Professor Karen Fallon, graduate program director, speech-language pathology, explains why our seemingly simple name is a tongue twister to so many.
This is my 15th year at TU, and I’ve heard people bungle the word “Towson” too many times to count.
Usually if they’re from the mid-Atlantic region or Baltimore, they’re fine. But for anybody who has never heard the name before, there’s a high likelihood that they’re going to mispronounce it.
Basically, what happens when people hear a word is that their brains are looking for a match to something that they already know. Because “Towson” is such an unusual word, their brain is essentially trying to figure out, “What is this? I’ve never heard this before.” When a person tries to say a new or unfamiliar word, they also need to make sense of the word in order to correctly pronounce it.
When we talk, we use what’s called coarticulation. As we are pronouncing one sound in a word, we are immediately getting ready to say the sounds that will follow. Our articulators are always in motion, so sounds always do sound a little bit different depending on what’s around them.
For example, when producing the sound /t/, if you begin to say the word “tea,” you will notice that your mouth is positioned differently than when you produce the /t/ in “tool.” It’s the same first sound, but already your mouth is in a different position because it’s getting ready to say the next sound, which is different.
That influence of what’s coming up is called assimilation, which means that a sound becomes more similar to those around it; kind of like when you assimilate into a society. You make changes based on what is around you.
When people hear the word “Towson” and then try to pronounce it, they will often say “TOWN-sin,” inserting an “n” because they’re assimilating and predicting what’s coming up at the end. They’re getting ready to say that final “n,” and they just bring it forward to pronounce a word they know: “town.” “Tow” doesn’t make any sense to them. It’s an assimilation error—they’re predicting ahead to that last sound.
Pronouncing Towson as “Toe-sin” is a more common error if a person is reading it. Again, the brain is looking for a match to something that it knows. When we read an unknown word, we often do what’s called analogizing. We try to find a match to a word we already know.
For example, if a person came across the word “murse” when reading and they have never seen it before, they might think of a similar word they do know such as “purse” and use it to help them read the new word by swapping the first letters.
When reading the word “Towson,” the most common pronunciation of “Tow” is “toe” not “t-OW.” It’s generally more difficult for people to read unfamiliar words such as foreign words or unfamiliar names.
My last name is pronounced “FAL-in,” like the late-night host Jimmy. People pronounced my name “fall-in” much more before Jimmy Fallon became famous. I had to spell my name all the time; now I don’t have to spell it as much. Thanks Jimmy.