Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Z is for zed

The last letter of the Latin alphabet is zed, which is derived from the Greek zeta. Americans often think it’s cute when they hear people say zed instead of zee, but, actually, most English dialects in the world say zed—only American English says zee. It’s probably the fault of those American Revolutionaries.

The American zee is derived from a late 17th century English dialect. After the American Revolution, the former British colonists were largely cut off linguistically from the mother country, so American English developed in its own way, largely without any of the changes adopted in England—like zed becoming dominant.

Does zed v. zee matter? Well, it does for Americans overseas and foreigners coming to America.

When I arrived in New Zealand, I had to quickly adapt to zed because some people had trouble understanding me if I said zee (they often thought I was saying the letter “C”). In the years since, I’ve adapted so thoroughly that zee sounds weird to me, and for some New Zealand acronyms, I simply can’t say the words without saying zed, things like TVNZ, ANZ, NZRU, for example.

When I say I can’t say them, I pretty much mean that literally: There have been times I’ve tried to say zee for American listeners and I end up stopping and starting as I try and remember the letter order. I think it’s a rhythm thing.

Folk wisdom has it that New Zealanders can spot a Z on a page of printed text, supposedly because they’re so used to seeing it in this country. Personally, I think it could be true, because when I look at a page of text I can often spot words spelled with a Z instead of an S, like prioritize instead of the correct spelling in New Zealand, prioritise. Ah spelling—a subject on its own! But those “-ize” words in American English are usually “-ise” words here.

The video above is from Z (pronounced Zed, of course), the rebranding for Shell in New Zealand. It’s 100% New Zealand owned and operated and to make that clear, they chose a name that would have some resonance in New Zealand. I chose this video because I like Z (the company) and because the video helps explain zed.

Zed is also the name of a New Zealand pop-rock band that was active 1998-2005.

And that’s the Ay to Zed of zed.

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Roger Owen Green said...

The ODD thing to me about zed is that it's the way you pronounce the 26th letter - in French! zède or /zɛd/. Which is pretty much all I remember of high school French.

Roy Schulze said...

Much to my chagrin, a fair number of Canadians resort to the American pronunciation. Fortunately, here it's not a letter that comes up very often, unless you happen to have one in your name! My entry for ABC Wednesday this week is Ziplocked

photowannabe said...

Very interesting information on ZED.
I guess one just gets used to using what is correct for their country.
When in Rome...etc.

Arthur Schenck said...

Roger: In German, it's "zett" (though the "z" itself is more like "ts". I studied that in high school—and beyond, with little success.

Roy: For a couple years I posted the "Joe the Canadian" ad from Molson on Canada Day. One of my favourite parts was when he declared, "and it IS pronounced zed, not zee!"

photowannabe: Yes, that's true, but I suppose English-speakers outside the USA have a somewhat easier time adapting to other non-US countries! :-)

Leslie: said...

Fabulous post explaining our last letter of the alphabet!

abcw team

Chubskulit Rose said...

Very enlightening to learn more about the last letter.

Zebu and Zebrula.
Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

Arthur Schenck said...

Thanks, Leslie and Rose—always nice to have a visit from a couple of my favourites from ABC Wednesday!