Spoiler Alert: What follows is not a parody of one of my favorite Turner Classic Movies offerings. Nor does it suggest that an Aunt is a victim of multiple personality disorder, a sort of Aunt Sybil.
“Debrett’s Peerage” is described by its publisher as follows: “The Peerage is a hierarchy of titles of various ranks conferred by the Sovereign upon his or her subjects, which has its roots in feudal times.” Quaint, perhaps anachronistic, but you get the idea. It takes the guesswork out of titles.
But if there were a version for families it would clarify that the sister of your Father and/or Mother has the hereditary title Aunt; just as his or her Brother has a claim to the title Uncle. Simple! Right? But as you listen to the voice over narration life in the United States there’s less unanimity about the female title than you’d find in say, the US legislature, or the voters whose votes assembled it.
Uncle is not a particularly attractive word. Neither is avuncular, the adjective connected with it. But at least there’s no doubt about how to pronounce it. Not so with Aunt. What it comes down to is an issue of pronunciation. Aunts should come with pronouncing guides. But since they don’t, here are some pointers.
Pointers on How To Pronounce The Title
There are several schools of thought about how you pronounce the title of that female, qualified by blood, honor or both to be called “Aunt.” You have a dazzling array of choices. But before you make one, you should probably know there are consequences and qualifications.
The Aunt as in On (vs. Off)) Option
This pronunciation borrows the Ô the dictionary shows with a single dot above it. This is the one they show at the bottom of the page next to the word “flaw.” Don’t ask. In this case you call her (or are called) Aunt=Ont. But don’t ask me why it isn’t as in “Flawnt,” I often find dictionaries more challenging than the unknown words I look up in them.
If you were born in Britain and educated in its puzzlingly titled “public schools;” or if you spent your childhood in Muncie, Indiana fantasizing that you had been; or if you are obsessive about watching BBC television imports, this is the one for you.
Be warned that you’ll be giving your mouth, teeth and lips a work out if you use the Aunt=Ont pronunciation and the given name starts with a flat A, as in Ann. Try repeating six times: Ont Ann; Ont Ann; Ont Ann; Ont Ann; Ont Ann. See what I mean? On the other hand, if she’s called Olive this is definitely the pronunciation for you (and probably for her too.)
If you use the Aunt=Ont pronunciation to refer to the scientific study of Aunts, namely Auntology, people may misunderstand and think you are talking about a particularly arcane branch of philosophy devoted to the study of “being” and called Ontology. Whereas, of course, Auntology is instead about the much more rewarding study of Aunts and Aunthood, of which this coming title called Aunts: the Best Supporting Actresses will be the prime example.
So, let’s say you’ve “tried on” the Aunt=Ont pronunciation and it doesn’t quite fit. Don’t be concerned, there are lots more options where that one came from. For example, the “Pond” approach.
The Aunt as in Pond (vs. Lake) Option
This pronunciation borrows the O the dictionary shows as an Ä with two dots above it. Which quickly sends you looking to the key at the bottom of the page, where you find ä – cot, cart (which don’t sound all that much alike to me and suggest that even the Merriam Webster folks don’t seem to find this one easy to capture). This inspires me to turn to the front of the dictionary where I find that this o as in ä is the one spoken by “most Americans” when they say Father. Oh, oh, maybe “cot, cart” would be better, after all.
In this case you call her (or are called) Aunt=Änt (and are on your own in predicting exactly how it will sound).
It appears that this pronunciation is mostly a matter of attitude. It’s for people who may be obsessive/compulsive about BBC television, but don’t admit it. Fans of this pronunciation might have enjoyed Edith on re-runs of All in the Family but they definitely don’t want to be her.
If you happen to have an Aunt Cot or Aunt Cart, this is definitely for you (even the dictionary people are on your side). If you don’t, but still prefer the pronunciation, consider pretending to have both an Aunt Cot and an Aunt Cart (you can suggest they are from the long-lost branch of the family living in Auckland, whom you never see).
If you are about to become an Aunt for the first time, and want very much to be called Aunt=Änt, you should be prepared to do some teaching/indoctrination/brainwashing on behalf of the subtle pronunciation you’ve chosen. You could, for instance, begin talking a great deal about the absent but beloved Aunts=Änts Cot and Cart, thereby establishing the ground rules for how you want your title to be pronounced. Refer to her/their letters which have taught you so much about the charm of kangaroos, saying “Aunt=Änt Cot/Cart says there is nothing like a marsupial for a pet….etc.” If you do a really good talking campaign, it should be crystal clear by the time the new Niece/Nephew arrives how it is that you want your title to be pronounced; which is necessary, because you haven’t picked the easiest one. It’s about as obvious as white on white damask fabric.
