Q: I would like to know why some people pronounce “aunt” like AHNT and others like ANT. I grew up in the Midwest where everyone said ANT, but I now live in NYC where everyone says AHNT. Please explain which is correct.
A: A blog reader wrote in earlier this year with this explanation: an AHNT is a very rich ANT. But, seriously, the word “aunt” has two correct pronunciations: ANT (like the insect) and AHNT.
Both pronunciations are given, in that order, in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).
The first (ANT) is by far the predominant American pronunciation. The second (AHNT) is common in the Northeast, some Southern dialects, and among African Americans.
British speakers today also prefer the second pronunciation (AHNT), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
But many phonologists and other scholars have shown that the pronunciation of “aunt” varies widely in Britain, and that “ant” and “aunt” are pronounced the same by many speakers in the northern counties.
In fact, ANT was once the preferred pronunciation in Britain, so the dominant American pronunciation is actually older, a relic of British usage in the late 18th century.
The linguist and lexicographer M. H. Scargill has written: “Acceptable late-18th-century British pronunciation rhymed ‘clerk’ with ‘lurk,’ ‘caught’ with ‘cot’ and ‘aunt’ with ‘ant,’ and those pronunciations are the ones immigrants brought with them.”
The “a” in words like “after,” “aunt,” “last,” “past,” “class,” “dance,” “path,” and “chance” is pronounced the old way (like the “a” in “bat”) by most Americans, while most British speakers now pronounce it as “ah.”
In its entry for “aunt,” the Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes that the ANT pronunciation “was brought to America before British English developed the ah in such words as aunt, dance, and laugh.“
“In American English,” Random House adds, “ah is most common in the areas that maintained the closest cultural ties with England after the ah pronunciation developed there in these words.”
If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog item earlier this year about the pronunciation of “vase.” Yes, once again the typical American pronunciation has history on its side.
I go into much more detail about British and American pronunciation in “Stiff Upper Lips,” a chapter in Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, written with my husband, Stewart.