centenary and centennial

In the review I just posted, I used the words sesquicentennial and sesquicentenary, which reminded me of a topic that's been on my list for some time.  It came to me from Ann S:
I'm just back from two weeks in England [...] We were over for WINGS 2009, which stands for Windsor INternational Guide and Scout camp.  The festivities included the kick-off for the centenary of Guiding (I think it's a one-year celebration and that the actual anniversary is next year). 

"Centenary" isn't the word we would use in the US; we would say "centennial".  And we would pronounce the second syllable with a short 'e', while they pronounce it with a long 'e'.
Some good observations from Ann there.  The centennial/centenary divide works as well for multiples thereof, so in Massachusetts, they've had the Darwin 2009 Bicentennial Project and at Down House, Darwin's home in Kent, they've celebrated his bicentenary.

Because the second 'e' in centennial is followed by a double consonant, it's fairly clear that it should be pronounced as a short 'e'--i.e. the second syllable is ten.  But if Americans were to say centenary, they would expect to pronounce it with a ten there too.  In fact, you can hear the American Heritage's pronunciation of it on WordNik.  I'm very bad at explaining pronunciation differences, and I can't explain this one (phonologists...help!).  It's not down to different stress patterns, as both dialects usually stress the second syllable.  I thought at first that it was the same as in plenary, then reali{s/z}ed that Americans generally pronounce it with a short 'e' and British with a long 'e' (American and Australian pronouncers can be found here) but now I've found that there's little agreement about how these are pronounced--see the comments. So, now I'm totally confused...but I've just asked my colleague Herr Doktor Phonologist, and off the top of his head he says:
This, I think, is just randomly assigning one of two possible pronunciations of the letter "e" in a borrowing from Latin; it's orthography-based pronunciation anyway, and I think the letter is ambiguous between a short and a long vowel. [...]  to be a bit more confusing: there is an old (and now mostly unproductive) rule of "trisyllabic laxing": a long stressed vowel becomes short if followed by two short vowels, hence sereene but serenity, sayne but sanity etc. Applying TSL should give you pleenum but plennary, for example, but this "rule" is pretty much only in the lexicon now and has acquired lots of exceptions.
So, BrE speakers who say 'plennary' and 'centeenary' are following the rule for plenary and not for centenary, but AmE speakers who say 'pleenary' and 'centennary' go the other way (though, I have to say, I don't think I've ever said PLEEnary in AmE, no matter what the dictionaries tell me).  And it's probably not surprising that AmE tend not to follow the rule for centenary, since it's a word we're unlikely to encounter and so rely on rules and analogy with centennial (which people of my age know well from our country's bicentennial in the 70s...and lots of other bicentennials of towns and other institutions since then).


  1. This long 'e' in BrE reminds me of the curious case of their pronouncing classical '_e' diphthongs (ae,oe) as 'ee.' Thus /eedipus/ rather than Oedipus, /eeschylus/ rather than Aeschylus et cetera. Am I wrong in this, or is it both a real phenomenon and connected to the topic in hand?

  2. I think both sesquicentenary and sesquicentennial are words that would be rarely used in British English except in very formal or academic contexts - we'd simply say "150th anniversary".

    Searching google.co.uk under "Pages from the UK" gives about 103,000 results for "150th anniversary" (including the quotes), while there are about 4,940 for sesquicentenary.

    I know the number of results Google reports can be inaccurate, so comparing the first page of actual results should be quite telling. "150th anniversary" gives us much more popular people/places such as the V&A museum, Big Ben and of course, Darwin. The first page for sesquicentenary gives us much less well-known results such as Karl Pearson, Ludwig Leichhart and the Linnean Society of London. About half the results here also appear to point to Australian sites, so I'm guessing it's a reasonably common term in Australian English as well as American.

    I don't think in fact that I've ever heard the word sesquicentenary or sesquicentennial from a Brit and when I came across it in your book review, even given the context of On the Origin of Species, I still checked an online dictionary, just to be sure...

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  4. A slightly more technical explanation of the vowel difference - after asking my partner to pronounce 'Centenary' it looks like he (BrE) pronounces the second vowel as /i/ whereas I (AmE) would think to pronounce it /ɛ/.

