Tomayto or Tomahto?

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DM asks:

Why do Americans say tomayto and English speakers say tomaato? What is the rule in this case?

This simple question led me on a fascinating journey. When I did a Google search for “tomayto, tomahto,” I got 211,000 hits, most of them having nothing to do with pronunciation.

Because of the song, tomayto, tomahto has come to be used as an expression meaning “unimportant difference.”

The tomato originated in South America. The Spaniards first brought tomato seeds to Europe in the 1540s. The seeds produced a yellow tomato. Because of the color, an Italian botanist called it pomo d’oro, “golden apple.”

The tomato was also known as “love apple” and was used principally as a decorative plant. Because the tomato belongs to the nightshade family, many people refused to take a chance by eating the fruit. The leaves are poisonous. An organic pesticide can be prepared from them, but as everyone knows by now, the fruit is edible.

The word tomato comes from the Nahuatl word tomatl. The Aztecs called it xitomatl, “plump thing with a navel.” Its botanical name is Lycopersicon esculentum, “wolf peach.” Peach because it is round and wolf because the French botanist who coined the Latin name wished to convey its poisonous, and therefore dangerous, nature.

So what about the English pronunciation?

When the first tomatoes were grown in England in the 1590’s, Shakespeare (1564-1616 ) was a young man. The Great Vowel Shift, which began in 1450, was in full swing.

An example of a word whose pronunciation changed between Chaucer’s time (1343-1400 and ours is abate. In Chaucer’s time it was pronounced with a broad a. In Shakespeare’s time it was pronounced with a short a. In modern English it is pronounced with a long a.

Chaucer would have belonged to the “tomahto” school–if there had been any tomatoes in England for him to talk about. Shakespeare would have fallen in the middle with “tomaeto” (short a as in cat and half).

At some time in the eighteenth century, speakers in southern England began pronouncing formerly short a words like half, calf, laugh, after, path, aunt, and can’t with the broad a of father.

At first the broad a pronunciations were considered “substandard,” but they eventually made their way into the standard speech of the upper classes. Not everyone found them acceptable.

Writing as late as 1921, H. L. Mencken mentions an English contemporary who felt that the “tomahto” pronunciation was “pedantic” and not to be preferred to “the good English tomato, rhyming with potato.”

Nowadays “tomahto” is considered British pronunciation and “tomayto” American, but many Americans pronounce tomato {and aunt ) with a broad a.

Either pronunciation is considered standard. The only “rule” is to go with the pronunciation you prefer. Either is easily understood by other English speakers.

Lyrics to “tomayto, tomahto song

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15 thoughts on “Tomayto or Tomahto?”

  1. What a great post. Anyone reckon that the competing pronunciations of Nevada – Nevahda and pajama – pajahma are an extension of the tomayto-tomahto divide?

  2. I’d always thought it was the American tendency to ‘spell out’ spellings – like ‘anti’ and ‘multi’ (ending ‘-eye’ in the USA, ‘-i’ as in ‘bit’ here in Britain).

    Of course in non-English languages (ALL non-English languages, as far as i remember), ‘a’ is never ‘ay’. That has always made me feel the Brit way was superior! ;0)

    Frank, i have only heard the ‘ah’ vowel in the middle of those words. Do you pronounce them ‘Nevayda’ and ‘pajayma’, then?

    I’ve always wondered, too, why we have ‘pyjamas’ while the US spelling is ‘pajamas’. The etymology (not that i know anything about phonology when it comes to Hindi and Persian) suggests to me that the USA has got it right in this case.

  3. Very interesting study of the pronunciations, but forgot the southern version of tomato and potato. I hear ‘maters and ‘taters as much as I hear the other versions. Even printed on menus and other places the use of taters is used for any manner of cooked potato, and I have seen many stores use taters and maters to label the produce in the store.

  4. The name of the state of Nevada comes from the Spanish word for “snow-covered.” So, people who pronounce it as Nevahda maybe are trying to be true to its Spanish origin. My husband tells me (he lived there), anyone who pronounces it as Nevahda is not from there, or even from the western US. As a westerner, I agree that pronunciation is uncomfortable to hear. Nevadans now have a saying: pronounce the middle “a” as in gambling.

  5. mand’s contribution above hit me in a sore place. During my lifetime there have been many pronunciation changes in English (esp. the US variety), but none that annoys me so much as the switch from an ee sound to an eye sound in prefixes such as semi- and anti-.

    I cringe every time I hear someone refer to what we used to call a trailer truck as a sem-eye or when a group is described as ant-eye-war. This pronunciation change occurred at some time between 1960 and 1980, but I wish it never had.

    I suppose second in cringe-inducing power for me is the lack of awareness amongst Americans that such a change had never occurred at all — as though these words had always been pronounced with the eye sound.

    Let me assure you that having been a member of an anti-war group many years ago I never heard any contemporary of mine refer to it in any other way than an antee-war organization.

