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Tomato, potato…is pronunciation all so trivial, after all?

Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off is a song written by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance. It was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as part of a celebrated dance duet on roller skates. The song is most famous for its “You like to-may-toes (/təˈmeɪtoʊz/) and I like to-mah-toes (/təˈmɑːtoʊz/)” verse, along with the rest of the verses comparing different pronunciations.

For a non-native English speaker, the reasons underlying such difference in pronunciation might not be distinct enough to convey the underlying meaning in the first place. At this point, I openly confess having totally misunderstood at first, reckoning that it is all a matter of British versus American accent. However, it appears that phonological differences are not of the sort. In effect, they are not even merely region-specific. Awareness of the sociocultural circumstances in 30ies and 40ies America reveals that different pronunciations rather served to demonstrate class and make it stand out. At the time, typical American pronunciations were considered less ‘refined’ by the upper-class, and there was a specific emphasis on the broader ‘a’ sound. This class distinction with respect to pronunciation has been retained in caricatures, especially in the theatre where the longer ‘a’ pronunciation is most strongly associated with the word ‘darling’.

This gives the story related in the song a whole new perspective, doesn’t it? Take a look at the lyrics of the song, keeping in mind the specified context:

you say either and I say either
you say neither and I say neither
either, either, neither, neither
let’s call the whole thing off

you say tomato, I say tomato
you eat potato and I eat potato
tomato, tomato, potato, potato
let’s call the whole thing off

but oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part
and oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart

so, if you wear pajamas and I wear pajamas
I’ll wear pajamas and give up pajamas
for we know we need eachother so we
better call the calling off, off
oh, let’s call the whole thing off

you say after and I say after
you say laughter and i say laughter
after, after, laughter, laughter
let’s call the whole thing off

you say havana and I say havana
you eat banana and I eat banana
havana, havana, banana, banana
let’s call the whole thing off

but oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part
and oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart

so, if you say oysters and I say oysters
I’ll eat oysters and give up oysters
for we know we need eachother so we
better call the calling off, off
oh, let’s call the whole thing off

In any case, next time you have doubts on linguistic peculiarities of the sort, why not taking a look at our languages page and see which languages we can help you with?

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About Sharon Stephens

Sharon Stephens is Operations Director of Lingua Translation. With a First Class Honours Degree in Translation and a University Lecturer in Translation (Masters), she is a self confessed language geek! Bringing the academic principles of translation and business together Sharon offers a quality-driven and needs centric translation and interpreting service - like no other.

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