route : /rawt/ vs /ruwt/

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Mon Jun 24 05:13:44 UTC 2002

        I think, perhaps to demystify Don's (and others') uncertainty
about the "appropriate" pronunciation of <route>, that the word (and all
of its users) has been the victim of the same sort of prescriptive
pedagogical myth that restored the /t/ in <often> for many speakers.
As an obvious pre-Great Vowel Shift borrowing from French (MW10 gives 13th
c.), the original /uw/ underwent the regular shift to /aw/ (/aew/ in
Southern US varieties). More recently, some would-be "purists" fastened
upon the notion that this is properly a French word (perhaps influenced by
the more recently borrowed phrase <en route>, with /uw/, as Jim suggests),
and the Miss Fidditches of the world (Martin Joos' favorite straw woman)
leaped/leapt on it as another wonderful opportunity to civilize the
uncouth ruffians in their charge. [As usual, consistency be damned, or
else every other Middle English French borrowing would have to have its
original pronunciation restored.]
        My own native pronunciation of <route> is with /aew/, which I
learned early from living in the country with the address of Route 2, Box
58. Somewhere along the line I was exposed to the manufactured
prescriptivism that the "correct" pronuciation was with /uw/, "because it
is a French word", but I have always resolutely resisted this pernicious
effort at language engineering for myself, while respecting the choice of
those who accepted it.
        Many people I have known have had their phonological storage for
this lexical item tampered with, whether they remembered the source of the
influence or not, but often retained the original /aw/ in fixed phrases
such as "paper route", as Doug (I think it was) indicated [this very fact
says something significant about the locus of lexical storage in the
brain]. When the popular TV show "Route 66" was on, it amused me that many
of the viewers of this "/ruwt/ 66", as it was pronounced, lived on /rawt/
        The several responses indicating variation or insecurity, even
from Northerners, points to this retro-shift having been a fairly recent
introduction. My guess is that it originated primarily in the Northeast,
which was (a) most influenced by the prestige of French, and (b) the most
educationally advanced in terms of the training of teachers in the 19th
century. However and wherever the myth originated -- undoubtedly
reinforced by British RP, pointing further to the Northeast -- my
hypothesis is that it was mediated through schoolteachers, and thus began
to acquire a class/register [DInIs] tinge as well as a regional one, but
probably more significantly in the 20th century, as enlightenment spread
to the hinterlands, beginning with the cities, an urban vs rural (also
linked to class/register) quality. Noah Webster preferred /rawt/,
according to his "blue-backed speller".
        The preservation of /aw/ in <router>, noted by Jim and Don, is a
further nice example of lexical separation, and lack of contamination from
the retro-shift. [NB: I wonder how many /t/-users in <often> use it in the
somewhat rarer comparative <oftener>? ] Jim Landau's evidence from his
daughter is a valuable indication pointing to the completion of the shift
within her age/area group, but I find that it is still in progress among
many of my students.
        It is difficult to trace pronunciation changes back through time,
for data prior to the Linguistic Atlas, but a good master's thesis or
article for American Speech awaits being written.


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