for various phenomena, such as distribution of tense and lax vowels and glottaling (mentioned in earlier comments), aspiration of voiceless stops, flapping of /t/, the sonority hierarchy, and so on. One approach allows medial consonants to be ambisyllabic, and this would be the case for the /b/ in BrE zebra. The first syllable is /zeb/ (coda after lax vowel) and the second is /br@/, with maximization of syllable onsets, and no syllable contact law violations as would be in zeb.ra where coda /b/ is less "sonorous" than onset /r/. The /b/ is in both syllables at the same time, i.e. ambisyllabic.

  7. coulter: Good point. Vitamin is not so odd after all!

    JC: While English does allow codas, even particularly heavy ones as you noted, such things only arise when there's no possibility of sticking the material in the onset. In the case of strengths, there's no second syllable to put any of those consonants into. But in strengthen the "th" sound goes into the second syllable, thus lightening up the coda of the first. That's the kind of case we're looking at (or listening to) in zebra--the matter of what to do where two syllables meet.

    Thanks to anjodjuna and max for the phonological help!

  8. My natural inclination (BrE/Scottish) is to use zee for both the animal and the crossing although I'm used to hearing both pronunciations.


  9. I (Southern BrE) tend to say "zee-bra" but don't "take it strange" (Northern Ireland!) if someone says it with a short "e". And I always read it as "vitamin", with short "i", but our (BrE) biology teacher at school said it with a long "i".

    What about "migraine"? I pronounce it "mee-graine", but both my Northern Ireland sister-in-law, and my American one say "my-graine".

  10. Growing up in the northwest of England, it was definitely zebra not zeebra. My Glaswegian grandmother pronounced it the same way.

    It makes sense to me that you pronounce it the English way when you're referring to a 'zebra crossing' as that term doesn't exist in American English.

  11. Definitely zee here (ScE, Glasgow). I have heard zeb, but decidedly not as commonly as zee. It strikes me as feeling southeastern English, but that is only a feeling and a striking.

  12. My instinctive reaction was that AmE favo[u]red zeebra because the initial letter is pronounced zee in AmE but zed in BrE. Just as well Grover is a girl so that you didn't have to worry about giving her names like "Cecil" or "Bernard" - cf Cecilia and Bernice!

  13. It's definitely zeb•ra here in East London.

    ze•bra is what holds in ze•tits :)

  14. andy j - we Canadians says zed but zebra.

  15. @canadian.
    "we Canadians says zed but zebra."
    Oh well, there goes my theory, LOL. Although you haven't written it that way, I'm guessing that you meant that Canadians pronounce it 'zeebra', rather than making reference to Lynne's other point about where the syllable break occurs.

  16. Like the Canadians, we, in India, where pronunciation usually follows BrE (or used to follow, sigh), say 'zed' but 'zee-bra' and 'zee-bra crossing'.
    We use the short i in 'vitamin', 'semi-', 'anti-', and others, where I think AmE uses {ai} as in 'die'.
    But the {ai} seems to be more common than {short i} in the first syllables of 'dynasty', 'direction', 'privacy' and 'simultaneous', where I guess BrE uses {short i} :)

    P.S. The parentheses (not annoying) are fine; it would take several levels of nesting to make us lose our stack and find the sentences hard to parse.

    P.P.S. I have always found your blog to be more interesting than Language Log is on average; I don't think I'm the only one :)

  17. I'm an RP-speaker from SE England. Everyone I know says "zeb-ruh" but David Attenborough says "zee-bruh". He's in his eighties, so perhaps it's an age-related thing here, in the way that no one says "Keen-ya" any more.

  18. I understood that 'vitamin' is a synthetic word dating from the early 20thC, corresponding to 'vital amine' - i.e. a (bio)chemical compound essential to life, containing one or more amino (nitrogen groups. Thus, it was pernickety chemistry lecturers who persisted with vie-tamin when their crass students had adopted the vit-amin pronunciation.

    As a BrE biochemist (!) I say vitt-amin, zeb-ra, dinn-asty, sick-lamen (and now I know that the Greeks pronounce Cyclades as Kick-lahd-ase I feel justified), but I do use both priv- and prie-vacy....

  19. The expression "zebra crossing" always makes me smile. I think of something like this: http://anwo.com/store/media/zebra_crossing_2.JPG instead, as one sometimes sees "moose crossing," "duck crossing," etc.

  20. re: cervical

    The GPs I used to work for told me it was CER-vical for the cervix, and cer-VI-cal for the neck vertebrae.

    Maybe that was their personal preference, as elderly British-trained Australian doctors.

    They also couldn't stand medicine pronounced with three syllables, preferring med-cine over med-i-cine.

    Sorry to go off-topic. This Australian says zeb-ra, my-graine, vy-tamin and din-asty. Very inconsistent.

    Another oddity is yoghurt - I reckon it's yo-(rhymes with go), not yo-(as in dog).

