The Four Ways to Pronounce Banal

Banal - Not That I'm Saying This Art Is - You DecideAs you may have suspected recently, I spent an hour or so grazing on The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. I do this a lot. It’s what passes for fun in my life. It’s great to learn new things. But the big thing I learned was that, contrary to what I thought, I do not pronounce the word “banal” in the most common way.

In addition to learning this, I found out that there are four ways — Four ways! — that people do or have recently pronounced this word. This may seem weird to you, but I have been in a few conversations with people who were angry about my pronunciation. This is, of course, the same old same old, “My grammar school teacher taught me this and so I know it’s right!” Note: they never admit this, but I know rules-based thinking when I see it. As Fowler said of the split infinitive, “They see no reason why they should not [split an infinitive] (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point)…”

I am not here to tell you how you should pronounce “banal.” I am here simply to share the wondrousness that we English speakers would come up with four ways to pronounce a very simple, two-syllable, word. It never occurred to me. I always thought there were just two. I hope you are as excited as I am to get started.

Fowler on “Banal”

Back in 1926, H W Fowler had a very dim view of this word and the noun version, banality:

These are literary critics’ words, imported from France by a class of writers whose jaded taste relishes novel or imposing jargon. In French they have had a continuous history and a natural development from their original to their present sense; in English they have not, and we accordingly remain conscious that they are exotics. With common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and other English words, to choose among, we certainly do not need them.

Gowers’ Pronunciation

Ouch! But times change. When Ernest Gowers updated Modern English Usage in 1965, he was much more kind to it. Originally, Fowler didn’t even provide an pronunciation. So when American Heritage claims, “Sixty years ago, H W Fowler recommended the pronunciation (ban’-el), rhyming with panel…” it was wrong. It was Gowers who recommended that, as far as I can tell. But I think they are right that no one pronounces it that way today. Certainly, no one of their usage panel did.

The Most Common Banal

A full 58 percent of the people on the usage page chose the pronunciation (bə-‘nal), which rhymes with canal. Can this be true? I don’t ever recall hearing anyone pronounce the word in this way. It is possible that the writers on the usage panel are not that familiar with the details of pronunciation lingo. I know that I always have to look up what the symbols mean on those rare occasions that I really want to know how a word is pronounced.

Then again, I’m a left coast guy. I’ve spent my whole life living at various spots between San Francisco and Seattle. And maybe my ignorance of this pronunciation is a function of that. But I doubt that. David Foster Wallace pronounced the word as I do, and he was raised in Illinois. Note: this can’t be a British thing, because American Heritage deals only with American English.

The Annoying One

When people argue with me over the pronunciation, they like (bā’-nəl), which rhymes with anal. A full 28 percent of the usage panel prefers this pronunciation. That was, of course, over a decade ago, and by my experience, it has been losing ground. I’m sure part of that is due to the fact that it does sound like anal. But more important to me is that the hard-a just doesn’t seem banal to me.

Regardless, I’ve never commented on someone pronouncing banal this way. It’s always the other way around. I say it the “wrong” way and am instructed about the right way to say it, which they know because Moses Mrs Johnston told them in the fourth grade.

My Banal

Now we come to the way that I pronounce banal: bə-‘näl, which doesn’t really rhyme with any word, but sounds kind of like the end of Senegal. It is without a doubt the most common way that I hear people pronounce it. Yet only 13 percent of the usage panel prefers it.

It could be that I think this pronunciation of banal is most common because it is mine, and I’m not that accurate at hearing language. So the most common one sounds to me like mine. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter.

Any Way to Banal

What’s fascinating about this word is that no one can decide. So everything is okay. And I’ve only mentioned the four major contenders. There are a couple of other minor variations. So say it how ever you want.

But Fowler did make a good point almost a century ago: do we really need this word when we have common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, truism, platitude, and so many more? Maybe. I’m not sure that there is any other word that is quite the same. “Trite” is probably closest, but it doesn’t quite capture of the emotional “meh” that “banal” provides.

11 thoughts on “The Four Ways to Pronounce Banal

  1. This begs the question “how do you pronounce Senegal?”

    I’m British, and the OED give the final syllable of ‘Senegal’ as rhyming with ‘tall’ (in a British accent, of course), which is how I’d say it. But the first pronunciation of ‘banal’ it gives rhymes with ‘Baal’ (assuming we all pronounce that the same way … the vowel sound is, for the British, like the ‘a’ in ‘father’. In Received Pronunciation, anyway …) with the emphasis on the 2nd syllable. That’s how I’d say ‘banal’, too. It then gives the ‘rhymes with anal’ one, though marks that as ‘older’.

    I’ve never heard the ‘rhymes with anal’ one before; ‘rhymes with canal’ I do hear sometimes (and always for ‘banality’). I’ve never heard ‘rhymes with panel’, either.

        • I heard Tucker say, buh nall’ and thought, is that how you say it? I’ve always thought it was, bay’ null. ? Oh no! I’ve been wrong all these years! So I looked it up and found at least 4 pronunciations! Whew, I wasn’t wrong after all, but people will still think I was. Luckily, I’ve never found a need to say this word out loud; I’ve only read it. Maybe we should just drop this word from the dictionary after all. ? LOL

          • Since writing this, I’ve come upon a few more ways of pronouncing it. But I like having the world — even if it is too often used to be snotty towards people who took the time to produce some kind of are

  2. I don’t tend to use or hear banal in conversation. I suppose my default pronunciation was set by the Onion headline joke “Gay couple has banal sex.”

  3. I also use the “annoying” pronunciation…I think in part because it reminds me of urbane, although being witty and urbane is the opposite of banality (which I pronounce bay-nal-ih-tee). Thanks for writing this piece. I could only find two pronunciations online–a British and an American version (one for each). Nice to know I’m not alone in my pronunciation, and that there are multiple versions that I suppose are “correct.” I got a kick out of Lawrence’s Onion headline. :)

    • I always thought there were just two versions too. It was only when I climbed down that rabbit hole that I found more. Grammar is wonderful for that!

  4. I learned to pronounce “banal” as a very young child in the early 1960s, because it was one of the words included on Bergen Evans’ “Practical Vocabulary Improvement” audio discs, which my mother would play for me over and over, in between albums of all kinds of music. Bergen Evans said “BAY-nl.” I didn’t really run into the word in school (or life) until my college years, as I encountered intellectuals on campus, PBS TV, or as mocked in TV and movies that were popular with my academic cohort. Everywhere I heard the word pronounced as “buh-NAAAHL,” drawing out the final syllable with a scornful tone. Could Bergen Evans have been wrong? I looked into him and found that he had the right credentials to be seen as an expert in English and its vocabulary; more importantly, he narrated the audio himself, and probably wouldn’t have recommended a different pronunciation than the one he used conversationally. So BAY-nal it has remained for me throughout my entire life. I enjoyed reading your comments on the word and the attendant pronunciation controversy here. Thanks!

    • You are so right about the scornful tone! The pronunciation debate is interesting in that (1) everyone seems to have strong opinions and (2) everyone admits that there is no one right pronunciation. If only most usage debates could be like that!

      That’s lovely what your mother did for you! (Even though it trained you to pronounce “banal” the wrong way!)

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