Thursday, February 21, 2013

Why Do Americans Pronounce It "Aluminum"?

As outlined in my growing compendium of word variations, there are thousands of differences when it comes to the lexical choices of both Brits and Americans. Aside from this, though, are countless variations in the pronunciation of words.

One such word is "aluminium", the pronunciation of which has left a number of my American friends bewildered on the spot, since the standard American equivalent famously drops the final "i" to spell out "aluminum."

Indeed, I too was a little befuddled upon hearing the latter spoken for the first time: my initial impression, as a Brit, was that the word "aluminum" was probably some sort of Star Trek reference with which I was not familiar (I pictured some new captain taking command of The USS Aluminum).



But after both myself and the Americans I may have been speaking to dusted off our respective brains, sat down, and breathed for a moment, we came to the realization that the two pronunciations both meant the same thing: a non-soluble chemical element with the internationally recognized periodic symbol Al.

So why do Americans pronounce it "Aluminum"?

British prescriptivists - that is, Brits who do not welcome change to the language - would tell you that the U.S. respelling owes much to "American arrogance"; that it is just another example of "the Yanks needlessly simplifying the language". However, just a cursory amount of research into the matter will tell even the most ardent linguistic conservative that the matter is not quite that simple.

It all began, apparently, when an indecisive British chemist by the name of Sir Humphrey Davy in fact coined the now archaic word "alumium" in 1808. However, referring to the element in his 1812 book Elements of Chemical Philosophy, he would use the word "aluminum", much as Americans do today.

It was British scientists of the time, however, that decided, with a beautiful level of verbosity, that: “Aluminium, for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.”

Be that as it may, scholars in both countries continued to use both variants of the word throughout the early 1800s, only for the industrial boom - and the onset of mass production - to bring the word to national attention (it had largely only been used within science circles initially). 

Devising a new, inexpensive method for producing the metal in 1892, American chemist Charles Martin Hall opted to incorporate the "aluminum" variant - which had gained popularity following its inclusion in the 1828 Webster's Dictionary - on his advertising literature, despite having used "aluminium" on all of his patents. It could be argued, then, that "aluminum" in fact remained in the American vernacular quite by accident, if it is to be believed that the variant used in his advertising materials was nothing more than a typo.

"Aluminum" would later be accepted as the official spelling by the American Chemical Society, and though the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry officially recognizes "aluminium", its American counterpart is accepted as an alternative.

History aside, part of me still prefers to imagine a group of Klingons storming the bridge of USS Aluminum. Perhaps this notion will prove, during debates about the word's history, a far more concise, if inaccurate, explanation.

Sometimes, it's better hearing me in a British accent. Click the red button below.


Laurence Brown is a British man writing his way through the truly bizarre world of America - a place he sometimes accidentally calls home and a place he still hasn't quite figured out after seven years. Thankfully, his journey is made 12% easier by the fact that his accent makes him sound much smarter than he is. For evidence of this, subscribe to his popular Lost in the Pond web series over on YouTube.

37 comments:

Molly said...

This is one of the words that my Husband and I often debate - and I am very interested that Humphrey Davy first coined 'aluminum' as I am from his 'neck of the woods' and attended the school named after him! I think I will keep that secret otherwise I'll never hear the end of it . . . Thanks also for visiting my blog and leaving your comment.

Laurence Brown said...

Any time, Molly. It's interesting: the more I look into certain American English words - such as "soccer", "aluminum", "candy" etc - the more words I find that originated in British English. I hope that by compiling a number of posts on the matter, I will be able to settle arguments rather more quickly. LOL.

Jack Marek said...

Just as the author feels that Aluminum sounds like Star Trek reference, I (an American who has spent time in both the UK and Australia), has always thought Aluminium sounded like an ancient Roman city, with brave Aluminian warriors facing off against the Spartans or the Gauls. None the less, I love the differences in our common language, though I realize that at time it can be confusing, especially for non-native speakers.

nfitz said...

Thanks for this post, I've often wondered about the differences in pronunciation of this word, among others. While reading, I was remembering that my mother (who grew up in Arkansas and had her own dialect) pronounced it "alumium", which I thought was just because she didn't know how to say it correctly. Then, I saw that this had been a pronunciation in the past. It's good to know Mom didn't completely make up (thus) word!

Anonymous said...

