“Ahnt”

I’ve written before about a trend I first noticed in my students, then observed in the wider world: eschewing the common or standard spelling, pronunciation, or version of a word in favor of one that is or seems more British. Examples include amongst (instead of the traditional among);  the British spelling grey (gray) and the faux-British spelling advisor; and pronouncing often as “off-ten” and either as “eye-ther.”

I’m far less certain about the causes for the trend than that it exists. Hypercorrection would seem an obvious explanation, though it’s puzzling why this would present itself especially among the young, or at a moment when formality is otherwise on the decline. Maybe, come to think of it, it’s a reaction to the casualness that’s rampant everywhere else.

In any case, I have a new specimen for the case: the pronunciation of the word for your mother’s sister. In the United States, there are two main alternatives. One is to sound like the insect, “ant” (“ænt” in the International Phonetic Alphabet). Centuries ago, it was pronounced that way throughout the British Isles, but then much of southern England switched to “ahnt” (“ɑnt” in IPA). And that’s the second U.S. pronunciation. In the nationwide dialect survey conducted by Bert Vaux of Harvard around the turn of the 21st century, 75 percent of the respondents reported saying “ant” (shown in blue on the map below) compared with 9.6 percent for “ahnt” (red).

Screen Shot 2016-11-30 at 10.10.56 AM

Clearly, the “ahnt” pronunciation — along with an additional 2.5 percent who reported rhyming the word with “caught” (“ɒnt” in IPA) — is concentrated in New England. (It’s how Rosalind Russell–born in Waterbury, Connecticut–says the word in the 1958 film Auntie Mame.) In addition, it is the “typical” pronunciation among African-Americans, according to Algeo and Butcher’s The Origins and Development of the English Language.

Vaux, now at Cambridge University, has continued his investigations under the project title Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes. The results for aunt would seem to confirm my anecdotal observation and hunch that a change is afoot: A mere 60 percent of respondents now report saying “ant,” and 25 percent either “ahnt” or “awnt.” Hot spots for the latter include (besides New England) Virginia and the Upper Midwest.

I conducted my own semi-scientific test and listened to the 20 most recent times Americans have said the word on National Public Radio’s air. Eleven said “ant,” including Tom Hanks, Joe Biden, Gene Wilder’s nephew, and the hosts Rachel Martin and Terry Gross (the last was overdetermined, since Gross is a Brooklyn native in her 60s whom one would invite to a “cawfee tawk”). Of the nine who said “ahnt,” five were from the traditional African-American group. But there was also an 18-year-old New Yorker whose parents were born in Ecuador, a white drug counselor from Minneapolis, the reporter Hansi Lo Wang (a native of Philadelphia and a fairly recent Swarthmore graduate), and, in the biggest surprise, Weekend Edition host Scott Simon, a 64-year-old Chicagoan.

What’s missing is a generational study, testing the hypothesis that the growth in “ahnt” has been fueled by millennials. To paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, can someone please science that up for me?

13 responses to ““Ahnt”

  1. How about “auntie,” a nickname for one’s aunt? In my experience, that is always pronounced “ahntee” instead of like the contribution to the poker pot, ante. Is there any variation with “auntie” that you’ve heard?

  2. I grew up with the ANT variation, but it is one of a few words where I never know which one is going to come out of my mouth until after it does (caramel is another word that does that to me, as is crayfish vs. crawfish). I suspect it comes from having lived all around the US over the last 5 decades (I started off in the mid-Atlantic and have a lot of long-term British friends, which may also influence things) . And Carl, I do both ANTee and Ahntee as well (my teen nieces used the first one as children, though the older one has shifted to Ahntee more often than not). To me, the ANT version has just started to sound more wrong over time, though it makes no sense that it has.

  3. I grew up heavily influenced by my grandparents, who lived in Fargo – the center of an Ahnt-lump in the Upper Midwest. There, the preference for Ahnt is due to the persistence of German, which my grandmother spoke into adulthood.

    I’m also very curious about the evidence for “off-ten,” which I recall reading (David Crystal, maybe?) was a result of spelling pronunciations prominent in Midwestern English.

  4. Are the variations in pronunciation due in any way to the spelling of the the word?
    I can’t think of any other word with an ‘”au” that rhymes with a or ah.

  5. And I’m also puzzled by the “faux-British” line; I don’t see any evidence for a UK connection proffered either here or at the original post you linked. To me, as a lawyer, “advisor” is of a piece with “lessor” or “debtor” and leads to controversies over “acquirer” versus “acquiror.” I’m in favor of the -or ending because it underscores a useful distinction between an official and unofficial role. If I buy a piece of pottery I’m it’s acquirer, but that’s quite different from describing Fiat as the acquiror of Chrysler. And my mother may give me advice and in that sense she is my adviser, but unless I someday win the presidency and have occasion for nepotism, she will never be my advisor.

  6. Christa van Gelderen

    I’m a bit hesitant to post this because you either love or hate them, but The Lonely Island wrote a song about ant/aunt. 😛

  7. Pingback: Links #337 | The Honest Courtesan

  8. Of-ten simply sounds wrong to me (British) – I don’t think many people here pronounce it that way. “Advisor” looks foreign/American/Playboyish/pretentious to me. Ahnt/Ant corresponds to the usual southern/northern division in England.

    • Funnily enough, yesterday on the BBC radio 4, I heard “Off-ten” pronounced that way twice by two different people. ?maybe northern English. As for Advisor/Adviser, I’m quite confused as to the distinction in role. Should I have been a Docter? and my daughter a Lawyor..

  9. My guess is that both aunt and often have letters in them that are ignored in standard American pronunciation – something that Webster did a lot of work to remove. If you imagine looking at those two words for the first time but with an understanding of how American words are translated from writing to speaking you would assume that the “u” and the “t” should be spoken.

    Mass media would have done a lot to reinforce the old pronunciation, but in the last 20 years we’ve seen an unprecedented internationalization of media – you could spend the whole day listening to nothing but British radio and watching nothing but British TV, thanks to the internet, and access to vernacular British English is orders of magnitudes easier.

    Without the positive reinforcement of only hearing a single way of pronouncing those two words, I would think a lot of people are looking at them and thinking “With the language rules we have it’s more logical to pronounce them in the British way.”

  10. Wonder why you state advisor is a British spelling, or grey. Advisor I thought was the only correct spelling, but it’s reminiscent of the trickiness around counselor and councilor. As for grey/gray, I use them interchangeably and have never hear an American with any strong opinion (or even idea) as to which is “correct”. They seem completely interchangeable in my experience.

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