Linguistics Pronunciation

Our word for the day

Q: I grew up in rural Indiana and I’m accustomed to hearing “our” sound like “are” instead of “hour” (the way I say it). But I now hear the “are” pronunciation from many celebrities, even Hillary Clinton. Is this getting more common or am I overly sensitive?

A: We think you’re being overly sensitive to something you’ve only recently noticed.

The word “our” can properly be pronounced either way, according to both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) and the Oxford English Dictionary.

In standard American pronunciation, these dictionaries say, the vowel in “our” can sound like the one in “mop,” or it can be a diphthong like the one in “out.” (A diphthong is a gliding pronunciation in which two sounds merge.)

But the lexicographers at The American Heritage of the English Language (5th ed.) take a narrower view. Their pronunciation key gives only one pronunciation, the one like “out.”

In our opinion, Merriam-Webster’s and the OED are right, and both pronunciations are legitimate. In Iowa, where Pat was born, and in other parts of the Midwest, particularly in rural areas, one is much more likely to hear “our” pronounced like “are” than like “hour.”

So the “are” pronunciation is not new or unusual, and it’s no surprise to us that you’re hearing it in the mouths of well-known speakers.

It’s our guess that you only recently became aware of this pronunciation, and now you seem to hear it everywhere.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the “recency illusion.” The linguist Arnold Zwicky came up with the term, which he has defined as “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

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