This is not a pronunciation difference - it's a SPELLING difference. Brits spell it aluminium and (correctly ) pronounce it that way, whereas Americans spell it aluminum and pronounce it (also correctly) the way they spellit. A pronunciation difference would be the way we pronounce, for instance, tomato - same spelling but different pronunciation

Melissa S. said...

I have heard this explanation or theory before, that in fact, some of the words we are accused of pronouncing incorrectly are indeed being said correctly by most Americans and it was the British who changed the pronunciation somewhere down the line. Nice to have someone pointing this out. Just because we're different doesn't necessary mean we are wrong! A great book on the history of the English language is called The Story of English by http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0140154051/ref=oh_details_o01_s00_i00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

Interesting, I recently found a show by the same name. It talks a bit about how our accents have changed as well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FtSUPAM-uA

Carolyn said...

Thanks for this article, it's cool to know the history behind this! It reminds me of when I was doing my college study abroad in London (Londinium). I was at the library avoiding doing my actual homework. There was some computer game that tested you on the abbreviations for the elements. When I got up to Al, it kept marking my answer Aluminum as INCORRECT. After about 5 tries and a bit of swearing I finally looked the word up and realized that it is spelled Aluminium in the UK!! (red face)

Which brings me to my question. As a Brit in the USA, how do you feel about converting to our spellings? Obviously, not for this type of blog, but for general writing. I have two minds about this. On the one hand, it would seem a bit rude to tell a British person that they are spelling their words incorrectly when they are living in America. However, as in my anecdote above, I would definitely be compelled to convert my American spellings to British ones if I were back in Blighty.

Laurence Brown said...

Hi, Carolyn

Being a bit of a language geek, I actually enjoy using the American spelling when required. For the most part, I know a lot of the differences by heart. It's actually dates that I still have to really think about. As in 29/12/2013 vs. 12/29/2013.

macsnafu said...

What? You mean that there was no British naval vessel called the H.M.S. Aluminium, fighting off Spanish and French privateers? ;-)

Anonymous said...

Today Ignoramuses having been asleep at 'hell-eh-que-shion' classes but trying to sound posh pronounce 'Aluminium' as Al-you-minium...dead wrong from the Brit and the American pronunciation! The material that Sir Humphry Davy found to contain the metal was a substance used in dyeing and as a styptic for wounds called Alum -with the 'lum' as in 'lump'.

Anonymous said...

This pronunciation is from the folks who don't know that a condominium is an aluminium birth control device!

Anonymous said...

Sorry but when the article states "that we came to the realization that the two pronunciations both meant the same thing: a non-soluble chemical element with the internationally recognized periodic symbol Al" Its wrong.
The american spelling actually refers to a different type of metal which is either an alloy or compound of aluminium I cannot remember which. The Americans may not mean to refer to this but they are. I do not wish to offend anyone with this comment so i apologize if i have caused offence.

Anonymous said...

The report on Jeremy Clarkson spoke about a fraycus. I know it and spell it as fracas. Why the change in this case?

Anonymous said...

The element itself is taught as aluminum in american schools, not just the compound.

-American Chem Student

Tishma Sarkar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
This British-American Life said...

My husband is a chemical engineer working the States but also does business internationally, including with the U.K. If he worried about this, he would drive himself crazy. He just uses either pronunciation/spelling depending on the context.

This British-American Life said...

I forgot to add that he is English.

Unknown said...

I've come to this a bit late...sorry...

My understanding is that 'ium' is applied to some/all metals/elements (where relevant) in the periodic table, e.g. chromium, potassium, radium etc. Not a very good explanation, but I'm sure you get it. Anyway, aluminium is one of these, therefore it is suffixed 'ium'.

Anonymous said...

I would like to get to the bottom of why people use "further" and "farther" interchangeably. It seems as time goes by, people use farther more and more. It seems that Americans like to use words that make more sense to them and disregard the English language, eventually making their form of a word acceptable. I use "further" when implying a greater distance. "Farther" means to continue. For example: Just a little bit further. And I plan to farther my education. I believe Americans, use farther more often because it contains the word "far" and in the mind of a typical American, this makes sense. I think it makes us sound uneducated.

Skyy said...

If BRITISH scientist Sir Humphrey Davy coined 'aluminum', why are the British giving American's shit for correctly pronouncing the word? I get that us Americans have an incredible amount of faults and wrongdoings but pronouncing this word is not one of them, with your discoverer of ALUMINUM as our witness. A-LU-MIN-UM

Ben Swaine said...

