Monday June 13, 2005

Yosemite Sam

Here's something that's probably happened to every bookish person at one point or another: you learn a word by reading it rather than hearing it spoken and you guess at the wrong pronunciation based on the spelling; later, when you try use it in conversation, you discover your error, and other people's hilarity ensues.  I've heard this phenomenon referred to as a reading pronunciation before—see this Language Log post, for example—and I heard an interesting example of it the other week on the NPR quiz show Wait Wait—Don't Tell Me!

During the 5/28/2005 episode, about 6:56 into the show, panelist Roxanne Roberts tries to make a joke comparing John Bolton to Yosemite Sam, but she discovers that she doesn't know how to pronounce Yosemite correctly.  Much to the amusement of the other folks on the show, she pronounces it YO-sem-ite rather than yo-SEM-ih-tee.

Now, I've had my share of reading pronunciations corrected over the years—for the longest time I thought moiré was pronounced MWAR instead of mwa-RAY—but Roberts' mistake strikes me as particularly unlikely.  Yosemite Sam is a cartoon character, so you'd expect that the usual way to learn his name is to hear it spoken aloud on TV or in a movie theater.  Somehow, though, Roberts learned the name of the character but not how it's pronounced.  I can think of two ways this could have happened: either (a) she only knows the the character by reading about him, or (b) she learned the character's name by hearing it, then later learned the name of the National Park by reading about it but guessed the pronunciation incorrectly, and somehow the reading pronunciation of Yosemite overwrote the correct pronunciation.  Neither of these possiblities strikes me as terribly plausible, though.

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Tracked on Jul 28, 2005 3:11:53 AM


I never heard the term reading pronunciation before. Thanks for the heads up on that one. It happens to me all the time, I read voraciously and avoid socializing as much as possible. So when I do socialize I occaisionally throw out words with incorrect pronunciation.

Posted by: EFL Geek at Jun 13, 2005 4:10:58 AM

I heard that as well, and my reaction was the same as yours. I can't come up with any reasonable explanation.

Posted by: KCinDC at Jun 13, 2005 5:36:23 AM

What's unreasonable about the idea that she has only seen the name in writing?

Posted by: language hat at Jun 13, 2005 9:33:19 AM

If I hadn't watched countless hours of Bugs Bunny, I would have said YO-sem-ite too.

Posted by: sigg at Jun 13, 2005 12:30:23 PM

Perhaps, she only encountered the character in comic books?

Actually, I do like the idea of Bolton as the "rootin'est, tootin'est cowboy West of the Pecos!"

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Jun 13, 2005 12:32:22 PM

Well, this is quite understandable if you follow the logic and she had never heard it pronounced. The general pronunciation rule is on the syllable at the end which is /mite/ which should follow the rule of the /e/ modifying the the /i/ as in words such as _hat_ to _hate_ and _mat_ to _mate_ etc. But seeing as it's not an English word ( is it aboriginal?) the pronunciation is difficult because to make it "yo-SEM-ih-tee" instead of "YO-sem-ite" it should have an accent on the last /e/ to indicate this.

By the way, my personal howler was "awry", which I always pronounce "orree" until I was corrected by a friend.

Posted by: Alistair at Jun 13, 2005 6:37:52 PM

I don't remember the exact line, but in a Halloween Simpsons, Marge & the kids are running from something:

Marge: Kids! Run like the wind (long i, as in bind)!
Lisa: Mom, it's run like the wind (short i, as in sinned)!
Marge: Well, I've only ever seen it in books!

I tried to get the line right by googling it, but there's disagreement. Many voted it the worst joke on the episode, if not the season. It's the only one I remember...

Unrelated, when I was student teaching, I pretended to mock consternation in front of my high school class by doing a Yosemite Sam impersonation, but it came out:

I tried to go ahead with the lesson like nothing had happened, but I had to finally stop and admit I'd said the F word. Man.

Posted by: eric morse at Jun 13, 2005 7:49:51 PM

When I was a kid I thought "bedridden" was the past participle of a verb "bedride" (and accordingly pronounced it be-DRID-den). Embarrassment ensued.

Posted by: language hat at Jun 14, 2005 9:22:00 AM

I always throught from reading that the word awry was pronounced "AW-ree", and thought "a-RYE" was a different word.

I still think "AW-ree" sounds better.

Posted by: Joy at Jun 17, 2005 12:32:43 PM

Yes, Alistair, that's clear, but the question is how it's possible for her to have encountered Yosemite Sam only in writing. She was the one who brought up Yosemite Sam, so it's not like she was reading something someone else has written.

As a kid, I somehow managed to think "chagrin" rhymed with "gangrene" despite the absense of an "n" after the "a".

Posted by: KCinDC at Jun 18, 2005 9:17:57 AM

From the point of view of a Spanish speaker, English needs badly an orthographic reform. However, I think English native speakers in general manage quite well, considering the difficulties of the correspondence between spoken and written language. I imagine it must be very confusing for a child, like learning Chinese or something ;) It sure was when I was starting to study English as a foreign language.

Posted by: pwyll at Jun 18, 2005 9:40:49 AM

I got Yosemite wrong too, despite having watched the cartoon. How? I thought the character's name was Sammity Sam, and never saw it written. I only ever read about the national park, therefore making no connection between the two. Did I look silly when I was found out!

Posted by: Laura at Jun 19, 2005 4:06:33 PM

I read an article ages ago saying that this phenomenon was a sign of intelligence.

Well-read (thus presumably intelligent) people read words before they hear them.

This happened to me with "ennui" as a child for example.

Less intelligent people would be less likely to use a word they hadn't heard before.

Posted by: Steve at Jun 29, 2005 11:29:46 PM

Hat's mispronunciation sounds like a deformation of what I think is a Low Saxon dialect word for shitting up something, bedritten (standard Dutch cognate: drieten), which wouldn't perhaps be a mile off for a small boy.

Posted by: trevor@k’alebøl at Jul 28, 2005 2:23:08 AM

Just happened across this entry; over a year late, but wanted to mention that I too mispronounced "Yosemite Sam" (in this same way) when I was a kid. We didn't have a television, and even though I grew up in northern California, I either had never heard of Yosemite or never associated the spelling with the word. I first encountered the name in a comic book. I did occasionally see Bugs Bunny cartoons at friends' houses, but I very rarely saw that particular character in the few cartoons I saw, and I have a vague memory that he was usually just called "Sam" anyway.

I think my parents eventually corrected my pronunciation, so it didn't last into adulthood. But I don't see anything really implausible about people having this mispronunciation.

Posted by: Jed Hartman at Sep 4, 2006 8:56:10 AM