How to Pronounce Mobile

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A reader wonders about the American pronunciation of the word mobile:

When Americans refer to the thing that all of us carry around as our personal digital appendage, they rhyme it with “bill.” The rest of the
world (i.e., where I live) pronounce it to rhyme it with “bile.”

I’m not talking about the adjective “mobile,” but the noun “mobile,” short
for “mobile phone.” Does this have to do anything with the gas company
which sounds the same?

The word mobile functions as both an adjective and as a noun:

The mobile technology may be a lot different in terms of the Internet platform, but they basically share a common medium: the Web.

—Americans pronounce the adjective mobile to rhyme with noble.

Sallie bought a darling Winnie-the-Pooh mobile to hang above the baby’s bed.

—Americans pronounce the noun mobile to rhyme with toe-heel (MOH-beel).

The city in Alabama is usually pronounced MOH-beel. Sometimes it is pronounced moh-BEEL.

The petroleum company spells its name Mobil and pronounces it MOH-bil. Its progenitor, Mobilgas, was founded in the 1920s; Americans were already pronouncing mobile to rhyme with noble.

So, when did those wretched Americans start mispronouncing mobile?

They didn’t.

British speakers shifted their pronunciation of words ending in -ile from a short vowel sound to a long one. OED lexicographer R. W. Burchfield noted, “The division didn’t become clear-cut until about 1900.”

This is how Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations) puts it:

… throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, both British and American speakers pronounced -ile either with a short i (as in pill) or an obscure/silent i (as in fossil). For example, the English elocutionist John Walker, whose Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791) had a profound influence on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 19th century, favored the short i in nearly all -ile words, including juvenile, mercantile, and puerile, citing only chamomile, infantile, and reconcile as long i exceptions.

In the 20th century, Americans were less consistent in their customary preference than the British were in their newfound preference, and the long i made some inroads in American speech.

In regard to the question that prompted this post, Americans call those “personal digital appendages” neither MOH-biles nor MOH-bils. We call them cell phones.

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6 thoughts on “How to Pronounce Mobile”

  1. Haha, until I read your last comment, I was thinking, “Who here [in the US] calls cell phones ‘mobiles’?” 🙂
    Brought to mind some examples from both sides of the pond: Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”) sang about picking up a boy just south of Mobile (i.e. ‘moh-BEEL’ Alabama), while The Who sang about “Going Mobile” (‘MOE-byl’). Of course the pronunciation of a name does not necessarily correlate with anything else (Houston, TX vs Houston St, NYC).

  2. “—Americans pronounce the noun mobile to rhyme with toe-heel (MOH-beel). ”

    What? I can’t let this slide. Is this blanket statement based upon research limited to glimpses of a few televisions shows set in fictional southern towns with characters driving pickup trucks? And by golly gee, we are even sometimes referring to our mobile devices as “mobile devices.” Probably because they are. Probably because every other television commercial refers to them as “mobile devices,” too.

  3. The pronunciation of place names can be very arbitrary (the Alabama city is MOE-BEEL), but as for the pronunciation of -ile words, there are general rules. In SAE, the general rule is that words ending in the suffix -ile are pronounced ‘L. So MOB’l, FRAJ’l, VERSAT’l, JOOVEN’l, etc. RP stresses the last syllables of such words with the desert-isle sounding syllable. The word missile is always pronounced MISS’l, with the stress on the first syllable in American, after that, however, Americans tend to get very sloppy and random about it. I’ll regularly hear someone in the juvenile justice system talk about a certain jooven-ILE down at the JOOven’l justice center in the same sentence. And the Village MercanTILE is never the Village MERCant’l, thought it really should be. Hostile is usually pronounced host’l unless someone is being semi-comical for affect: “Don’t get all host-ILE, man, I was joking!” I don’t know why Americans have such commitment issues with the ISLE (aisle?) but it, like other proper pronunciation, isn’t taught much at all.

  4. There’s some guy at work that actually pronounces it as to rhyme with “noble” and I’ve always pronounced it with a long “i”, that is why I googled this. He’s supposed to be an american citizen as far as I know.

    P.S. I write from Mexico.

