In the latest episode of their informative whiteboard series for Mental Floss, linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain the etymological history of the word “pecan”, noting why that particular word developed so many different pronunciations as it made its way over to English from French.
A problem for French words coming into English is that French likes to stress the second syllable, while English prefers first syllable stress. Think of all the most basic English words, MOther, FAther, WAter, WINter, SUMmer. That stress preference has pulled many a borrowed French word into line: monTAGNE-MOUNtain, so peCAN-PEcan? Well, not always. We let the foreign stress stay on newer borrowings like ballet, vaccine, garage and plenty of other words. That’s part of what makes English stress so unpredictable! The tension between the two stress patterns lead to dialect differences. …So as pacane moved from the more linguistically mixed territories toward the coast, stress shifted to the English first syllable. And that shift, plus the influence of spelling, introduced changes in the first vowel. Now we have some regional tendencies: pih-KAHN in French Louisiana and west into parts of Texas. PEE-can in New England and down the coast through Georgia. And something like pee-KAHN everywhere else, but these tendencies are kind of slight. You might get a difference from town to town, or even within the same family. Many of us aren’t even sure which one we use, and switch back and forth.