You have things mixed up

tate19641 said...

As Skyy said (which I didn't know until I read it):

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aluminum

aluminum (n.) Look up aluminum at Dictionary.com
1812, coined by English chemist Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), from alumina, name given 18c. to aluminum oxide, from Latin alumen "alum" (see alum). Davy originally called it alumium (1808), then amended this to aluminum, which remains the U.S. word, but British editors in 1812 further amended it to aluminium, the modern preferred British form, to better harmonize with other metallic element names (sodium, potassium, etc.).

Ned Ludd said...

As to different spellings of words, most of it has to do with Webster's first American dictionary where he arbitrarily made the spelling of some more phonetic. An example is "plow" instead of "plough". When I was a child I wondered not only what the second meant, but also how it was pronounced. After some time and reading, I got used to it.

Ned Ludd said...

As for "farther" and "further" mentioned by Anonymous above, Americans, at least me, use the exact opposite. No American I know would say, "I plan to farther my education." As to distance, we would say "That place is much farther away."

Philip said...

It doesn't matter if the guy who came up with this word first spelled it as Aluminum, it's etymologically wrong, the suffix "-ium" comes from latin and is the correct spelling for chemical elements. If grammatical mistakes can be considered correct just because prople started using it, then now I'll call Aluminium "Blosherk" and everyone will have to accept it. The body of my phone that I'm using to write this, is made of Blosherk by the way.

Sunshine said...

People always seem to seek out something to debate. I personally enjoy learning the differences in American and British English. This is especially true for colloquial conversation. I'll never forget being on an elevator (lift) in the West Mids and being asked,"That's your tea?" I thought he was referring to my wine, and responded, "No. Wine." He had, in fact, been referring to my pizza. "Oh, so the pizza is just for show then." I was mortified that I forgot tea was dinner. That will never happen again.

Sunshine said...

People will find anything they can debate and disagree on. I personally enjoy learning the difference between the American and British English dialects. This is especially true for colloquial conversation. I will never forget stepping on an elevator (lift) in the West Mids, and being asked, "That's your tea?" I responded, "No. Wine," forgetting that tea was dinner and he was referring to my pizza. "Oh, ha, the pizza is just for show then."I was mortified then, but now I have a laugh every time I think about it. I enjoy our differences.

xyz abc said...

Now tell me how you go on called Worcester Wuhstuh? And isn't there some weird, outrageous spelling for the name Tomly?

Anonymous said...

To xyz abc: I believe you're referring to Cholmondeley, which is pronounced chum-lee. We Brits like to keep people on their toes. Perhaps it's just to create shibboleths ;)
Other fun examples include Magdalen/Magdalene College in Oxford/Cambridge, pronounced maud-lin. This peculiarity derives from the gradual lengthening of the 'a' sound to more of an 'or' sound (as in 'fall') in the regional accent during the Middle Ages... if you say Magdalen (as it appears) with a long 'a' it comes out as morg-dorlin, which quickly shortens to Maudlin (the 'g' disappears by making the gd part become a sort of diphthong).
Further fun examples include Beauchamp, said as Beech-um, and the truly wonderful Featherstonehaugh, pronounced 'Fanshaw' -- yes really.

Marko said...

Thank you! I've always wondered about this myself!

Unknown said...

Farther relates to physical distance. Further is used metaphorically. That mountain is alot farther than it looked. I want to further my education.

Todd Secor said...

haha

Sally said...

Can you do a post on just what it makes British so haughty that they always assume that the variance in language is American laziness. I am an American living in London for 8 years now, and my children even get this crap from their teachers and peers at school. Language is living, end of story. And as you point out, many of the variances in American English are actually more English than current English versions.

So what the heck? Why so snobbish? Can you address that for me please? I'm very tired of it.

Unknown said...

Stupid British Scum

Caleb Kuester said...

The person who discovered it called it both aluminum and aluminium.

Anonymous said...

Now that is truly funny. Why in the world would Americons incorrectly spell and pronounce aluminum.

herschelian said...

My son sent me the link to your post after I wrote a Facebook post about the way the Americans pronounce the word BUOY as 'boo-ee' not 'boy' as we Brits do ...yet they say 'buoyant' and 'buoyancy' in the same way as us! Strange but true! Love the explanation about Aluminium/Aluminum. Two nations divided by a common language - as Churchill said.

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