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"You say tomato, I say tomato" and the song from the beginning.

As an informal turn of speech, it can be used to show that two or more parties are talking about basically the same thing but not in same exact terms, or not quite agreeing on the specifics.

Yet written down as tomato-tomato or potato-potato it looks just plain wrong and confusing (like in the video title above). Short of using the transcriptions /təˈmeɪtəʊ/ - /təˈmɑːtəʊ/ and /pəˈteɪtəʊ/ - /pəˈtɑːtəʊ/, is there a way of writing it down that indicates the differences in pronunciation?

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This is a strange question. I wasn't aware of any difference in how potato is pronounced. –  Tristan r Jul 1 at 22:46
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@Tristanr - It's from the lyrics of a song. They aren't alsways truthful. –  medica Jul 1 at 22:54
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Vowel length is not phonemic in /təˈmɑtoʊ/. –  tchrist Jul 1 at 23:19
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@Tristanr Some North Americans pronounce it "po-tay-do". –  Poldie Jul 2 at 11:37
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@Poldie "po-tay-do" or "po-tay-<flap>o"? I.e., are you mentioning the same thing or something different from the phenomenon wherein "shudder" and "shutter" are pronounced the same? –  Joshua Taylor Jul 2 at 16:00
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5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

It appears that there is this story behind the difference in pronouciation: Tomato:

Because of the song, tomayto, tomahto has come to be used as an expression meaning “unimportant difference.” The tomato originated in South America. The Spaniards first brought tomato seeds to Europe in the 1540s. The seeds produced a yellow tomato. Because of the color, an Italian botanist called it pomo d’oro, “golden apple.”

So what about the English pronunciation? When the first tomatoes were grown in England in the 1590’s, Shakespeare (1564-1616 ) was a young man. The Great Vowel Shift, which began in 1450, was in full swing.

At some time in the eighteenth century, speakers in southern England began pronouncing formerly short a words like half, calf, laugh, after, path, aunt, and can’t with the broad a of father. At first the broad a pronunciations were considered “substandard,” but they eventually made their way into the standard speech of the upper classes. Not everyone found them acceptable.

Writing as late as 1921, H. L. Mencken mentions an English contemporary who felt that the “tomahto” pronunciation was “pedantic” and not to be preferred to “the good English tomato, rhyming with potato.” Nowadays “tomahto” is considered British pronunciation and “tomayto” American, but many Americans pronounce tomato {and aunt ) with a broad a. Either pronunciation is considered standard. The only “rule” is to go with the pronunciation you prefer. Either is easily understood by other English speakers.

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Nice backstory, but how does it answer OP's question? –  JoeTaxpayer Jul 2 at 0:57
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@JoeTaxpayer: incidentally, the highlighted tomayto, tomahto in the answer seems like an acceptable option –  o.v. Jul 2 at 3:50
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The third and fourth paragraphs seem to be unrelated. The third talks about the shift from a-as-in-hat to a-as-in-father but the fourth is about ay-as-in-hay versus a-as-in-father. –  David Richerby Jul 2 at 11:02
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I have always seen this written as "to-may-to to-mah-to."

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...[citation required]? –  o.v. Jul 2 at 3:48
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I'm tempted to be pedantic and point out that wikipedia itself should not be used as a reference. Ironically the article's own citation reference links to a page with song lyrics written as Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto. –  o.v. Jul 2 at 22:06
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You could use a simpler transcription, that, even if people were unfamiliar with the notation, would still convey that a difference exists: "tomāto, tomäto". The macron (overbar) indicating a long vowel was something I was taught in elementary school, and it's widely enough known that it sometimes gets used in brand names (pūr, fōn, etc). The diaeresis (umlaut) is the notation that Merriam-Webster and some other American dictionaries use for the "ah" sound, and is also sometimes used in branding to indicate a more "foreign" pronunciation if nothing else (e.g. Häagen-Dazs).

(All this said, I think that "to-may-to to-mah-to", while looking a bit clunky with those hyphens, is probably nearly instantly clear to most readers.)

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Pedant hat on: The diaeresis and the umlaut are diacritics for two distinct phonological phenomena. A diaeresis indicates the vowel is to be pronounced separately: Zoë shows the e is pronounced distinctly from the o, so Zoey not like toe. An umlaut indicates the vowel is to be pronounced with a long sound rather than a short sound, so Lätta has an ah sound rather than a short a that the spelling would indicate without the umlaut. While they use the same diacritic, a diaeresis appears on the second of two vowels whereas an umlaut is for a single vowel. –  Chris Lätta Jul 3 at 6:15
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As an informal turn of speech, it can be used to show that two or more parties are talking about basically the same thing but not in same exact terms, or not quite agreeing on the specifics.

You could use color-colour or apologise-apologize, or one of many other spelling differences between AmE and BrE, to express the same thing. I don't think there is an established idiom to do this in writing.

Another way to express the idiom in writing is to use terminologies that are different. For example, soccer-football, truck-lorry.

Be creative. Try to find a pair of words that fits within the context but still is obviously a reference to the potato-potato song rather than just the vanilla idiom. For example, you can say "I say soccer, you say football" when having an argument while watching football match.

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Right; this is the answer I would have given. Gray, grey, aluminum, aluminium, there are so many different words, so why choose an example where the spelling happens to be the same? –  Mr Lister Jul 2 at 21:59
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I think it's worth noting that when I saw this thread in my weekly email, I (and no doubt many others) knew exactly what it referred to. It's highly likely that in my mind's ear, I heard it with the "correct" pronunciation, despite the absence of any phonetic indicators. That suggests that context matters, and that simply writing 'potato-potato' might not be as "plain wrong and confusing" as one could imagine. For example, in novel dialog where there is a difference of opinion: "Oh come on. Tomato-tomato -- is this really worth fighting over?" If it passes like that, there might be no need to call attention to it. Or, that line could be followed by: "I'm sorry, but quoting some old song isn't going to change my mind, Mr. Potahto Head." :) Alternately, 'tomato-tomahto' might be the simplest and most concise way of getting it across and insuring that the intention isn't lost.

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