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Every time I catch an Acanthopagrus australis, commonly known as a yellowfin bream, I wonder why its name is prounced "brim", (as in the same way you would pronounce the brim of a hat).

Merriam-Webster does list the secondary pronunciation, /brēm/. However, when I first uttered the word in that manner, I was immediately admonished by at least three people who were within earshot, and quickly learnt that fishermen (or at the very least, Australian ones,) always say /brɪm/.

Why is this the case? Does it have something to do with the way in which the name was derived?

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Southern Louisiana fisherman say brim and probably would spell it incorrectly if pressed to write it down. –  My Info Mar 12 at 22:07
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3 Answers

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It appears that it used to be pronounced brim in parts of the U.K. as well. From The Edinburgh encyclopedia (1830), we have

On the coasts of Barbary is found the greatest abundance of excellent fish, particularly mullet, brim, anchovies, sardines, herring, mackarel, cod, skaite, soles, plaice, turbot, turtle.

So presumably, both pronunciations existed in the U.K. at one point, but bream has become the accepted pronunciation in the U.K., while brim is the accepted one in Australia.

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I could believe that, given how close the two vowel sounds are in an Edinburgh accent. –  user1579 Jun 29 '11 at 15:18
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In Britain, bream rhymes with dream, so part of your question "why is bream pronounced as it is [in Australia]" generalises to the question "how did Australian accents come to differ from British accents?". This is an interesting bit on the Australian vowel shift and how it started to have an affect within just a few generations: http://clas.mq.edu.au/voices/history-accent-change .

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+1 for the interesting link –  user1579 Jun 29 '11 at 13:03
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The fact that Merriam-Webster and American Heritage give both breem and brim as pronunciations means that some Americans also pronounce it like this (I'd guess fishermen, who are familiar with the word). So it's not the Australian accent. My best guess was that it used to be pronounced like brim in at least some U.K. dialects as well, but the spelling pronunciation eventually replaced it. I don't believe this same bizarre vowel change is likely to happen independently in both Australia and the U.S. –  Peter Shor Jun 29 '11 at 13:52
    
@Peter Shor: shortening a vowel is not a particularly bizarre change, but your point about US usage is well taken. –  user1579 Jun 29 '11 at 13:56
    
@Peter Shor, @Rhodri: I'm struggling to think of any other words in which the ea would be pronounced by an Australian (or anyone else, for that matter), as the /ɪ/ vowel sound. –  bracho monacho Jun 29 '11 at 13:59
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@jaybee, @Rhodri: can you think of any other words which are pronounced with /iː/ in the U.K. and /ɪ/ in both Australia and the U.S? If you can, I'll take back the word bizarre. –  Peter Shor Jun 29 '11 at 14:14
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In the UK, we do pronounce it /briːm/ as you were expecting, so the derivation of the name isn't likely to be much of a factor. It's more likely that it's a cultural shift in Australian pronunciation, though that's only a guess.

According to Etymonline bream a 14th century word, coming from the Old French braisme.

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It's not just Australia. The Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries give both pronunciations, and these dictionaries don't care a fig about how things are pronounced in Australia. Both pronunciations must be used in the U.S. My guess is that both pronunciations were formerly used in the U.K. as well. One pronunciation gave rise to the spelling, and the other pronunciation emigrated to Australia. –  Peter Shor Jun 29 '11 at 13:54
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@Peter: Or perhaps was transported. –  TimLymington Jun 29 '11 at 14:08
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