Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Back in the day, the word ma’am (when addressing the Queen) was always pronounced “marm”. British TV shows from before the 80s confirm this.

In the movie The Queen, we are told that the correct pronunciation for ma’am is “ma’am” as in “ham”, and not “ma’am” as in “farm”. Some people seem to think this has always been the case. But it has not.

Is this pronunciation a modern development?
Is it a preference of the current sovereign?

Or have we been pronouncing ma’am wrongly throughout the centuries?

share|improve this question
1  
Here you can listen to the Brittish pronunciation as "maa-single-quote-eem" :) thefreedictionary.com/ma%27am –  Guffa Feb 10 '11 at 19:24
1  
Do you know for a fact that the correct pronunciation was the one rhyming with farm, "throughout the centuries" until the 80s? How? (Obviously TV shows don't go back more than a century…) –  ShreevatsaR Feb 10 '11 at 19:30
1  
The King's Speech also has a bit where future-Queen-Mum says it's pronounced "ma'am as in ham". –  Marthaª Feb 10 '11 at 19:32
7  
I think (but cannot prove) that the ma'am-as-in-farm pronunciation was always incorrect - it's how people in Hollywood (or lower-middle-class people in England) imagined the upper crust pronounced the word, because ma'am-as-in-ham was how they pronounced it, so that obviously couldn't be good enough for the Queen, could it? –  Marthaª Feb 10 '11 at 19:56
1  
I would love to see some actual data on this question, however. –  Marthaª Feb 10 '11 at 19:59

11 Answers 11

up vote 12 down vote accepted

This is an interesting question! I can’t find any documentation specifically on the issue, so I don’t have a conclusive answer, but here anyway is a lot of relevant information, and a bit of further speculation.

The OED lists various pronunciations:

Brit. /mam/, /mɑːm/, U.S. /mæm/, /mɑm/; (unstressed) Brit. /məm/, U.S. /əm/, /mˌ/.

It also sheds some light on the recent historical usage:

The γ, δ, and ε forms [respectively mem, mim; mum, mom; and ’m] represent pronunciations formerly common in British regional usage and in the speech of domestic staff and others of similar status; such forms and pronunciations are also well attested in U.S. regional use, especially in yes ma’am (see yessum adv.) and no ma’am, and as the second element in school-marm n. Compare marm n.

Buckingham Palace protocol (c1990) directed that ‘the Queen should be addressed as “Ma’am” (to rhyme with jam).’

It also includes, later:

In 1936, R. W. Chapman ( S.P.E. Tract ii. 241) observed that ‘Except to royal persons, the contraction (whether mahm or măm) seems to be going out.’

This is all informative, but also a bit confusing. The main thing that’s clear is that the variety of pronunciations goes back quite a long way.

The second thing is that in modern BrE, the usage of ma’am is so restricted that it’s very hard to disentangle “what people now use” and “what Buckingham Palace asks for”. It’s a prescriptivist’s dream!

The third is that the OED itself seems a bit confused: the very pronunciation that the Palace asks for, /mæm/, is one which the OED lists only as U.S. usage.

The big question this leaves unresolved is: is it only recently that the Palace has asked for “jam”, or was this already officially preferred in the past?

Another factor which might be involved is how in many words, the vowel /a/ (of farm) is partly shifting to /æ/ (of ham) in prestige BrE accents, and the vowel of jam/*ham* in these accents has changed. In eg the early 20th century, in upper-class British accents, the vowel in ham, jam etc. was more raised and fronted than today, somewhat closer to hem. Conversely, words like glass, class were uniformly pronounced with the long ah vowel, /a/. In many lower-class accents, ham was much like today, with /æ/, and grass, etc. were also pronounced with this vowel.

Since then, the stigma of perceived lower-class and regional accents has decreased, whereas a stigma of being ‘too posh’ has become more widespread; so the raising/fronting of ham is now very rare, and the pronunciation of grass with the ham vowel /æ/ is somewhat more common among RP speakers.

Given that this shift involves many class issues, and the alternation of /a/ and /æ/, I suspect it may have influenced the pronunciation of ma’am somewhat. I’m pretty sure that the shift in the vowel of ham is relevant, given the older spellings of ma’am as mem, mim listed in the OED. The relevance of the change in grass is much more speculative.

share|improve this answer
2  
While we're speculating, it's also possible that the original TV/radio pronunciation of ma'am as /mɑːm/ ("mahm") was itself a hypercorrection, based on the class issues you mentioned — because in many words using /ɑː/ instead of /æ/ signified upper classes, people may have imagined that in talking to the queen, their familiar /mæm/ or /mam/ or whatever must be "corrected" to /mɑːm/. Just a wild thought. :-) –  ShreevatsaR Feb 10 '11 at 20:00

Interestingly in spite the proletarian implications, it's always 'ma'am as in harm' to a lady judge (who doesn't happen to be your worship, your honour, or my lady...so usually a District Judge)!

share|improve this answer
1  
I can't see any reason to downvote this: it's a relevant fact, and the 'proletarian implications' are part of the question. –  TimLymington Nov 9 '11 at 22:51

From my experiences of military personnel and police officers in the UK, both of whom use the word ma'am to address female, superior officers; I can tell you that it is commonly pronounced as "marm" (with the letter r, being a non-rhotic one). This has been the case for several decades, at least.

share|improve this answer

Just from personal experience, it has always been "ma'am as in ham" for female royals after first using "Your Majesty" or "Your Royal Highness".