  21. Angie, you might be inconsistent but at least this Australian agrees with you. Also pry-vacy, sim-ultaneous.

  22. shreevasta: "We use the short i in 'vitamin', 'semi-', 'anti-', and others, where I think AmE uses {ai} as in 'die'."

    While using a short 'i' in "vitamin" would be quite unusual in the versions of AmE that I am familiar with, in "semi-" and "anti-", the case is more complex.

    I might say either "sem[ai]circle" or "sem[ee]circle" (I don't know how I choose which pronunciation to use, but I use both). I think I would only use a short 'i' in words such as "sem[i]nar" and "sem[i]nal".

    Similarly, "ant[i]dote", "ant[i]pathy", but "ant[ee]proton" and either "ant[ai]trust" or "ant[ee]trust".

  23. Regarding cervical, the BBC show was about women's reproductive health. No backs in sight. (Actually, no cervices were in sight either, but they were talked about.)

    I should have mentioned it above, but I brought up the cervical thing to show that swapping the lick sound with the like sound goes both ways. 'Cyclic' (first syllable) is another example where it goes the other way.

    Is there a general rule that explains when you rhyme with lick or like depending on which side of the Atlantic you're on? I doubt it.

  24. I'm noticing the word pronounced "PRY-vacy" more and more on both BBC radio and TV these days, by British presenters.


  25. With regard to using one pronunciation for neck cervical and the other one for the uterine cervix, this seems to happen because some people are so intolerant of a many-many relationship between words and meanings that they invent their own distinctions to squish it back to one-to-one. An example I have heard also is that some people use the two different pronunciations of plaque (with æ and with ɑː) for two of the different meanings (commemorative sign vs dental bacteria). There are also people who insist that the different plurals of fish (invariant fish vs fishes) have different meanings. All of these appear to be inventions, with no basis in historical or current usage, but that doesn't stop their proponents insisting that Platonically X pronunciation _means_ Y.

  26. "My instinctive reaction was that AmE favo[u]red zeebra because the initial letter is pronounced zee in AmE but zed in BrE."

    Likewise. I kind of assumed it was related to the use of "zebra" as an examplar for "z". So Brits would say "zed as in zebra" while Americans would say "zee as in zeebra". But apparently not.

  27. Yes, I meant Canadians say zeebra like Americans but the letter Z is pronounced zed like the British.

  28. Another interesting one which this reminds me of is how to say Linux. Linus Torvalds says that he was trying to write a replacement for Minix and it should be pronounced in a way that sounds not unlike Minix. This seems to be the prevailing pronunciation in UK that I have heard (I am English). I have, however, heard some people say it like line-ux, perhaps thinking of the name Linus as they do so. I have heard this a lot from Americans. It does seem to me that people on each side of the Atlantic have a 'comfortable' way to say some words that differs from one another - so once the two words vital amine had been condensed to one, BrE conveniently ignored the derivation in order to pronounce the word as it appears to be - and so probably do people speaking AmE even though that actually appears to more accurately reflect the original two words

  29. some people say it like line-ux, perhaps thinking of the name Linus as they do so. I have heard this a lot from Americans.

    Sorry to go too offtopic, but that is ironic: the name Linus itself has a short [ee] in it, "compare prInt, mInImal etc." (Listen here.) So thinking of the name Linus as it is pronounced in America (I guess) is like hypercorrection?

  30. The pronunciation of cervical with a long i derives from the wish to retain Latin quantity. The oblique cases, e.g., cervicis, genitive, have a long i. The same goes for umbilical (long second i) I believe (I am too lazy right now to look it up).

    As a semi-RP speaker I prefer short i myself for both.

  31. Except that the 'long i' in English isn't a long /i/ at all, but a diphthong /ai/, which wouldn't have been said in the Latin source word.

    1. How can you be certain of what wouldn't have been said in Latin? I wonder if you mean republican Latin, imperial Latin or liturgical Latin. Did any of them have a standard pronunciation at any time?

      Julius Caesar was in Britain and a great deal of what he wrote is known, but does anyone at this time know how he spoke. I suspect that the majority of his legionnaires, auxiliaries and administrators either spoke Latin as a second language or only understood basic commands. Also those that had Latin as their native language probably had local dialects.

  32. @Anjodjuna:

    While it is true that English syllabification rules favour complex onsets, a different rule takes precedant here - namely, you can't have syllables ending in weak vowels such as TRAP, KIT and the vowel here in question, DRESS.

    Your proposed "rule" won't fly in non-rhotic accents, like those of most of England. How would you syllabify words like "mirror", "merry", "marry", "sorry" and "hurry"?

    If you try to syllabify "marry" as /mær.i/, then you run into the fact that /mær/ is not even pronounceable in isolation (except perhaps in Irish accents, which are rhotic). Clearly it must be syllabified /mæ.ri/. (Note that "marry" doesn't rhyme with "scary" in England, as it does for most Americans).

