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In many programming languages, char is a type name for character values. The word character is pronounced with a [k] sound, but what about char?

While trying to find the answer elsewhere, I learnt that there is an English word char which is pronounced [tʃɑ:(r)], but it has nothing to do with characters.

How would you read the following piece of code out loud?

char a;

Is it [kær], [tʃær] or [tʃɑ:(r)]? I've always used the last but I have no idea whether it's correct.

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This has no definitive answer. Some people pronounce it care while others pronounce it char. Some people say jif for "Gif" while others use the hard "g" there. I don't bother correcting anyone (although I do say care and gif myself). –  Robusto Mar 5 '12 at 15:30
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@Robusto: That, in itself, is an answer to my question. –  Armen Ծիրունյան Mar 5 '12 at 16:02
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I've never heard any native English speaker call the char datatype care or car. It's always pronounced as the first syllable in charming, despite the fact that it's obviously an abbreviation for character. –  FumbleFingers Mar 5 '12 at 17:03
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@FumbleFingers I dont know if a regional bias comes here again. But most people, (using AmE), I have met, say "kar", since after all, it is the abbreviation of character, which is pronounced with 'k'. Its usage usually sounds like you set off to say 'character', but didnt utter the sounds attributed to the last 5 letters. –  karthik Mar 5 '12 at 17:31
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Wouldn't Dennis Ritchie's pronunciation of it have to be correct? Unfortunately, I don't know what that is. –  Peter Shor Mar 6 '12 at 1:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 31 down vote accepted

(Note this answer was previously posted to a question which has since been deleted on Programmers.stackexchange.com)


The abbreviated form char, short for character, can be pronounced in several different ways in American English: here's how you represent the various pronunciations in American English using the International Phonetic Alphabet:

  1. char as in char-broiled: /tʃɑr/
  2. char as in car: /kɑr/
  3. char as in character: /kær/
  4. char as in care: /kɛr/

For many speakers of American English (including myself), the /æ/ sound before /r/ is merged with the /ɛ/ sound. That is, the words marry and merry are pronounced the same. For these people, #3 and #4 are indistinguishably pronounced like #4. People with this merger are often confused if someone else tries to explain the distinction between #3 and #4.

I have heard all these forms used and as a descriptivist, I would make no attempt to declare any as “correct”. Each has different arguments for and against, which I will enumerate below.

  1. This form has the advantage of being “obvious”—that is, it is pronounced the way a naïve pronunciation of an unknown English word would be pronounced. It is also how the unrelated but identically spelled verb char is pronounced. On the downside, it preserves neither the initial /k/ sound nor the vowel of the word the abbreviation is derived from, character.
  2. This form maintains the initial /k/ sound from character but is otherwise pronounced as spelled. It does not preserve the vowel from character.
  3. This form maintains both the initial /k/ sound and the vowel from character. It is the most faithful to the source word. On the downside, /ær/ is not a phonotactically valid way for a word to end. The sequence /ær/ is only possible if there are additional vowels, as in marry or character. That is, if you say /kær/ as an independent word it is a violation of the normal phonotactic constraints of spoken English. Furthermore, it is a completely non-obvious pronunciation if you don’t already know that char is short for character and how character is pronounced.
  4. This form is very similar to #3, being quite faithful to the underlying form, but with the advantage of not violating the phonotactic constraint against words ending in /ær/. For people with the marrymerry merger, it is not actually perceived to be different from #3 at all. On the downside, it is a completely non-obvious pronunciation if you don’t already know that char is short for character and how character is pronounced. Also, if you do distinguish #3 and #4, then #4 does not actually have the same vowel as character.

Each possible pronunciation has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, which is why there is a diversity of pronunciation in the field—there is no form that is clearly better than all the others. Furthermore, the different possibilities are bound up in a dialectical difference that most speakers of American English are unaware of, so when discussions of how to pronounce char come up, often two people are talking about dialectical differences when what they think they are talking about is a lexical difference.

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I don't pronounce marry and merry the same, but I do pronounce care and _char_acter the same. It's definitely a very local accent thing, similar to how Chicagoans pronounce the "a" in Chicago differently than those who grew up in the west suburbs, less than an hour away. –  Izkata Mar 5 '12 at 22:06
    
A superb answer. –  Dan Moulding Mar 6 '13 at 16:40
    
@Izkata, that’s quite interesting. I would tend to pronounce marry and merry the same, but I pronounce care and char(acter) differently, just like I pronounce pair and par(achute) with different vowels (the former with [ɛ], the latter with [æ]). Or more parallel: carry [æ] vs. carey [ɛ] (as in ‘someone who cares’). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 24 at 18:02

RE "char", I agree with karthik: I pronounce it like the first syllable of "character". I've heard people pronounce it "char", that is, pronounce the "ch" as in "chair" and then "ar" as in "car". This does bring up the question why we spell the word "character" and not "caracter" or "karacter". I think we should start a movement to change that.

It never occurred to me before that this looks just like "char" as in "burn slightly". I pronounce that with "ch" as in chair. I suppose that's not all that surprising, there are other words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like "polish", "rub something to make it shine, and "Polish", the nationality, the former has a short "o" and the latter a long "o".

Oh, it occurs to me that most people I talk to pronounce the SQL type "varchar" as "var-car", i.e. pronounce the "char" part to sound like "car" as in automobile and the "var" part to rhyme with it.

But all of this is anecdotal. I doubt I've heard more than a few dozen people pronounce these words, and all in a few small groups so they might easily have influenced each other. And I don't think Google Ngrams has pronunciations to get any large scale statistics.

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While trying to find the answer elsewhere, I learnt that there is an English word 'char' which is pronounced [tʃɑ:(r)], but it has nothing to do with characters.

I'm certain that this is why many people say [tʃɑ:(r)]. To answer your question, I would say "[tʃɑ:(r)] a" when I read

char a;

I can't find the reference right now of course, but either one of my Java books or my teachers said that the person who thought of the char keyword pronounced it care because they were named/working with/obsessed with/father of someone named Karen.

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Thank you for your answer. I understand your choice of redge-edit, but I don't understand redge-ex. The latter comes from regular exptression, so why would you pronounce it as redge-ex? Is it a common pronunciation? o_O –  Armen Ծիրունյան Mar 5 '12 at 15:49
    
I was just expanding on my use of 'redge' when I see reg words, like regex for regular expressions and regedit for registry editor. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 5 '12 at 15:51
    
@Matt, how did you do that? That type of look is what I wanted to use to quote the OP. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 5 '12 at 16:01
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if you start a line with > then it will make the line a quote :) –  Matt Эллен Mar 5 '12 at 16:05
    
Ohhh right. And see, I use that all the time when I provide dictionary definitions. It's Monday, alright. –  cornbread ninja 麵包忍者 Mar 5 '12 at 16:26

I will reiterate what Bjarne Stroustrup has to say:

"char" is usually pronounced "tchar", not "kar". This may seem illogical because "character" is pronounced "ka-rak-ter", but nobody ever accused English pronunciation (not "pronounciation" :-) and spelling of being logical.

http://www.stroustrup.com/bs_faq2.html#char

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