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Monday, November 2, 2015

Due process

There was a very overblown media brouhaha last week about the health risks involved in eating processed meats.

But there's a much more burning question than "Is bacon going to kill me?", to wit: 
Is "processed" pronounced PROSSessed or PROsessed?"
This is another North America/Rest of the World divide:

British, Australian, New Zealand, and South African English dictionaries: PRO sess
American dictionaries: PROSS ess, PROsess
Canadian Oxford Dictionary: PRO sess, PROSS ess

Is this another example of American pronunciation corrupting the pure unsullied English speech? Quite the contrary. As with so many examples we have seen of North American/British differences, it would seem that "PROSSess" is older and "PROsess" a newer development.

The word has been in the language since the 1300s. John Walker's Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language from 1795 gave only the PROSS pronunciation. Indeed, for the word "progress", subject to the same dual pronunciation, Walker (a prescriptivist whose dictionary's title page famously included the description "Rules to be observed by the Natives of Scotland, Ireland, and London, for avoiding their respective Peculiarities") had this to say: 
"This word is frequently, but improperly, pronounced with the first syllable long, as if written pro-gress. But the analogy of pronunciation evidently tends to shorten the vowel in the inseparable preposition when the accent is upon it, and therefore the nouns produce, progress, project &c. have very properly the o in the first syllable short."
So much for Walker's prescriptions, the English went their merry way saying "PRO-gress" and "PRO-cess", influenced no doubt by free-standing "pro".  PROSSess was still listed as an alternative British pronunciation when the first OED published its entry for the word in 1908, but by 1917 was described as "rare" in Daniel Jones's Pronouncing Dictionary, which finally dropped the pronunciation for its 1989 edition.

But meanwhile on this side of the Atlantic we kept the older pronunciation alive.

Another oddity about the word "process" is how people pronounce its plural. Here in North America, in addition to "PROSS/PROsess iz", some people say "PROSS/PROsess eez". This is a bit of a mystery, the best explanation being that people use the "eez" ending by analogy with words like "analyses" and "theses". Whatever the reason, this pronunciation is common enough to be in major North American dictionaries. 

How do YOU pronounce "process"? And "processes"? Do you have any feelings about the pronunciations that differ from your own?

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  1. My American students all seem faintly amused when I say 'pro-cess' and as far as I can tell it's one of the few remnants of my English upbringing still evident in how I talk. But my students probably think it's cute, if they think about it at all (sort of like my stories of growing up near Oliver Cromwell's barn).

    1. You grew up near Cromwell's barn? In St Ives, Hunts.?

  2. As an American, I'm all about "pross-ess." But I spent a couple of years in the UK working in technology, and I noticed as I was approaching the end of year 2 that this was slipping--it started feeling almost normal at that point to say "PRO-cess." Good thing I returned to the U.S., whew. :-)

    As an aside, I work with so many people from so many places around the world (still in technology) that non-American pronunciations (including the occasional differences among our Canadian friends) are unremarkable. Of course, if one of my non-work friends were to suddenly pop out with PRO-cess, that might raise an eyebrow or two.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.