Alex Steer

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iPads, iPods and consumer phonology

833 words | ~4 min

Apple has launched the iPad and got everybody talking. There have been questions about the concept and gags about the name.

Being the smart kind of company it is, Apple probably monitors its media spend and return on media investment quite carefully. I'd expect it, as with any big brand in the industry, to keep a close eye on its share of voice, to monitor buzz and even to monitor sentiment. Brands, after all, need to be good at listening to their consumers.

But there's one way of listening to consumers that Apple may have missed. And that's actually listening to them. In the literal sense. Listening to how they speak.

Specifically, to their vowels.

Almost as soon as the product name was launched, there was concern that the name was too similar to the existing 'iPod' - and, in particular, that there was a risk of phonetic confusion among some speakers. Googling 'ipod ipad confusion' gives a sense of some of this. Just running through the first few pages of Google searches provides a handlist of some of the speaker communities that the blogosphere thought might confuse 'iPod' and 'iPad':

  • Bostonians
  • Hispanic Americans
  • 'Asians' (sic)
  • US Mid-westerners
  • Minnesotans

And so on. The argument that in Bostonian or North-East American English there is no distinction between the central vowel in 'iPod' and 'iPad' is particularly widespread. In fact, as far as I know, it's not correct, as this page on Bostonian phonology makes clear.

In fact, if I had to make a case for phonological groups that might confuse the two words, I might pick some varieties of Caribbean English which have unreduced short vowels realised towards the back of the mouth, as explained by the relevant section of E. W. Schneider et. al. (2004) A Handbook of Varieties of English Volume 1: Phonology:

The low front vowel /æ/ found in many metropolitan varieties of English in words such as TRAP is often realized further back in the mouth as [a]... Eastern Caribbean English-derived varieties often maintain the difference between sounds in words in metropolitan dialects like the /ɔ:/ in jaw and the /a:/ in jar... Both sounds have typically merged into /a:/ in the Western group.

Which implies that for some (though not all) Caribbean English speakers there may be little to no distinction between the POD and PAD sounds. (This also seems to be true for some speakers of Southern English Caribbean English Creole, usually known as London West Indian English, as this paper points out.)

That's about all I can offer, as I'm not a phonologist - nor, importantly, are many of the people who first raised the issue of iPod/iPad confusion. Many of them seem to be expressing concern on behalf of users of other varieties of English than their own - the worry that someone else might confuse the names. Which seems very kind.

A lot of people care a lot about Apple's products. They pore over their tech specs, their designs, and their names. If so many consumers care enough about the pronunciation of 'iPad' to start blogging about potential problems, that should send a pretty clear signal to brands - not just Apple - to pay a lot more attention to the language they use, and especially to names.

This is not just about being clever. Brand naming processes can be lengthy, creative and confusing, often generating ingenious, polysemous and heavily rationalised outputs that embody brands' core values, differentiate them within their categories, and contain fifteen different types of pun. Sometimes the results are camels, sometimes they're racehorses. Eventually, the name has to be put out there in the world, to be heard and seen and used by people who haven't been through that whole process with you and who may spot problems that the people from head office didn't even notice were there. Maybe it's a swearword in Japan, maybe it's unpronounceable in Jamaica. A little linguistic foresight - some science to go with the art - can save you a lot of headaches.

# Alex Steer (28/01/2010)