Have you heard a lot about the pronunciation of the word emu lately?
US journalist Stu Rushfield sparked something of an international incident after filing a report on National Public Radio (NPR) about a woman and her missing emu, Winston Charles Featherbill.
“My wife was scrolling through Facebook last week when she saw that a friend needed help finding her lost emu,” the report began.
But he pronounced emu as “EE-mooh”.
Americanisation of emu
Rushfield appeared on ABC News Breakfast this morning to explain himself.
He said he’d pronounced it as EE-mooh his whole life, so when Winston Featherbill’s owner, Cassandra Redding, pronounced it the same way, he didn’t question it.
But, to be fair, Rushfield did do a bit of homework before the story went to air.
“I did canvas our newsroom and 90 per cent of people have heard it the same way that I have all my life,” he said.
“So maybe it’s just an Americanised version of EE-mooh — emu.”
Of course, there are other examples of Americans pronouncing emu this way, including a season-10 episode of The Simpsons in which Marge encourages Homer to start an emu farm.
ABC Language researcher Tiger Webb says this is fine.
He said “EE-mooh” was listed as a standard US pronunciation in reference works such as the Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries.
“I can unreservedly say that Americans are free to pronounce ’emu’ with or without a palatal consonant: /ˈimju/ or /ˈimu/,” he said.
“I’m only saying Americans are free to pronounce emu as EE-mooh, not that Australians should follow suit.”
Rushfield said while NPR had strict pronunciation guidelines, there wasn’t a ruling on “emu”, so the issue was debated at the office.
“After discussions with editors and the NPR [research, archives and data] team, the ruling is that ee-moo wins,” he wrote on Twitter before the story when to air.
But even then, Rushfield had his doubts.
Story goes viral
Rushfield’s story aired in the US on Saturday and quickly attracted a few comments on Twitter.
Then Australian media outlets caught wind of it:
By Tuesday morning, Rushfield had done several interviews in Australia and had changed his Twitter name to Nemesis of Australia.
On ABC News Breakfast, he was asked if NPR was considering updating its guidelines around the word.
“I have a feeling that this week we may gather together, sit in a circle and hold hands and really look into our souls and try to figure out if emu should be the proper pronunciation from this point forward,” he said.
“I’m guessing, based on the reaction we have had and the fact I don’t want to cause an international rift, I think henceforth, from now on, it shall be emu.”
Following the interview, he changed this Twitter name to Working On Our Differences With Australia.
Is emu an Indigenous word?
Researchers at the Australian Museum said it was possibly derived from an Arabic word which meant “large bird”.
They think that word was later adopted by early Portuguese explorers and used to describe cassowaries in Indonesia.
It’s thought it was then adapted to emu by early European explorers to Australia.
What’s the Indigenous word for emu?
“There is no standard, widely accepted Indigenous word for emu since there is no single Indigenous language,” Rachel Nordlinger, the director of University of Melbourne’s Research Unit for Indigenous Language (RUIL), said.
“There are actually hundreds of different Indigenous languages across Australia, each with their own sets of words and grammatical structures often very different from the others.
“Thus there are as many words for emu as there are languages from areas with emus.”
Professor Nordlinger said asking if there was a single Indigenous word for emu was like asking whether there was a single European word for dog.
“Each European language has their own word for dog, and there is not one word used across Europe,” she said.
“The situation in Indigenous Australia is the same, except that there are even more languages across the continent than we have in Europe.”
Why do Americans say EE-mooh?
It could have something to do with the spelling of the word.
Way back in 1901, the Australasian Ornithologists’ Union published its first quarterly journal called The Emu.
The spelling and pronunciation of emu was addressed in the early pages.
And it turns out emu was spelled as emeu in The Dictionary of Birds, while another alternative spelling, emew, was also floating around.
But it was decided the current spelling of emu would be adopted as the title of the journal, with the authors noting the variants were “almost unknown” in Australia.
Here’s what they said on that:
“In the endeavour to get the fullest light on the subject an appeal was made to Professor Tucker, Litt. D, who so ably fills the chair of Classis and Philology at the Melbourne University, as to whether there was any classical origin for the word.
His answer was that it has “no well-ascertained derivation” and that emeu (through the current form in olden times) “was only a way of representing the same sound as in Emu (e-myoo) and from a phonetic point of view each is incorrect…”
The authors admitted all the spellings for emu were phonetically incorrect, meaning they didn’t read as they were pronounced, but went with the common spelling.
Webb said the evolution of emu to EE-mooh was an example of yod dropping.
“Historically speaking, some words ending in that /u/ vowel in English (e.g. “blue”, “rude”) were once pronounced with a palatal — /rjud, blju/ — but are now not. This process is known is yod dropping,” he said.
“Yod dropping is common in many American varieties of English.”
He also said the alternative pronunciation could have something to do with syllabification, which was how words were divided into separate syllables.
And just because we can
We’re going to leave the last word to Winston Featherbill, purely because this song is a cracker: