Z is for Zee, Zed, & Zebra: The Vagaries of Language, Pronunciation, & “Proper English”


If you stumbled upon me through the A to Z Blog Challenge, welcome.  If not, check out the challenge and all those participating at their site.


My very last strange thing for the month, is Z.  Yep, my topic is the letter itself.  It’s strange for a number of reasons, but today, I’ll be focusing on global pronunciation (in English).

People who speak the US version of English pronounce the letter z like it rhymes with see/sea/tea.  Most everyone else in the world follows the British lead and pronounces z like it rhymes with head/bed/dead.  If I’m unaware of some other pronunciation, please let me know.  I’m always happy to expand my understanding of how various people use and pronounce English.

This pronunciation can often migrate to other words.  For example, the two respective groups use the e sound from pronouncing z to pronounce zebra.  There are plenty of other examples of how the two groups pronounce various words differently.  Aluminum is one of my favorites.

Discussing the different pronunciations leads to other variances between language use in different areas.  There are words that just don’t mean the same thing if you’re in a different country.  These are some of my favorite language puzzles.  I’ve had pen-pals in other countries in the past and it’s fun to explain to each other the various words and phrases when we’ve thoroughly confused each other.

Mention biscuits and gravy to someone British or Austrian ant they will think you’re eating sausage with your cookies.  It took me three emails to explain to my Australian friend that a biscuit is kind of like a completely unflavored scone only slightly fluffier.  At least that was the best description I could come up with.  We did a lot of image explanations for things like this.  I sent her pictures of Pillsbury biscuit canisters and she sent me pictures of Australian brands of biscuits, most of which fall in the category of cookie here in the US.

We were mostly corresponding via email, so the pronunciation differences never came up, but there are plenty of places where the accent someone speaks with can make the same language virtually unintelligible.  There are places in the Southern US where the accents are so think and drawled that I start losing my ability to understand someone.  And there are places like that in most countries.  There are several cities in Scotland that have a reputation for unintelligible speakers.  When I was studying in Dundee I was told that the city had the worst accent anywhere in the country.  I don’t know if it was true or not.

Accents aside, there’s still a bit of an argument between the US and British (sometimes Commonwealth to include the other largely British influenced countries) versions of English.  Which was is “Proper English” with a capital p?  Most of the time, the argument comes down to either where you’re from (Americans claim it’s the US version and Brit’s claim it’s the British version) or it comes down to arguments about age, which Britain wins in factual numbers at least.

Personally, I think all of us and none of us speak proper English.  I believe is descriptive grammar after all, which basically means I believe the grammar “rules” should be based on how people actually speak and write and use language, rather than the rules being written down in a book and not changing for years (that would be prescriptive grammar).  After all, a lot of those grammar rules they’re always trying to make us use are from Latin.  We speak a Germanic language.  It has different rules than Latin.  You can’t end a sentence with a preposition in Latin without leaving out the object of the preposition.  In English, we’re pretty good about putting the object before the proposition.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” is a perfectly valid English sentence thank you.

Basically, what I’m saying is that language is strange.  People are strange.  Pronunciation is strange, and z is most definitely strange.

Thank you so much to all the A to Z bloggers who have stopped by this month.  And thank you to my regular readers for your patience and I waded through strange things for a whole month.  I’ll be back to my regular Friday morning posting schedule starting next week.


Image of zebra courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


4 thoughts on “Z is for Zee, Zed, & Zebra: The Vagaries of Language, Pronunciation, & “Proper English”

  1. Bugger – keyboard spasmed. Try again.

    I refuse to enter the argument as to whether the English as spoken in England is more proper than the English as spoken in America, except to suggest that the clue is in the name 😉

    • English is a language that is spoken differently by each individual speaker, just like every other language. I’m a descriptivist when it comes to pronunciation and grammar though, which makes me the odd ball in this conversation most of the time. I don’t really care which is the proper English or any of that, I just love learning about all the different ways it’s used by all the people who speak it. 🙂

      • I can happily cope with differing accents and pronunciations (it did take me a while to realise that when an Indian colleague said ‘missionary’, he meant ‘machinery’, but we got past that); differences of meaning, however, can be more troublesome. While living in Lagos, Nigeria, I was about to go into the city, when one of my drivers said, “I will follow you.” “Fine,” I said and drove off. It took a while to realise why he was jumping up and down and waving furiously as I left. To him, ‘follow’ meant ‘come with’.

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