    The BrE pronunciation is more closed than the AmE, which is typical of BrE in general, I believe? BrE likes to vowel reduce and simplify pronunciations more than AmE (CF: Birmingham), though it's not always the case.

  5. In my old, uninformed, days if someone had said to me: "Next year we're having our centennial," I would have facetiously asked: "Your centennial what?" You see, I see centennial as an adjective, centenary a noun. Wiktionary has biennial as an adjective but (infuriatingly) as a noun too, though it's a flower, not an event with gowns, hoods and a finger-buffet with Princess Anne. BTW, a few years ago I was up at Leeds, my alma mater, for their 100-year celebrations and I enjoyed it so much that I said to the vice-chancellor: "We must have these centenaries more often," and he gave me a strange look. While I'm on, can I speculate that AmE "alternate" is synonymous with BrE "alternative" and that that AmE use is spreading in Britain? Thus, in England, "alternate" is increasingly used to mean an option rather than "every other". I'd also be interested to know, please, if, in AmE, "mistrust" has (as in BrE) stopped meaning "trust by mistake" and started meaning distrust. For Christmas my kids gave me the box-set of The West Wing (154 episodes; 112 hours) and I'm loving it. A question: is that how AmE speakers normally speak? Are they speaking cool Democrat rather than angry Republican?

  6. And all this time I was pronouncing it "sent'nary." Three and a half syllables. (Dictionary.com does give that as a secondary pronunciation.) Never occurred to me that anyone would stress the center syllable.

    And people who are a hundred years old are "sent'narians" too. The hundredth anniversary, though, is a centennial.

    Sesquicentennial is a word that, although not in common use, pops up occasionally in American newspapers. Many things in the US are 150 years old or so. California's sesquicentennial was in 2000.

  7. I'm a Brit, and I'd go for plEEnary over pleNNary -- perhaps that's an Aussie oddity.

    But I agree with Graham that sesquicentenary is a very very rare word. Almost as bad as quasquicentenary, which I had to look up when some genius used it.

  8. I can hardly think of any instances where I've seen the word sesquicentennial used, but I do remember back in 1998 (was it really that long ago?) that the state of Wisconsin celebrated its sesquicentennial and put it on license plates. http://lightanew.com/images/WebPics/WisPlate01.jpg That's the only instance I can recall seeing sesquicentennial used. My high school recently celebrated its 150th anniversary as well, and plastered "150th Anniversary" all over its stationary, instead of using the somewhat cumbersome sesquicentennial.

  9. @jhm "This long 'e' in BrE reminds me of the curious case of their pronouncing classical '_e' diphthongs (ae,oe) as 'ee.' Thus /eedipus/ rather than Oedipus, /eeschylus/ rather than Aeschylus et cetera."

    I'm sorry, but this makes no sense to me. Are you saying that Americans do not pronounce Oedipus as /eedipus/ and Aeschylus as /eeschylus/? If so how do they pronounce them?

  10. @RWMG That is correct. AmE use the /ɛ/ vowel at the beginning of Oedipus and Aeschylus - the vowel in the middle of 'men'.

    I would elaborate on why but I am being pushed out of the house, if someone else has not by the time I'm back I'll post again.

  11. @Graham - The Linnean society, being taxonomists, are probably more comfortable with latin than most, which may explain why they opted for sesquicentenary. I expect those wanting to celebrate Big Ben or the V&A opted for a word that doesn't (to the wholly ineducated ear, i.e. mine) immediately suggest something closer to 600 years...

    I too (British) would opt for PlEEnary, but I would have heard the word first at international conferences so who knows where the pronounciation came from

  12. I'm glad to see BrE speakers saying 'pleenary', because that's what I thought you said, before I looked it up in dictionaries and believed them.

    For the oe/ae issue, please discuss back at the appropriate post, so that your comments are there for people who might need them!

  13. @lynneguist

    I (AmE, Mid-Atlantic/NE) would pronounce plenary with an /ɛ/ and not an /i/ and the New Oxford American agrees with me. It doesn't even list an /i/ pronunciation for AmE.

