Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Salmon and Salmonella

William Hupy has one of the sharpest eyes for quirks of language that I know of. Today it occurred to him that, while we skip the pronunciation of the L in salmon, we clearly pronounce it in salmonella. He wondered why.

Let me begin by saying that whether the L is pronounced in either word depends on where you are from: I’m from the South and we pronounce the L in both words sharply. I’ve been kidded about my pronunciation of salmon for decades in Pennsylvania, where I live now.

Salmon and salmonellaAmong people raised in the North, however, unless L is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced [U] (the vowel sound in would and should), that is, before (voiceless) consonants and at the ends of words. My sons, who were born and raised in Pennsylvania pronounce milk [miUk] and hill [hiU]. This pronunciation is certainly common throughout PA, southern NY, and NJ. (In Serbian, by the way, L becomes other rounded vowel, O, in the same positions and is written that way. The past of biti “to be” is bila  “she was” but bio “he was”.)

Now, since the L in salmon appears before a consonant, we would expect it to be pronounced [saumon] in these regions, as we hear almond sometimes pronounced. Most folks up North, however, have adopted the simpler pronunciation [sammon].

That leaves us with the question of salmonella. The problem here is probably what we might call ‘retroinfluence’. Though pronunciation is supposed to influence spelling (I’m not kidding; even in English), sometimes it works the other way around. We probably see salmonella written more frequently than we hear it spoken, so pronounce the L. We more than likely hear salmon more frequently than we read it, so the pronunciation change turns up there.

7 Responses to “Salmon and Salmonella”

  1. Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira Says:

    Among people raised in the North, however, unless L is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced [u] (oo), that is, before consonants and at the ends of words. My sons, who were born and raised in Pennsylvania pronounce milk [miuk] and hill [hiu].
    The same thing happens in Brazilian Portuguese. The L at the end of syllables is pronounced u. That’s why lots of people have trouble spelling mau (bad) and mal (badly) correctly. And most Brazilian speakers of English pronounce code and cold alike, as well as ode and old, coat and colt, and many more.

  2. rbeard Says:

    It is a common shift among many languages.

  3. rbeard Says:

    In my experience, pronouncing cold as code is limited to those times when you have one and your nose is stopped up. If I had done a complete description of the [l] > [U] phenomenon, I would have mentioned that this shift occurs only before voiceless consonants, i.e. consonants made without vibrating the vocal cords, e.g. [p], [t], [k] and not their vocal correlates, [b], [d], [g]. Colbert and bulb preserve the [l] in pronunciation up North. In fact, after [ol], the [d] tends to drop. We even write old as ol’ but the [d] is often dropped after bold, gold, and similar words. 

    The interaction of the sound [l] with other vowels and consonants is rather complicated, which goes a long way in explaining the mismatch between spoken and written English.

  4. Steve Says:

    In the summer of this year, ’09, there was a salmonella outbreak and I watched a PBS show where a doctor was interviewed. The doctor pronounced salmonella without the “l”, like salmon.It is an everyday word for a doctor. The PBS announcers ponounced the “l”. I knew the doctor was correct since that is how salmonella was pronounced by the professors in school in the late 70’s when I was taking bacteriology and pathology. I was surprised the dictionary now has the “l” pronounced. Salmonella is named after Dr. Salmon (a northerner) and I believe the pronounciation has probably been changed due to people learning by reading and not hearing,as mentioned above. I may be wrong but I think most people who had a scientic education don’t pronounce the “l” in salmonella.

  5. Randy Says:

    I pronounce Sal-mon with the “L” sound included. Never have understood why it’s pronounced Sa-mmen.

  6. David Says:

    Regarding your last paragraph – the proper pronunciation of the word “often” IS the same as “soften” – since the 1500’s, as expressed on various pronunciations sites, including Merriam Webster’s audio, you don’t pronounce the T in either word. You will hear people who say it that way, but that is incorrect.

  7. Robert Beard Says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I fixed it.

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