PumpkinsIt’s funny that the last post here was about free variation, as today’s holiday is an example of that phenomenon in action.  Here in America, there are two distinct pronunciations of ‘Halloween’ that can occur in General American accents.  The first more or less treats the word as ‘hollow-een,’ while the latter treats it as ‘hal-oween’ (i.e. the first syllable sounds like Hal, the shortened version of Henry).

My impression is that the ‘Hal-oween’ (as in ‘Prince Hal’) variant is the more common of the two.  Although a quick search of Americans talking about Halloween on Youtube (we’re all about scientific rigor here) revealed that the ‘broad-a’ pronunciation of the word is quite popular as well.  I might even suspect that it’s on the rise, although I couldn’t say for sure.

One could argue that HAL-oween (i.e. rhymes with ‘pal’) is the nominally ‘correct’ pronunciation, as the word ‘hallow’ is pronounced this way.  So where does the more exotic ‘hollow-een’ come from?

Perhaps the double ‘l’ in ‘Halloween’ makes its pronunciation ambiguous.  I was never confused by the pronunciation of ‘Halloween’ as a child, but certainly perplexed by the related ‘hallowed’ (I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household).  Its first four letters are ‘hall,’ which is normally pronounced with a broad-a or ‘aw’ vowel in American English. Perhaps people mistake the ‘hall’ in ‘halloween’ for similar reasons?

Happy halloween, everyone.  And to my friends and family on the East Coast, be safe on those icy roads!


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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15 Responses to Halloween!

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    In my experience here in New Jersey the common pronunciation is “hollow-een.” I tend to pronounce it “Hal-o-een,” but I go both ways. Variation in pronunciation of single words in a dialect is usually dictated by particular contexts; it has nothing to do with code shifting, where you may use an elite form of the dialect to speak to your surgeon, and a less elite variety to talk to your mechanic.

  2. AL says:

    I’ve always pronounced it Hollow-een. Hall-, like hall, ball, mall, tall. I don’t think I knew about the etymology when I was a kid.

  3. dw says:

    In England I’ve only ever heard TRAP.

    In California, where I live now, I often hear LOT/THOUGHT/SPA (all merged here). I’ve always found this pronunciation a little strange, and I’ve internally treated it as the SPA vowel, because of the spelling I guess.

    It would make some kind of sense if “Hall-” had the THOUGHT vowel, since that is the vowel of the freestanding word “hall”. What do cot-caught splitters use? It is THOUGHT or LOT/SPA?

    • Karl says:

      “What do cot-caught splitters use? It is THOUGHT or LOT/SPA?”

      Yeah, that’s what I was wondering. Is it really the “broad-a” (PALM/LOT) or is it THOUGHT? I would expect it to be THOUGHT actually. I’m not sure if I’m a cot-caught splitter or not, otherwise I would say which one it is for me. I don’t usually use TRAP though, although I probably have before. I’m from the Midland region and the low back merger is supposedly “in transition” here. That’s what The Atlas of North American English says. So it’s very confusing for me. Also I’m afraid that if I say I’m merged I could be wrong or vice versa. I’ve heard linguists talk about this many times.

    • Ellen K. says:

      Definitely LOT for me. That, is, as opposed to THOUGHT. First syllable of Halloween is pronounced like the first syllable of “hollow”, or like “Hal” (the free variation that’s the subject of the original post), but not like “Hall”.

      In other words, always an unrounded vowel. Though the exact nature of the unrounded vowel can vary.

  4. dw says:

    Do you think that the semantic associations of “hollow” could have led to this pronunciation? Maybe the Legend of Sleepy Hollow?

    • trawicks says:

      That’s possible. That story grips the American imagination a good 191 years after it was written.

      “Hollow” (as in a small valley) is a word native to both American and British English, but my impression is that it was more common on this side of the pond at an earlier point in our history. It’s quite ubiquitous in American place names (I grew up a few miles from Mansfield Hollow State Park, for example). The Irving story, combined with the word’s association with early American pastoralism (which provides the holiday with some of its most potent imagery), could be a contributing factor.

  5. gaelsano says:

    I think only PALM-LOT merged people would say “hollow-ween.” I know most posters here are American (at least it seemingly) but it would be more accurate to discuss it as using the PALM vowel. I personally vary between Hal-o-ween and Hahl-o-ween (TRAP and PALM). Of course, it could very well be a LOT vowel spelled with an “a” (see want, wander, etc). If dw theory is correct, then a Bostoner could let us know if they associate Halloween with hollow. Then again, said Boston could be making an association with “hall” as allowed by the LOT-THOUGHT merger.

    In any case, the AW or THOUGHT vowel is NOT broad A unless you are PALM-LOT-THOUGHT merged. Broad A refers to /ɑ:/.

    “lax a-e-i-o” TRAP-DRESS-KIT-LOT
    “tense a-e-i-o-u” FACE-FLEECE-PRICE-stroke-cute
    “broad a” PALM
    “schwa” lemon
    “yod” /j/

    Any other shorthand for the phonemes? If you have “tense rhotic a” for SQUARE what do you call the vowel in NURSE-term-dirt? What of THOUGHT or of STRUT and wood (which gets the distinction of “lax u”?) Any shorthand for /tʃ/ /dʒ/ /ʃ/ /ʒ/?

    • Ellen K. says:

      Definitely LOT, not PALM for me. But, wait, which pronunciation of palm? The L-less pronunciation matches LOT, but the one with the L does not, and that’s my pronunciation. “Palm” would the same vowel as “hall”, again, as I noted above, a rounded vowel and for me “Halloween” is never rounded. Is there anyone who pronounces it with a rounded vowel in the first syllable? (The lexical set info people are giving doesn’t help answer that without knowing how that person pronounces that lexical set.)

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    Hal·low·een /ˌhæləˈwi:n, ˌhɑ:ləˈwi:n/

  7. IVV says:

    I’m definitely a free variation Halloween speaker, and I’m PALM-LOT-THOUGHT merged. I sometimes split the difference between Hal and Hall, leading to /ˌhaləˈwi:n/.

    • Andrew C says:

      Yeah, I (also CC merged) vary between the two as well. And I also use intermediate qualities sometimes. It’s like I can’t decide which pronunciation I want to use 🙂

  8. Adam Cohen says:

    Hal-oween (trap vowel) for this native Californian, although I do hear a lot of people saying Holloween.

  9. m.m. says:

    Another PALM-LOT-THOUGHT merged californian; consistent “halloween” with either LOT or THOUGHT [no ɑ’s due to L-colouring], and constantly misspell it as “holloween”
    hal: æ/a
    hall: ɒ/ɔ
    hollow: ɒ/ɔ
    halloween: ɒ/ɔ

  10. Gael says:

    This is an old thread, but I wanted to point out that the Cambridge Dictionary recognizes only the short a Hal-o-ween as a correct pronunciation. Halloween came from All Hallows Eve, not All Hollows Eve. Halloween was derived from the word Hallows, and that is why Hollo-ween is a widely used, but incorrect, pronunciation.