    The Compact Oxford (BrE), conversely, lists /i/ but not /ɛ/. My BrE partner pronounces it /ɛ/, though, but as a very early reader he has a long history of pronouncing words as he read them and not as they would generally be pronounced.

    Ever accurate and distinguished Wikitionary agrees with /i/ for BrE and /ɛ/ for AmE.

    Were you seeing it otherwise in official sources like dictionaries? I'm inclined to think that the online pronunciation you linked to is either an aberration or a regional difference.

  14. Well, first I asked Better Half, and he said "plenn". Then there was the thingie that I linked to that had the AmE speaker doing "pli". Merriam-Webster and Random House(AmE) have pli- first.

    Macmillan, which offers both a BrE and AmE version has pli- for both, with no 'plenn' version.

    But the OED does have pli- as BrE then plenn- as AmE--so, obviously, I must've skipped that step. Will issue a correction!

  15. See updates in the post now. I've put new material in green.

  16. I do miss having the OED around to check pronunciations - almost enough to make me want to go back to Uni just for access! If only because it actually uses IPA so I don't have to decode a different 'laymans' pronunciation system for each dictionary I look at.

    It's interesting that the actually American AmE dictionaries list /i/ first (at least, I think that's what you mean by pli-?) while the Oxford American lists /ɛ/ only. Do you know if the Oxford American is actually written or checked by Americans or do they just base it off the OED?

    Maybe /i/ is a west coast thing. They're weird. Hollywood has taken away our dictionaries! Or something.

  17. Oxford has a North American dictionary branch, so I assume that the Oxford American is thoroughly checked by Americans. But every dictionary, even the OED, has its blindspots.

  18. The Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary is the best one I've found on the web for noting AmE-BrE differences. It gives only the /i/ pronunciation for plenary for both. For centenary it gives /i/ first, then /ɛ/, for both; it notes "US usually
    centennial" but doesn't pronounce it.

    Relatedly, I postulate that the variant "tricenten[ary|nial]" (of the more common "tercenten[ary|nial]") is relatively more common in AmE than BrE.

  19. Hmm. AmE speaker here, and I'd say plenary as "pleenary" because when I learned the word that's how I learned it, not because I'm following a rule about long or short e. In fact, when I was reading the post, I encountered the pronunciation "plenn-ary" and assumed it was another word, like centenary, that I'd never encountered before, right up until the end when you gave the pronunciation as pleenary and I realized it was a word I knew!

  20. @Cheyan

    Where in the US are you from? I'm more and more inclined to think this is a regional difference.

  21. @Lowell

    I'm from Montana, but my parents moved there from New York and Pennsylvania.

    It may be relevant that I've only ever heard the word in the phrase "plenary indulgence".

  22. I'm British, and I've never heard it pronounced any other way than PLEEnary! And always a long stressed e in Centenary, too.

  23. A block of the core of Harvard College--the area that's separated from the better known Yard by a row of buildings--was named Tercentenary Theater during the 1936 300-year celebrations.

    I'd always heard it pronounced Ter cen TEN nary, but a few years ago I heard a radio announcer during Commencement pronounce it Ter CENT en ary. Nary an ee in the house.

  24. Thank you so much, Lynn, for addressing my query about centenary and centennial. I still have my celebratory (another word pronounced rather differently on each side of the pond) hat from the Guide Centenary, and here in California I still see quite a few sesquicentennial license plates on cars.

    I would normally pronounce plenary with a short 'e' also, but seldom have occasion to do so.

    I have recommended your blog to numerous friends who also have an interest in language differences between British and American English. Thanks again.

  25. superdinosaurboy04 January, 2010 20:55

    As another BritE speaker, I'd normally say/expect to hear [pli:nari] for "plenary" (very rough transcription there...). Actually, now I come to think about it, does anyone ever say [plaineri]? Or is that just interference for me from Lat. plenus?

    On a related note, Brian Moore, who commentates on rugby for the BBC always surprises me by saying "penalise" with an [ɛ], where I would have [i:]. OED suggests that this is an American pronunciation; Brian comes from Birmingham via Yorkshire, so I've no idea if this is also a possible Midlands/Yorkshire pronunciation, or just an idiosyncracy (analogy with "penalty"?).

    In general, sesquicentenary strikes me as rather sesquipedalian!

