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PAI: P RONUNCIATION OF A CRONYMS & I NITIALISMS A case study Amanda Payne
W HAT ARE ACRONYMS & I NITIALISMS ? In most cases, they are considered to be the same thing – “a word formed from the initial letters of other words”. For example - “scuba”. Strictly speaking, an initialism is an acronym where the letters are pronounced individually, like “CPU”. This either/or definition is problematic because there are many acronyms pronounced in multiple ways. For example, many internet acronyms, like “LOL” and “ROFL”, as well as “URL” and “SQL” have more than one ‘acceptable’ pronunciation.
I NTERESTING ACRONYMS Not all acronyms are either words or strict initialisms. Some are blends of both or pronounced in a unique way, like JPEG AAA (“triple a”) NAACP UConn, UMass CD-ROM
A LINGUISTIC ANNOYANCE? A common grammatical pet peeve deals with acronyms like ATM, PIN, and CD. Fairly often, people say “ATM machine”, “PIN number”, and “CD disc” -- implying that these acronyms have truly become new words, as the speakers aren’t intentionally uttering “automated teller machine machine” and other redundancies.
T HE TREND OF ACRONYMS Rarely do acronyms seem to go from being pronounced as letters after previously being pronounced as a word, but many acronyms have started out pronounced as letters & trended to being pronounced as words. Example: AWOL. Historical example!: the English word “cabal” actually comes from the names of five committee members in the 1600s: C lifford- A rlington- B uckingham- A shley- L auderdale. So, acronyms have been around for a while.
C AN THE PRESIDENT CONTROL ACRONYMS ’ PRONUNCIATION ? An article written in 1955 had the following to say about the pronunciation “veep” (V.P.) for “vice president”: “The survival of veep in its national political sense was made unlikely when Vice-President Nixon, shortly after entering office, expressed a preference for its discontinuation. Consequently, it is a near certainty that veep will pass out of general use and will eventually fall into linguistic obsolescence” (Baum 108). However, theCorpus of Contemporary American English shows multiple uses of ‘veep’ from 1990 to 2010, so clearly the pronunciation has survived despite Nixon’s preference.Corpus of Contemporary American English
W HAT MAKES SOME ACRONYMS PRONOUNCEABLE AS WORDS AND OTHERS NOT ? Some possible factors include: Origin of the acronym Phonological constraints in the target language, like consonant clusters Length of the acronym Speakers’ familiarity with the meaning / frequency of use Capitalization Context And, probably, many more!
G ATHERING DATA – THE CASE STUDY 10 participants were each asked to read aloud 20 sentences and then 20 words, containing in total 20 different acronyms Afterwards, they were asked what they thought each acronym meant or stood for. The study was intended to show: 1. If there was a difference in pronunciation between standalone acronyms and acronyms in sentences 2. If knowledge of the meaning of an acronym affected pronunciation.
A CRONYMS INCLUDED Chosen from the acronym dictionary at Sidenote: this website is very useful and interesting, but I question its ranking algorithm:
A CRONYMS INCLUDED The following words were tested: TMI AOL PEMDAS MADD DPS LAPD OMG JK BMI NATO IRA FAQ JPEG UPS NAACP PIN GUI URL ROFL SAT
UNFAMILIARITY Not surprisingly, most people knew most of the meanings. The only words people didn’t always know were: PEMDAS, DPS, and GUI. Taking a closer look at these words may reveal a trend of familiarity = pronunciation as a word.
PEMDAS - “P LEASE EXCUSE MY DEAR AUNT SALLY ” ( A MATH M NEMONIC ) 5/10 people knew the meaning and 5/10 didn’t.
D PS – DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY 2 didn’t know the meaning; 8 did.
GUI – GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE Only 4/10 knew the meaning; 6/10 did not.
UNFAMILIARITY Based on these 3 acronyms, it seems that familiarity correlates with acronym pronunciation as a word. However, of the remaining 17 acronyms that are familiar to everyone, several are still pronounced as letters fairly often. Even acronyms like “FAQ”, “URL”, and “SAT”, which could be conceivable words of English, are frequently pronounced using letters. Why?
L OOKING DEEPER AT ‘ LETTER PRONUNCIATIONS ’ There seems to be no clear answer. Putting the acronyms in context made no noticeable effect, (except with ‘GUI’ – more on that soon), and a great number of acronyms were pronounced as letters. A possible answer – ambiguity? SAT and URL as words could be confused with “sat (verb)” and “Earl”, but speakers don’t often have trouble with this type of ambiguity, so that probably isn’t the reason. Maybe the pronunciation has fossilized, or maybe a change is in the beginning stages of progressing!
B ACK TO GUI – DID CONTEXT MATTER ?
M AYBE. With such a small sample size, it’s hard to say if having context helped speakers to “remember” the meaning of the word. However, it’s possible! Looking at context vs. no context shows virtually no difference otherwise.
C ONCLUSIONS Context wasn’t shown to have a powerful effect on pronunciation Familiarity, however, may lead to pronunciation of an acronym as a word. A better study is needed!
REFERENCES The acronym dictionary.http://www.acronymfinder.com/http://www.acronymfinder.com/ COCA. Abbreviations & Acronyms in English word- formation. Cannon, Garland. American Speech, From 'Awol' to 'Veep': The Growth and Specialization of the Acronym. S. V. Baum. American Speech. Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1955), pp The Acronym, Pure and Impure. S. V. Baum. American Speech. Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1962), pp