PAI: Pronunciation of Acronyms & Initialisms

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PAI: PRONUNCIATION OF
ACRONYMS & INITIALISMS
A case study
Amanda Payne
WHAT ARE ACRONYMS & INITIALISMS?
In most cases, they are considered to be the same
thing – “a word formed from the initial letters of
other words”. For example - “scuba”.
 Strictly speaking, an initialism is an acronym
where the letters are pronounced individually,
like “CPU”.
 This either/or definition is problematic because
there are many acronyms pronounced in multiple
ways. For example, many internet acronyms, like
“LOL” and “ROFL”, as well as “URL” and “SQL”
have more than one ‘acceptable’ pronunciation.

INTERESTING ACRONYMS

Not all acronyms are either words or strict
initialisms. Some are blends of both or
pronounced in a unique way, like





JPEG
AAA (“triple a”)
NAACP
UConn, UMass
CD-ROM
A LINGUISTIC ANNOYANCE?
A common grammatical pet peeve deals with
acronyms like ATM, PIN, and CD.
 Fairly often, people say “ATM machine”, “PIN
number”, and “CD disc” -- implying that these
acronyms have truly become new words, as the
speakers aren’t intentionally uttering
“automated teller machine machine” and other
redundancies.

THE TREND OF ACRONYMS
Rarely do acronyms seem to go from being
pronounced as letters after previously being
pronounced as a word, but many acronyms have
started out pronounced as letters & trended to
being pronounced as words. Example: AWOL.
 Historical example!: the English word “cabal”
actually comes from the names of five committee
members in the 1600s: Clifford-ArlingtonBuckingham-Ashley-Lauderdale. So, acronyms
have been around for a while.

CAN THE PRESIDENT CONTROL ACRONYMS’
PRONUNCIATION?

An article written in 1955 had the following to say
about the pronunciation “veep” (V.P.) for “vice
president”:
“The survival of veep in its national political
sense was made unlikely when Vice-President
Nixon, shortly after entering office, expressed a
preference for its discontinuation.
Consequently, it is a near certainty that veep
will pass out of general use and will eventually
fall into linguistic obsolescence” (Baum 108).
However, theCorpus of Contemporary American
English shows multiple uses of ‘veep’ from 1990 to
2010, so clearly the pronunciation has survived
despite Nixon’s preference.
WHAT MAKES SOME ACRONYMS
PRONOUNCEABLE AS WORDS AND OTHERS NOT?

Some possible factors include:
Origin of the acronym
 Phonological constraints in the target language, like
consonant clusters
 Length of the acronym
 Speakers’ familiarity with the meaning / frequency of use
 Capitalization
 Context
 And, probably, many more!

GATHERING DATA – THE CASE STUDY
10 participants were each asked to read aloud 20
sentences and then 20 words, containing in total
20 different acronyms
 Afterwards, they were asked what they thought
each acronym meant or stood for.
 The study was intended to show:
1. If there was a difference in pronunciation
between standalone acronyms and acronyms in
sentences
2. If knowledge of the meaning of an acronym
affected pronunciation.

ACRONYMS INCLUDED
Chosen from the acronym dictionary at
http://www.acronymfinder.com/

Sidenote: this website is very useful and
interesting, but I question its ranking algorithm:
ACRONYMS INCLUDED

The following words were tested:
TMI AOL PEMDAS MADD DPS LAPD OMG JK
BMI NATO IRA FAQ JPEG UPS NAACP PIN
GUI URL ROFL SAT
UNFAMILIARITY


Not surprisingly, most people knew most of the
meanings. The only words people didn’t always
know were: PEMDAS, DPS, and GUI.
Taking a closer look at these words may reveal a
trend of familiarity = pronunciation as a word.
PEMDAS - “PLEASE EXCUSE MY DEAR
AUNT SALLY” (A MATH MNEMONIC)

5/10 people knew the meaning and 5/10 didn’t.
didn't know
meaning
said as full
phrase
said as letters
said as word
knew meaning
0
2
4
6
DPS – DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY

2 didn’t know the meaning; 8 did.
didn't know
meaning
said as letters
said as full
phrase
knew
meaning
0
5
10
GUI – GRAPHICAL USER INTERFACE

Only 4/10 knew the meaning; 6/10 did not.
didn't know
meaning
said as letters
said as word
knew meaning
0
2
4
6
8
UNFAMILIARITY
Based on these 3 acronyms, it seems that
familiarity correlates with acronym
pronunciation as a word.
 However, of the remaining 17 acronyms that are
familiar to everyone, several are still pronounced
as letters fairly often. Even acronyms like “FAQ”,
“URL”, and “SAT”, which could be conceivable
words of English, are frequently pronounced
using letters. Why?

LOOKING DEEPER AT ‘LETTER
PRONUNCIATIONS’
There seems to be no clear answer. Putting the
acronyms in context made no noticeable effect,
(except with ‘GUI’ – more on that soon), and a
great number of acronyms were pronounced as
letters.
 A possible answer – ambiguity? SAT and URL as
words could be confused with “sat (verb)” and
“Earl”, but speakers don’t often have trouble with
this type of ambiguity, so that probably isn’t the
reason.
 Maybe the pronunciation has fossilized, or maybe
a change is in the beginning stages of
progressing!

BACK TO GUI – DID CONTEXT MATTER?
didn't know meaning
Standalone word
In a sentence
knew meaning
0
2
4
6
MAYBE.
With such a small sample size, it’s hard to say if
having context helped speakers to “remember”
the meaning of the word.
 However, it’s possible!
 Looking at context vs. no context shows virtually
no difference otherwise.

CONCLUSIONS
Context wasn’t shown to have a powerful effect
on pronunciation
 Familiarity, however, may lead to pronunciation
of an acronym as a word.
 A better study is needed!

REFERENCES
The acronym
dictionary.http://www.acronymfinder.com/
 COCA. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
 Abbreviations & Acronyms in English wordformation. Cannon, Garland. American Speech,
1989. http://www.jstor.org/pss/455038
 From 'Awol' to 'Veep': The Growth and
Specialization of the Acronym. S. V. Baum.
American Speech. Vol. 30, No. 2 (May, 1955), pp.
103-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/454270
 The Acronym, Pure and Impure. S. V. Baum.
American Speech. Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1962), pp.
48-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/453995

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