Sunday, May 22, 2016

How to pronounce caramel

An anonymous commenter on my last language post made the insinuation that I incorrectly pronounce the word "caramel." An interesting allegation, since one of my friends constantly criticizes my pronunciation of that same word. Surely the commenter could not have been my friend! Surely a friend would own up to their identity when making such an outré claim! Right?

Regardless of who dropped the controversial comment, I think it's time to set the record straight. What is the right way to pronounce "caramel"?

Before I delve into the reference material, let us consider the two sides of this argument, which basically boils down to the pronunciation of the first A. Is it the A of a sigh of relief, such as in most of the Romance languages, the A of words like "car" and "far," (and represented by "a" in the International Phonetic Alphabet, which will come in handy as you read the rest of this post)—the way I've always pronounced it? Or is it the particularly English A of words like "ass" and "bad," (represented by æ in the IPA)—as my friend insists is the only right way?

To get a balanced perspective on the issue, I consulted one of my favorite reference tools:, which searches over a thousand dictionaries when you ask it for a definition.

When I perused several dictionary entries returned by my search for caramel, I found that every dictionary listed several alternative pronunciations. So one thing became immediately clear: there is no single "correct" pronunciation.

However, let's assume that any person who feels so strongly about the superiority of their pronunciation will, much like any fanatic in any other arena, rabidly attempt to create a conflict where there is none. So let's explore the issue further. 

Although all dictionaries surveyed allowed multiple varying pronunciations of the word caramel, every dictionary, by default, has a preferred pronunciation—whichever one is listed first. So I surveyed the results of my OneLook search to ascertain which pronunciation was more commonly preferred in the dictionaries.

After weeding out duplicate entries, links which went nowhere, and entries with no pronunciation listed, I found 13 entries. If the dictionary included a sound clip of the pronunciation, I used the first listed sound clip as their default; otherwise I chose the first phonetic pronunciation listed. The Oxford, Collins, Macmillan, Wikitionary, Wordsmyth, and references ruled in favor of the "æ" sound; while the American Heritage,, Merriam-Webster's, YourDictionary, Infoplease, and Free Dictionary entries leaned toward the "a" sound. The Cambridge Dictionary stated that the "æ" version is a British pronunciation while the "a" one is American, but since the debate over whether American or British English is "better" is an anthill best left undisturbed, I'm leaving those results out of my survey. That leaves us with a six-to-six tie.

If that's not enough to unambiguously conclude that neither pronunciation is any more correct than the other, then I'll be a dirty bird...but, as it happens, I do have one other test that we might use to determine a clear winner. Let's consider the origin of the word!

Words and their pronunciations are constantly developing and changing, but whenever there is a conflict regarding how to pronounce one, I would defer to the earliest origin. For that, I refer to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which states that the word caramel is derived directly from the identical word in French. In French "caramel" is pronounced with a decidedly æ-like first vowel, which would seem to give the win to that pronunciation. However, the French word caramel came from the Spanish word caramel, which would be pronounced with the Spanish "a" sound, lending some heft to my side of the argument. But wait! Looking further, we see that the Spanish caramel derives from the Medieval Latin "cannamellis." At this point, I'm out of my league, not knowing the first thing about Medieval Latin pronunciations or where to look them up, and in fact, no one can know for sure how a language was pronounced in the distant past, so I think it's high time to give up this chase!

Considering the overwhelming number of resources that claim my pronunciation is quite acceptable, I'm going to go right on calling a caramel a caramel (and pronouncing it the way I always have). Anyone who wants to tell me I'm wrong will have to produce a native speaker of Medieval Latin!


Augustus Fabricus said...

Excellent article, I have always enjoyed your posts about the English language. Reading this article put a huge smile on my face, because I can finally provide you with expert insight.

I appreciate the amount of research you put into this long standing fued that you have had with your friend, but I am sorry to tell you that your friend is correct. As a native ancient Latin speaker (you can tell by my name), I cringe when I hear people skip the middle "a" in the word. Carmel? What is that? Some sort of odd shaped automobile? No, cannamellis is pronounced with soft a and all the a's are pronounced. Thus, caramel has three syllables.

Your friend sounds like a very intelligent person, you should probably just defer to his judgement the next time you two have a disagreement. I'm glad I was able to help.

Valerie said...

A soft a is the IPA "a", and since syllables are frequently
absorbed in speech, I stand correct. Thank you, Augustus.

Valerie said...

A soft a is the IPA "a," and since syllables are frequently absorbed on speech, I stand correct. Thank you, Augustus.