  26. I learnt "sesquipedalian" recently and I've been looking for an opportunity to use it ever since. Sadly, I've just been beaten to it so I'll have to keep waiting.

    I'm completely with Mrs Redboots on pronunciation of plenary and centenary (I speak BrE) and I'd definitely always put a long e in penalise.

  27. How would a BrE speaker pronounce "centenarian"? (Always assuming, of course, that the word is in use in BrE.)

    FWIW, for me (midwest/western AmE, mostly), penalty, plenary, centenary, and centenarian all have the same vowel.

    Oh, and "sesquicentennial" is pretty familiar. Smaller cities and towns look for any opportunity for a celebration, and centennials come along too seldom for convenience. Much of the US (especially the parts that I've spent the most time in) was first settled by English-speakers within the last 200 years. Combine those and you'll find quite a few sesquicentennial fairs and the like.

    An old joke seems apposite: The English need to remember that in the US, 100 years is a long time. And Americans need to remember that in England, 100 miles is a long distance.

  28. I'd pronounce centenarian with a short e, as for centennial. (BrE speaker)

  29. It's /ˌsɛntəˈnɛəɹiən/. It differs from the American pronounciation in:
    1) the "ten" syllable always having a schwa, rather than a syllabic "n";
    2) the usual issue of the quality of the letter "r";
    3) the other usual issue of the quality of the "t" being preserved even in casual speech; and:
    4) that there is some substantial variation in the articulation of the [ɛə] diphthong -- there is some tendency toward monophthongization too -- but aside from that, this is one of those sounds where certain American film directors seem to have a desire to make all British people sound like 1950s newsreaders.

    As for the Oedipus issue, the most subtle one is the word "economic", which I would certainly pronounce as if it were still spelt "oeconomic" (perhaps this is a sad reflection on economists' appreciation of Greek). The American-influenced pronunciation of that one is real fingernails-on-blackboard stuff for me.

    I'm also puzzled as to the extent of American shortening of that vowel. Is it just initial, or would any of you Yanks shorten the vowels in "amoeba", "paean", "caesura", "haematite", "leukaemia", and so on?

  30. Yes, definitely something that sounds like senty-nairian. I agree about oeconomic - but then, I am also old enough to want a short i in "Financial" (although a long one in "Finance") and a short e in "Research"

  31. "I'm also puzzled as to the extent of American shortening of that vowel. Is it just initial, or would any of you Yanks shorten the vowels in "amoeba", "paean", "caesura", "haematite", "leukaemia", and so on?"

    I'll volunteer my services as an American (Pennsylvanian). I don't have the IPA characters easily accessible, so I will "sound out" your words.
    uh-mee-ba (spelled ameba OR amoeba)
    pay-an (spelled the same)
    seh-zoo/zur-rah (can't find in my very small dictionary, but I'd follow the rule from amo(e)ba)
    hem-a-tite (we spell this "hematite")
    loo-key-mee-a (spelled leukemia)

    So, I suppose that you can't entirely blame us for mispronouncing these words as for changing their spelling and pronouncing them as they look.

  32. This comment has been removed by the author.

  33. "the curious case of their pronouncing classical '_e' diphthongs (ae,oe) as 'ee.' Thus /eedipus/ rather than Oedipus, /eeschylus/ rather than Aeschylus et cetera. Am I wrong in this, or is it both a real phenomenon and connected to the topic in hand?"

    This is a real phenomenon. It faithfully preserves the traditional English pronunciation of Latin*. (This system was ousted from schools and universities about a hundred years ago in favour of a reformed scheme that reflects better the available evidence for the classical pronunciation of the language.)

    It's possible that this is relevant to the topic in hand. The derivation of centenary and plenary from centenarius and plenus is pretty transparent, and anyone taught Latin with the traditional system would have been accustomed to pronounce these words as "senteenarius" and "pleenus". Maybe this produced a bias among the educated (pre-1900) in favour of the -ee- pronunciation, and this was accepted into general usage.

    * Yes, I know that Oedipus and Aeschylus are Greek, but as their spelling indicates (not Oidipous and Aiskhulos) the traditional convention in English was to use the Latin forms of Greek names and pronounce accordingly.


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