Friday, October 21, 2005


Zed versus zee, a love-letter to Nancy

It's Nancy's fault. She asked "So, which one is it (zed or zee)? Anyone know? And should we really care? Is it really a Canadian versus American thing? Or something else?"

Ooo ooo ooo! (dances in chair, waving hand in the air) I know, I know! I care!!

In fact, my darling Nancy, it is not so much a Canadian thing to say "zed" as it is an American thing to say "zee". According to wikipedia:

In almost all forms of Commonwealth English, the letter is named zed, reflecting its derivation from the Greek zeta. Other European languages use a similar form, e.g. the French zède, Spanish and Italian zeta. The American English form zee derives from an English late 17th-century dialectal form, now obsolete in England.

Is it really worth all this debate? Even Shakespeare himself cast aspersions on the dignity of the 26th letter of the alphabet with an insult I'm going to try to work into at least two conversations today: Thou whoreson zed! Thou unnecessary letter! (King Lear, act II, scene II.)

You got me curious, though, so I did a little bit more research on the subject. According to the Concise Oxford Companion, "The modification of zed to zee appears to have been by analogy with bee, dee, vee, etc." It seems Noah Webster, the dictionary guru, seems to have mass-marketed the "zee" pronunciation, along with the incorrect spelling of "centre".

Apparently we Canadians aren't the only ones feeling the effects of the Americanization of the "Sesame Street" phenomenon you mentioned and its influence on how you learned to say zee versus zed. I found a research paper titled, "Can Sesame Street bridge the Pacific Ocean? The effects of American television on the Australian language." The introduction to her thesis talks about how just like here, Australian kids learn to say "zee" by watching Sesame Street and their parents correct them to say "zed".

Sesame Street's influence also gets mentioned in this chapter from the textbook Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and Its Social Significance. He says,
With the use of "zee" stigmatized, it is perhaps strange that children should learn it at all. One source is pre-school television shows beamed from the United States, notably one called Sesame Street, which was almost universally watched by children in the 1960s when it had no serious rivals... Sesame Street and its imitators promote the alphabet with zeal, almost as a fetish, thus ensuring that their young viewers hear it early and recite it often. The "zee" pronunciation is reinforced especially by the "Alphabet Song," a piece of doggerel set to music that ends with these lines:

ell em en oh pee cue,
ar ess tee,
yoo vee double-yoo, eks wye zee.
Now I know my ey bee sees,
Next time, won't you sing with me?

The rhyme of "zee" with "tee" is ruined if it is pronounced "zed," a fact that seems so salient that many Ontario nursery school teachers retain it in the song even though they would never use it elsewhere.

More than just ending the alphabet song with a jarring non-rhyme, the zed/zee conundrum poses problems for people trying to market technology across the border. CNews reports on a Toronto law firm who lobbied Bell Canada and Nortel to change the pronunciation from "zee" to "zed" in the directory on their voice mail system:
"We've had inquiries about why it is the way it is when we're Canadian," said Tammie Manning, a communications analyst at the law firm. "(People said) we're not the States. We're independent. Why should we be subjected to that?"

Several officials from Nortel insisted the technology to make the switch from "zee" to "zed" was simply not yet available. But by mid-afternoon Friday, following several calls from a reporter, the company's director of corporate communications said Nortel would change the "zee" to "zed" as soon as possible.

And then, of course, there is the infamous Joe Canadian rant from Molson's, which although overplayed and out of date, still merits mention in the discussion:
Hey, I'm not a lumberjack, or a fur trader, and I don't live in an igloo, or eat blubber or own a dogsled. And I don't know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada, although I'm certain they're really, really nice. I have a Prime Minister... not a president, I speak English and French, not American and I pronounce it About, not A-boot.

I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack, I believe in peacekeeping, not policing, diversity not assimilation, and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal. A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch, and it IS pronounced Zed, not Zee... ZED!! Canada is the 2nd largest land mass, the 1st nation of hockey, and the best part of North America. My name is Joe and I AM CANADIAN! Thank you.

So you see, dearest Nancy, it DOES matter, in a patriotic sort of way. Aren't you sorry you asked?