  5. “We call them cell phones.” (Or “cellular phones.)
    To do so is more cognizant of the remarkable technology involved, and for that reason alone, it is much superior.
    I have noticed another case in which the British, Aussies, and South Africans (in authority) do not have any confidence in the members of the general public’s being able to understand.
    We use the word “channel” in television to refer to the frequency band that has been assigned to the TV station. In the U.S. & Canada, all such channels are 6.0 megahertz wide, with different carrier frequencies assigned by the government. (The FCC in the USA)
    We have Channel 7, Channel 8, Channel 9, up through Channel 13, and beyond. Channel 7 might be assigned to St. Louis, Channel 8 to San Diego, Channel 9 to New York, Channel 10 to Tampa, Channel 11 to Evansville, Channel 12 to Twin Falls, and Channel 13 to Tucson. Those stations might all be on NBC, or they could be on various networks. Those physical channels are then reused over and over again, just as long as the stations are at least 160 miles apart. (For example, there were seven channel 4’s in Texas alone.)
    In those countries on the other continents (besides North America), they use the word “channel” to mean “network”.
    Hence, in Australia, they might refer to “Channel 1” as an ABC network in which all of the stations carry the same broadcasting, but in Adelaide, Albany, Alice Springs, Brisbane, Cairns, Canberra, Darwin, Fremantle, the Gold Coast, Hobart, Ipswich, Koolgardie, Melbourne, Newcastle, Portland, Port Augusta, Sydney, Wollongong, Woomera, and everywhere else in between. Hence, with no reference to which physical radio channel is used anywhere.

    “Cell phones” are called that because of the remarkable “cellular radio” technology that is involved. By the way, the world’s first cellular telephone system was established in Chicago, Illinois, and one of the leaders in the technology and its production was the Motorola Corporation of Schaumberg, Illinois, in the same county with Chicago. (Cook County, Illinois)

  6. I find this to be a quite interesting topic of discussion, because there are so many philosophical views involved as to how the correct pronounciation is found and used.

    I have been an American citizen of Illinois since birth–as well as a few generations before me–and I will add my own philosophical view on this topic. Looking back in hindsight of how I developed my pronounciations, I noticed that they primarily originated from who I viewed to be the more intellectual parent, and followed their suit. Though, I never actually made it a rule of my own to follow; it just occurred that way.

    I can’t recall this ever being a topic that was stressed in our school system–the school systems here tended to lean towards the idea of ‘respecting the various pronounciations different people had’–not correcting them. I leaned towards correcting–if the sound tended to be out of line with the masses of those others around me. 😁

    I pronounce and always have pronounced ‘mobile’ phone as ‘MOH-bil’ phone. I can’t say that I know a single person who uses the ‘MOH-bile’ pronounciation. If I did, I would imagine I would be from a state much further South of here than Illinois. 😁

    On the topic of pronounciation, there’s one word that I now recall changing my own pronounciation of once I heard how the people surrounding the use of the actual development of the item pronounced it; that word being ‘sabot’, and those people being from the U.S. military. My parent which used the word as well as nearly all of the people around me who used the word pronounced it as it looked; ‘sab-bot’–the ‘bot’ being the same as used in the word ‘robot’. Once the era of YouTube came around, I noticed various military men using the pronounciation ‘say-BOH’, with the ‘boh’ being the same as it is used in “bow and arrow”. Of course here, the ‘t’ in the word is silent. Respecting the idea that a sabot is a type of ammunition developed and originating primarily in military use, then trickling down to use in civilian ammunition used for hunting deer, I assumed the military had the pronounciation correct, and the civilians screwed it up along the way simply due to the way the word appears to look. Also, there exists the obvious disconnect between military and civilian language at times. Now I make an effort to correct those using the ‘sab-bot’ pronounciation, and give as quick of a reasoning as to why it would be pronounced ‘say-bow’ as I can, following the reasoning I just mentioned. 😉 Boy, we sure can get highly philosophical about pronounciations around here on the internet, while others in the average ‘offline world’ could usually not care so much and simply respect how each chooses to use the word. I feel that line is fading though, and we are all trying to correct one another more and more as time moves forward. Hehe!

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