It’s the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize. The first prizes were given in four categories. Now there are more than twenty categories.
It’s one of the few aspects of language where a dose of prescriptivism seems warranted. A person ought to be able to pronounce their name as they see fit (within orthographic reason, of course). I may not like your pronunciation of insurance, economics, or route, but I have no special authority to approve or correct it. However, with a name, the situation is different. The owner of the name gets to establish the pronunciation. So PULL-it-sir it is.
The owner of the name gets to establish the pronunciation. So PULL-it-sir it is.
But why do so many American speakers say it the other way, with PEW as the first syllable? The answer to that lies in the phonological process of palatalization, and specifically what is known as u-palatalization. The term refers to the way that in English, consonants are often palatalized before a long u sound. A palatal semivowel (a gliding sound represented by the phonetic symbol /j/ but often spelled with a Y in popular transcriptions) occurs between the consonant and the long “u” vowel. Long u , by the way, is often phonetically transcribed as /u:/ but can be spelled in various ways as eau, oo, ou, ue, ew , or as u followed by a single consonant and a vowel (as in dude or tuna).
Palatalization before /u:/ tends to occur in some relatively well-defined phonetic situations, such as when the /u:/ occurs at the beginning of a word as in university or usual. That is why you use a rather than an with many words that start with u—perhaps they begin with /ju:/ not /u:/.
Palatalization is especially robust after labial consonants in American English. These include the stops /m/, /p/, and /b/ (as in mute, amuse, pew, pure, puerile, repute, beauty, bureau, vocabulary, constabulary) and also the fricatives /f/ and /v/ (as in fuse, fuel, futile, view, revue, uvula). Palatalization is not automatic after these sounds, however, and spelling is often a clue: pew and pooh, beauty and booty, feud and food, mute and moot.
This brings us back to Joseph Pulitzer, who emigrated to the United States in 1864. He was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, puce, and so on.
Palatalization, incidentally, is also common after velar consonants like /g/ and /k/ (as in cute, cue, skew, factual, regulate, angular, and argue), and you find a similar extension of palatalization in the pronunciation of the word coupon. Coupon is etymologically French (from the Old French couper, meaning “to cut”) but has the alternate pronunciations COOP-on and CUE-pon. And last week, I heard someone pronounce Kubrick as CUE-brick.
The pronunciations of coupon and Pulitzer aside, it turns out that the palatalized versions of many common words are often the older forms, still used among many speakers of British and Canadian English. Thus you hear palatalized due, tune, dune, news, lewd, and so on. Twentieth-century American speech tended to drop these palatal glides, but they seem to be re-emerging in some dialects. Perhaps there’s a Pulitzer in the story.
That segment was written by Edwin L. Battistella, who teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. He is the author of the book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.