How mayor may or may not be pronounced

rob_fordMayors seem to have been much in the news this week, often under tragic circumstances. An Iraqi village mayor, Ahmed Shaker, was one of over 40 people killed in a suicide bombing after a football match near Iskandariya (Alexandria). Mayor Mayeur of Brussels has been speaking out since the bombings there that claimed over 30 lives. And troubled Toronto mayor Rob Ford (pictured) succumbed to a rare liposarcoma diagnosed in 2014.

All my life I’ve pronounced mayor exactly like mare (‘female horse’), with a single long vowel, mɛː. This is probably the most common pronunciation from British TV news people. Here it is from the long-time presenter of BBC TV’s Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman:

  if he becomes mayor

This pronunciation can be heard in the audio clips of various dictionaries:

  Cambridge Dictionaries Online

  Longman Pronunciation Dictionary

But another pronunciation is increasingly heard. This one has two syllables, mɛ́jə, rhyming with player and Leia:

  …the Brussels mayor

  Rob Ford, controversial mayor of Toronto

  …including the local mayor

  mayor Nir Barkat

  that’s how he got to be mayor

The 2-syllable pronunciation is especially common with younger speakers, but is not restricted to them. Mayor Nir Barkat there is said by Stephen Sackur, a major figure in BBC news, who is 52. I suspect it’s arisen partly due to the spelling (compare mayonnaise, which begins mɛ́jə), and partly due to the ever-present influence of American English, which usually pronounces mayor with 2 syllables. But it’s unacknowledged as a British pronunciation in the online dictionaries I’ve consulted, and even in the variant-rich LPD.

To redress the imbalance, and because I suspect that the 2-syllable pronunciation will steadily displace mɛː, I’ve opted for the former as the recommended pronunciation in CUBE. Nonetheless, mɛː is still heard from some younger folks, as in BBC Radio 1ʼs Mayor of Where? – /hɪ(ː) kʌ́mz ðə mɛ́ː bət ðə mɛ́ː(r)əv wɛ́ː/:

Increasingly old-fashioned today is a pronunciation with a ‘centring diphthong’, or ɛə. Here is an example from a 1932 Pathé newsreel:

  my lord mayor

In my experience, non-natives who have learned the old transcriptions /eə/ and /eɪə/ (for ɛː words and ɛjə words respectively) are likely to pronounce them very similarly, so that payer pɛ́jə and pair pɛː risk being confused. The following might be either word:

It is in fact from prepare, said by Polish-born language teacher Michel Thomas. This kind of foreign-sounding pronunciation is actively encouraged by the transcription /eə/.

8 replies
  1. Mitko
    Mitko says:

    Layer is probably another instance of the same change, possibly spelling-driven as well, though it must have taken place a lot earlier as a disyllabic variant is already recorded in EPD1 (1917). Prayer, on the other hand, seems to be firmly monosyllabic: I don’t think I’ve ever heard it pronounced as two syllables, either in BrE or AmE.

    • Geoff Lindsey
      Geoff Lindsey says:

      Yes, although (as I understand it) layer and prayer have disyllabic origins, while mayor has monosyllabic origins in French maire (discounting the final schwa). Did layer become 1 syllable and then revert to 2?

      Of course a relevant factor which I’ve discussed in my more technical Speech Talk posts, but ignored here, is the smoothing which links 2- and 1- syllable forms of this type. Here are what sound to me like 2 and 1 syllable versions of layer(s) from Jim Al-Khalili:

      I think smoothed variants are more common when pre-nuclear, and when immediately before a vowel (with linking r). I’m listening out for a mɛ́jə user who smooth(e)s it to mɛː(r) in such a context. Shouldn’t be too hard to find.

      • Mitko
        Mitko says:

        Very good point: 2syl vs 1syl origin – I didn’t think about that.

        This is a very minor objection, not at all germane to your really useful observation about “mayor”: I’m not quite sure to what extent syllabification in the source language is relevant to the realisation(s) in the borrowing language. Some Middle English spelling variants do suggest a disyllabic pronunciation: maier(e), maieur, mayor, meier(e), meihir, mehir, meigher (

        • Geoff Lindsey
          Geoff Lindsey says:

          Words can certainly be resyllabified when they’re borrowed. Don Gi-ovanni, Dəvorak, etc. Presumably maire could have followed the same path as paire > pair. But as you suggest it must have had disyllabic variants to compete with: somehow we ended up with a 1-syll pronunciation but a ‘2-syll’ spelling, the latter now finally winning out.

          To repeat my question, do you think layer became 1 syll, then reverted to 2? I’m no expert on such historical questions.

          • Mitko
            Mitko says:

            I suppose so, it’s from “lay” + the agent suffix ‘-er”, although at least one dictionary (the Oxford Dictionary of English) says “Middle English (denoting a mason): from lay + -er. The sense ‘stratum of material covering a surface’ (early 17th cent.) may represent a respelling of an obsolete agricultural use of “lair” denoting quality of soil”. (The OED entertains no such hypothesis.) The Middle English variants seem to be exclusively disyllabic:

          • Geoff Lindsey
            Geoff Lindsey says:

            And is there evidence that, like mayor, it spent a good chunk of time being considered exclusively a monosyllable?

  2. Mitko
    Mitko says:

    (I don’t think I can post any further replies to the same thread.)

    Many of the earliest examples in the OED for “layer” in the sense of ‘stratum’ look monosyllabic:
    1615 Take Codlins..and lay a lear thereof in the bottom of the pye.
    1616 If you lay them betweene mulberrie-leaues, or vine-leaues, one leare aboue another in a close box made for the purpose.
    (1642 Just 10 boards in every chesse or layer.): possibly 2 syllables;
    1644 a leere of thrashed Corn
    1665 to cover it with one Lare
    1684 The inner veins and lares of the earth…
    ?17.. Lay in a lare of the beef, and throw on it plenty of suet…
    1703 a Lair of Sand
    (1747 Then lay in your Dish a Layer of Mince-meat, and a Layer of Yolk of Eggs,..a Layer of Anchovies [etc.].)
    1658 So mixt they are one knows not whether’s thicker A Layre of Burgess, or a Layre of Vicar.

    * All later examples have the spelling “layer”.

    No, I don’t think there’s any conclusive evidence that it was ever exclusively monosyllabic: it may always have been variable.
    It would be interesting to see which edition of the EPD changed the first variant from one to two syllables.

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