  33. Ad vp:
    Maybe the choice is not one between /mær.i/ and /mæ.ri/, but /r/ belongs to BOTH syllables. Such consonants are called ambisyllabic (or a Silbengelenk in German). Don’t get confused by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA): it offers no notation for syllable breaks that are not between segments, but coincide with segments.

  34. @Charlie:

    Ambisyllabicity doesn't really improve things, does it? You still have an unpronounceable "syllable" /mær/.

  35. @ vp:
    I’m not sure about that.
    If the /r/ of /mæri/ is ambisyllabic this implies that there is never a syllable /mær/ in isolation, but a syllable /mæṛ/ which has the property of not being conceivable without the syllable /ṛi/ that follows it. The two syllables share a consonant that inseparably links them to one another and THE POSSIBILITY OF A PAUSE BETWEEN THEM IS RULED OUT. — Ambisyllabic /mæṛi/ is not the same as, say, /mær.ri/ which is composed of a syllable /mær/ and another, separate syllable /ri/, with geminate /r.r/.

  36. Everytime I hear BBC News presenters (for example) say "zeb-ra" and "vIT-amin", it still causes me to stop and have to figure out what they mean, but yet other british pronunciations - which are more drastically different - I don't even think twice about when I hear them (ie "glacier" pronounced "glass-ier" doesn't even cause me to bat an eye) unless someone else is in the room and they react to the pronunciation. Seems odd that the small differences are the one's I notice.

    Oh, and I always assotiated "zed" as being a rare giveaway for someone speaking Canadian English vs. American English, for what it's worth (ie there's a line in an early episode of Stargate Atlantis that comes to mind)

    1. I say zeb-ra but understand zee-bra. On the other hand I say vai-ta-min rather than vita-min. Vit-al would confuse me since I am used to saying and hearing vait-al.

      I feel this topic is off the mark. The use of Zed or Zee as the name of the letter seems to vary more within a country than between the countries. For example “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was not a Canadian or British production but it prominently featured a character named Zeb Macahan. He was mostly referred to as Zeb and occasionally as Zebulon, but I can’t recall that anyone called him Zeeb.

  37. Nick Caulfield wrote (rather a long time ago now):

    I have, however, heard some people say it like line-ux, perhaps thinking of the name Linus as they do so.

    American Linuses may pronounce the first syllable of their name as 'line' but the Swedish-speaking Finn Torvalds rhymes it with, well, Lynne.

    1. Swedish (meaing the language) is a word (the English one) for Svenska (meaing the language) and often pronounced (by the natives) as “Sveeedish. I thought Linux was the offspring of UNIX and a penguin (pingviiiin). Linus rhymes with minus (Linus rimmar med minus) no doubt and in Sweden “lynne” means mood (and in any language this is way off the topic). Well the “Prodigal Tongue” is published so here we go.

      Yes, I would say that Finn (but not Torvalds) rhymes with Lynne, so the first syllable of Linus has the same phonetic values as “lee.” The Swedish “i” sound is found in the English words bin, fin, kin, king, sin, sinking and win. It also corresponds to “e” in between, keen, queen and seen.

      For the second syllable you need to know that the Swedes do not pronounce “u” as “a” so it should sound like “o” in moon, soon, room and spoon or like “u” in June and Jupiter.

      For Li•nus and Li•nux the first syllable is stressed and stretched. The sound of the letter “i” is maintained a lot longer than the single letter appears to indicate. The second syllable is short and the pitch (tone) usually drops a note or two.

      If the above seems difficult then try “lean noose” for Linus.
      Also try saying “lee nukes” for Linux.

  38. Zebra is a native African animal. Therefore, how the English speaking African pronounces it, should be the correct one. Right, Deebra?

  39. "the OED lists the zee pronunciation first" — That was outdated. You were looking at an entry written for the First Edition in 1921. The British preference for the "zeb" pronunciation rose during the 20th century; the OED's Second Edition could theoretically have noted it, but it was produced on a tight schedule and they didn't have time to update pronunciations. (Meanwhile, Americans have preserved the older "zee".)

    The phonetician John Wells tracked "zebra" and other disputed pronunciations with pronunciation polls, and reported the results in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. The 1988 poll already found 83% preference for "zeb", and furthermore, it was rising with time: for younger speakers (born since 1962), the preference was 96%. So the commenter above who mentioned David Attenborough's age was quite right.

    The OED's Third Edition updated "zebra" in 2018, and the "zeb" pronunciation is now listed first for British English. The etymology is worth reading, too: it doesn't come from an African language but from Italian and Portuguese, and originally referred to striped feral horses in the Iberian peninsula; it was transferred to the African striped equid by Portuguese colonists in Africa.

    Moral of the story: Always be aware of the entry date when citing the OED!

  40. In the 1955 movie "Dam Busters," one of the Lancaster bombers has markings AJ-Z, making the plane Z-Zebra. When Guy Gibson (played by Richard Todd) is communicating with Z-Zebra's pilot via radio during the attack, he pronounces it "Zebra" (short e) and not "Zeebra."


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