  6. Roberta, in the UK we have the ‘ah’ versus ‘a’ as in ‘gambling’ divide between north and south, noticeable in the pronunciation of words like ‘path’ (the short ‘a’ is northern, long ‘ah’ southern and part of what distinguishes a ‘BBC accent’). Therefore from this side of the Atlantic, the difference you mention between the States sounds like no more than this kind of regional accent difference.

    Andy, i hadn’t known the USA had ever said ‘anti’ etc the way i think of as British. (You are American, i gather?) I don’t like the ‘-eye’ in these words, either, purely because it betrays the Latin (etc) origin.

    I wonder if the very clear ‘spelling out’ of sounds has been influenced by the great variety of nations and, thus, languages that historically make up the USA. If English is your second language or if you’re speaking to someone whose English is not their mother tongue, perhaps you’re inclined to regularise the sounds by giving vowels their ‘book-learnt’ values. A huge generalisation, i know, but after all a smaller proportion of the UK population has overseas background within living memory.

    I’ve always thought this may explain such monstrosities (to my ears – no offence meant) as ‘Wagner’ pronounced ‘wag-ner’ instead of ‘Vahgner’.

  7. Yes, the language of immigrants does have a big influence on pronunciation. For example, my home town of Montebello was named by Italian immigrants. So, the double-L is pronounced as it would be in Italian, or even in English with a slightly shorter L-sound. However, the town now has a very high residency of Spanish-speaking immigrants who say the name of the city as Montebeyo, giving the double-L the sound of Y. Their congresswoman even pronounces it that way. Talk about a monstrosity to my ears! I suppose many think it always was that way, but was named long after the area was lost as a former Mexican territory. It’s not like it’s going back to a pre-colonial pronunciation (like Mumbai for Bombay?). I don’t live there now, but I’m kind of sad about the loss of the tradition. I’m sure the same can be said for other areas.

  8. Mand – you’re right about ‘book-learnt’ values. ‘Spelling pronunciation’ is when, instead of pronouncing a word as it has always been spoken (oral tradition if you will) the speaker renders the sound of the word’s spelling. There are lots of examples of this, and the cause is basically – literacy!
    Me too. I’m from northern England and the ‘anteye’ pronunciation drives me crazy, and so does ‘an ‘erb’ for ‘a herb’ for example. And pronouncing the article ‘a’ (atonal vowel as ‘ay’) All heard from Americans (sorry!)

  9. but many Americans pronounce tomato {and aunt ) with a broad a

    Yes; the New England pronunciation of “aunt” always makes me laugh – doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of their accent at all.

  10. Hello, I just want to thank….

    I’m a native spanish speaker I was looking for the right explanation of those words and I found it. Great Controverse!!! and very helpfull!

    I certainly prefer British English!!!, sounds Sofisticated and more polite, I say it like a Spanish Listener!!!

  11. Valerie – “I’m from northern England and the ‘anteye’ pronunciation drives me crazy, and so does ‘an ‘erb’ for ‘a herb’ for example. And pronouncing the article ‘a’ (atonal vowel as ‘ay’)”

    So you find one pronunciation that deviates from its roots and the other that stays to its roots as annoying? ‘erb’ is the original pronunciation in English and true to its pronunciation in French and Latin. I think what you mean to say is that you find any accent different than your own as annoying. Also, the article ‘a’ is usually pronounced ‘uh’ (schwa sound). It’s pronounced like the letter only when adding emphasis.

  12. I don’t think the “New England” pronunciation of aunt Peter refers to is NE or regional at all. It is simply an affectation. Aunt rhymes with ant it the SAE pronunciation. Has been historically. It doesn’t sound like it fits with the rest of any American accent because it doesn’t.

    The article seems to indicate that the American short ae sound is actually older than the modern British “a” of father in the relevant cases. Funny how often that turns out to be the case. Cf jewelry/jewellery, or got and gotten.

    Sorry Valerie. Don’t know about the north of England– can’t see it on my globe cuz I don’t have my magnifying glass handy, :). The argument for the long vowels in the English pronunciation of Latin is a strong one. Ant-EYE, sem-EYE, stAYtus, dAYta, etc. are generally preferable. And whenever I hear someone pronounce the H in herb I want to know who Herb is and what he has to do with any of this. The silent H is, again I believe, the older, traditional pronunciation.

  13. Great post. When I moved to the UK, I spent the first couple of days at Holland Park Youth Hostel in London. On the very first morning, at breakfast, I asked most distinctly for ‘tomayto’. The waiter made me repeat over and over again. Then he sneered ‘Do you mean tomahto? It’s not pronounced like potayto you know’. I told him I had always used ‘tomayto’ version and got around fine, although I had heard the ‘tomahto’ version used by some speakers. He was most adamant that ‘tomayto’ did not exist, and concluded ‘You can’t even speak English’… And I thought staying in a Youth Hostel was meant to be a multicultural experience… I’ll go back to using ‘tomayto’, just to antagonise BNP and EDL voters!

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