People pronounce "coyote" at least five different ways. It differs by region, age, and even social factors. Some people even pronounce it different ways when they mean different things by it.
A few years ago, I was listening to the Range podcast made by two of my friends—Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt. It’s a great show about life in the West, and this particular episode was about the controversies surrounding coyote hunting, but about halfway through the podcast, I noticed that people were pronouncing “coyote” two different ways: the three syllable “coyote” and the two-syllable “coyote.” Here are two clips:
Julia Ritchie (podcast host): After their first petition to get a coyote hunting ban failed, they tried again in November of last year, and about 40 people spoke. I tallied it up. (3:51-3:57)
Fred Knowlton (a retired professor who studied coyotes for 40 years): Personally, I don't believe any of the coyote hunting expeditions by the general public are effective in reducing coyote numbers. (6:42-6:52)
I did some research and didn’t find anything definitive, and then I put the question out to the Grammar Girl Facebook page, and got more than 1,800 responses, which is why it’s nearly three years later that I’ve gone through all the comments, made a map, and am now telling you about it. Wow. Thanks for all that! I didn’t word the question in a way that makes this a scientific study, but 1,800 responses certainly rivals things I’ve seen published in journals.
Since then I've also done more research, so here’s what I found.
Many Ways to Pronounce ‘Coyote’
There are actually more than two different ways to pronounce it. You have “kai-oat-ee” and “kai-oat,” which you heard in the clips, but then some people pronounce it with a little bit of a different ending—“kai-oat-eh”—and people honoring the Spanish origin or who live near the Mexican border in the United States might pronounce it the Spanish way: “coy-yoh-tay.” And the Cambridge Dictionary says the British pronunciation is “coy-oh-tee.” So we can safely say there are at least five—five—different pronunciations that people are regularly using to describe this animal, and I bet there are some I haven’t even found. And that’s just in current times.
A publication from the late 1800s by the American Dialect Society notes that at that time the word was often mispronounced as “cayote.” Although I’m guessing at the pronunciation. The “cay” part at the beginning is clear, but your guess is as good as mine as to how they meant people pronounced the last part. It could be “cay-oat.” It’s just spelled C-A-Y-O-T-E.
Most of what I’ll talk about next is just about the first two pronunciations because that’s what I asked people about, and I made a map of the responses. What will jump out at you first is that the “kai-oat” pronunciation is much more prominent in the middle of the United States than anywhere else—it spans a somewhat expanded Great Plains region.
All along the coasts and in the South and through the whole Minnesota-Wisconsin-Ohio region, people primarily seem to say “kai-oat-ee,” but in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, “kai-oat” seems dominant. Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas seem like a mixed bag.