If you find you have to pronounce the title by itself, without a proper name attached, be prepared to be misunderstood or misjudged. People who live outside of the chic parts of London may conclude that you have a hidden commitment to speaking Oxonian English. It will become harder and harder to pass yourself off as “just plain folks.”
If you have soldiered on and are reading this paragraph, it probably means you still haven’t found the pronunciation for Aunt that matches your own. Or you may be in the market for a re-do of the title you are currently using. If you redecorate your house, why not your familial titles? Which brings us to the “Dawn” approach.
The Aunt as in Dawn (vs. Dusk) Option
For this pronunciation, the dictionary borrows both the Ô with a single dot above it and the Ä with two dots above it, so you’re really on your own with this one, but I think that in this case you call her (or are called) Aunt=Awnt.
This is the pronunciation Garrison Keillor used when telling stories about Lake Wobegon on A Prairie Home Companion. He managed to carry it off, but for most people, this version, Aunt=Awnt, is only workable as a stand-alone noun, not as a title used with a proper name. My feeling is that it was designed to refer to the condition of Aunthood and not any individual Aunt. I have heard people say, “As my Awnt always told me….” I’ve never heard it used conversationally as in, “Hurry up Awnt Harriet, the train is pulling out.” It’s cumbersome.
If you are a person who likes to wear spats or hats designed for the Ascot races…to the movie theater in the mall…then by all means, Aunt=Awnt could be just your cup of tea.
If your name — or your Mother’s or Father’s sister’s name — is Dawn, don’t even consider this one. Imagine the challenge of ever speaking the words “Aunt=Awnt Dawn.” It only gets worse if you consider names like Vonda or Tawanda. And it’s totally impossible to imagine an “Awnt Debbie Sue.”
Try not to use this one in gatherings including non-English-speaking people. It will only confuse them and confirm all their worst fears about the frustrating unpredictability of English pronunciation.
Still reading? That means you have studied and presumably rejected: Aunt=Ont; Aunt=Änt; and Aunt=Awnt. Still, all is not lost. There is still a remaining option left. In fact, it may be the one that is top of mind for a great part of the country’s population. Welcome to….
The Aunt as in Pest (at a Picnic) Option
This is the first pronunciation the dictionary lists after the word “Aunt.” It’s shown as an A with no markings at all. It is the A as in “Batman” or “Will you marry me?” or “sand bag.” In this case you call her (or are called) Aunt = Ant.
To be successful with this pronunciation, it helps to have been born in Illinois. And to have descended from three previous generations who were born there too. As someone raised by a first generation American and a person who grew to young adulthood in Northern Ireland, I confess to revealing a Janey-come-lately‘s illness of ease with this pronunciation. I don’t exactly get itchy from “Aunts = Ants” but I do get non-clinically schizophrenic. (That is, I recognize that it’s what people expect to hear, but I don’t feel entirely comfortable saying it.) In that, I suspect I’m not alone. While a goodly number of people use this version of the title, it probably sounds, even as they are saying it, a little folksier and “down home” than they know themselves to be.
Judy Garland’s references to “Auntie Em,” are the most charming versions of this pronunciation. But beware. The more adenoidal it sounds, and the closer that Aunt=Ant comes to being spoken as two syllables, the more certain it is to conjure up images of those highly socialized insects that live in colonies and love to come to picnics.
If your given name also begins with an unadorned “A”, the one your speech teacher describes as “flat ‘A’,” — Aunt Ann, for example, or Aunt Annette — then this version of the title and your name, spoken together, sound about as attractive as the glamorous and haunting phrase, “Cabbage Patch.”
The affectionate form of the title, “Auntie”, does not adapt well to this pronunciation. It sounds less like a title and more like a statement of political opposition, as in Auntie-Anti War.
If you should ever decide to write a book about Aunts and mention that fact to a stranger, using this version of the title, don’t be surprised if they look at you quizzically. They’re wondering why they never before knew about your fascination with entomology and/or why you didn’t choose a more winning subject…like ladybugs.
Finally, if you use this pronunciation, you leave yourself open to hearing, yet again, that most ancient, if not amusing, pun, “Speaking of insects, how is your Aunt?” I rest my case. But, after all, it’s your call.