Always in the sense that this was what my parents used when they needed to, and taught me to use with Princess Alice of Athlone; my father helped organise the Coronation in 1953, so it certainly covered the second half of the twentieth century, and probably earlier.

"Ma'am as in hem" was a traditional Indian Empire pronunciation for European women.

share|improve this answer
2  
I, too, have good reason to know. It's definitely /mæm/ and not /mɑːm/. –  Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 9:42
    
I appreciate the personal insight. However, IMHO "always" goes back significantly further than 70 years or so. –  T.E.D. Aug 2 '12 at 13:43

The spelling "schoolma'am" seems to have been replaced by the spelling "schoolmarm" between 1870 and 1920, while "schoolmam" seems to be mainly American English (and quite rare even in the U.S.).

Google Ngram for British English:

enter image description here

This would imply that "ma'am" was pronounced "marm" in RP.

share|improve this answer

Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately), in Lewis, addresses his chief as “Ma’am”, and uses the long a that rhymes with the one a Londoner uses in both father and farther, rather than the a that rhymes with ham.

share|improve this answer

A current example may be found in the latest James Bond movie, 'Skyfall'. Bond addresses M as 'marm'. So does his co-agent, Eve. This is consistent with the military pronunciation reported by Tristan, above. Despite MI6 being civilian, Bond and Eve have military backgrounds.

share|improve this answer
1  
This does not answer the question. –  American Luke Nov 20 '12 at 1:33

Here's some interesting info.

ma'am

Walker's PD (1828): no data

The Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language (1913): /mæm/

EPD-11 (1956): /mæm/

EPD-17 (2006) and EPD-18 (2011): /mɑːm/ or alternatively /mæm/

LPD-3 (2008): mæm (main variant), mɑːm

Fowler's 2004: /mæm/

Room 1986, The Dictionary of Britain: /mæm/

share|improve this answer

In my personal experience, the Queen and other female royalty are the only people who would be called ma'am (to rhyme with jam) in this day and age. We were taught that this pronunciation is restricted to the royal family. Female judges and senior officers in the forces would be ma'am (pronounced as mahm). In the days of domestic service, ma'am had many variations from mahm to 'um (e.g. 'yes 'um'), but not the 'royal' pronunciation.

share|improve this answer
    
I should think that referring to a Mother Superior as “mom” would come off as a bit too informal. –  tchrist Apr 27 at 21:18
    
Isn't the correct address "Reverend Mother" in that particular instance? –  Kate May 14 at 11:31

This is called "intrusive r," and is tied up with what is called rhoticity (basically variants of the pronunciation of the "r"). It is part of regional dialects and is encountered in certain areas of the US (such as Baltimore and parts of Pennsylvania "wash"pronounced "warsh"), and I know it also exists in the UK (obviously).

share|improve this answer
1  
Not quite. I wrote "marm" as an approximation of the pronunciation, but it's actually pronounced "mAHm" (non-rhotic). UK residents know what I mean. –  Gilead Feb 10 '11 at 19:30
4  
I’m pretty sure this isn’t what’s going on — I think when the OP says “pronounced like marm ”, they mean the non-rhotic pronunciation of marm, i.e. what a rhotic speaker would write as mahm. I don’t remember ever hearing ma’am pronounced with an intrusive r in BrE. Similarly, the intrusive r that occurs in BrE is not words like wash, but words like Kafkaesque (-> Kafkaresque) or withdrawal (-> withdrawral); it’s essentially a linking r, between morphemes within the word. –  PLL Feb 10 '11 at 19:32
    
I do know what you mean because I have heard it. I didn't say it was rhotic I said it was tied up with rhoticity (both rhotic and non-rhotic) –  horatio Feb 10 '11 at 19:32
    
@ PLL: I have seen "kafkaresque" described as "an internal intrusive r" –  horatio Feb 10 '11 at 19:39
    
@horatio: The question here is not about "mahm" vs "marm", but about ma'am rhyming-with-ham vs rhyming-with-farm (whether rhotic nor non-rhotic… the OP means non-rhotic, rhyming-with-palm). –  ShreevatsaR Feb 10 '11 at 19:40

M-W also has it as "mam like ham". If you look at the origin of the contraction: "madam" --> "ma'am", it would seem a little unusual to throw an "r" sound in the mix.

share|improve this answer

protected by tchrist Jul 1 at 1:06

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.