"Caramel", which (clearly) has an "a" in the middle, has only this spelling world wide.

But in my experience, North Americans (Canadians too) don't pronounce the middle "a". They pronounce it exactly like the girl's name Carmel. From my experience, all Americans pronounce it without the "a" and all other places pronounce it with the middle "a" voiced.

Why is that?

Can this difference in pronunciation be traced to a root cause?

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    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 18:35
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    I have to say that (as a Brit) if I heard someone say 'carmel' I would immediately think of Mount Carmel. I certainly wouldn't understand it as a different pronunciation of caramel - I wasn't aware that it is pronounced differently in much of the US.
    – TrevorD
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 23:43

2 Answers 2


Do you say car-a-mel or car-mel? Is your “fire” closer to fah-yer or fayr?

{Arika Okrent _ Mentalfloss.com _ 3 reasons for syllabically ambiguous words}

  • There is a group of words in English that can be pronounced with two different syllable structures, depending on dialect, personal preference, or context of use. While many will insist that one or the other is incontrovertibly correct, there is usually no real basis for pronouncements on the one true syllable structure. Sometimes two things can both be correct. If you need a better authority than me on that, lots of dictionaries accept both pronunciations for all the words discussed below (e.g., Merriam-Webster). What’s more interesting than fighting about who’s right is understanding why these differences arise. There are three processes that result in syllabically ambiguous words.

Two or Three Syllables: caramel, mayonnaise, family, chocolate, camera, different, separate, favorite:

  • These words all have a syllable which is often left out of the pronunciation. When we cut a sound out of the middle of a word, it’s called syncope (a three syllable word, sin-ko-pee). O-range becomes ornge, car-a-mel becomes car-mel, in-ter-es-ting becomes in-tres-ting. This pruning of syllables doesn’t happen in some random, haphazard fashion. If a vowel gets chucked, it will be before an r or l (those guys again!) or in some cases a nasal (m or n). It will also be from an unstressed syllable. So the American LA-buh-ra-to-ry becomes lab-ra-to-ry, while the British la-BO-ra-to-ry become la-bo-ra-try.


Caramel appears have different pronunciations in different English dialects, the AmE one is just a variant which has been in place for a long time:

  • The word caramel can acceptably be pronounced in several accepted ways, including KARR-uh-mel, KARR-uh-muhl, and, in North American English, KAR-muhl. The disappearance of that second syllable -uh- in the final pronunciation seems to have been in the works for a long time. The word has been in English since the 18th century, which it came via French from the Spanish caramel. Order that caramel ice cream sundae however you like!


enter image description here From (www.listenandlearnusa.com/blog)

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    This doesn't answer the question "Why? What is the root cause?" except by implication that "no-one knows". What caused the North American syllable to be universally dropped, while that didn't happen anywhere else?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 10:51
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    @josh firstly, that map is awesome! If I were to guess, I would say that 2 syllables came into vogue first half of last century. Is there a reference to a timeline or popular cooking radio show or something? It had to start somewhere.
    – Bohemian
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 11:15
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    @EdwinAshworth - dictionary.com has three meanings for caramel: a sweet liquid, a hard candy and a colour. It's not impossible that someone might use two syllables for food and three syllables for the colour, for example.
    – AndyT
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 12:31
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    It may not show why that exact pronunciation happened in the first place to the first person who started doing it (that's almost certainly unanswerable), but it does show why its so prevalent in the US. I think its a reasonable presumption that this question was asking the answerable "why" question, rather than the unanswerable one.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 15:20
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    Why is there no mention of the vowel shift? "car-ml" is [kɑɹ.mel] while "carra-mel" is [kɛəɹ.ə.mel] Commented Feb 8, 2017 at 17:37

Americans don't all use "carmel". Many of them think it's more correct to say "carr-a-mel", so you can find a number of examples of this pronunciation being used, especially in formal contexts. Go through some of the Youglish US pronunciations of "caramel".

There is a word where a similar syncopated pronunciation is, as far as I know, universal for American English speakers: squirrel.

Phonetically, squirrel may actually be one syllable or two, probably in part due to uncertain syllabification of word-final /l/ after /r/. But the identity of the rhotic vowel (/ɜr/ as in "fur" rather than /ɪr/ as in "mirror") suggests that this word may have been underlyingly compressed to one syllable in the historical ancestor of the pronunciation that modern American English speakers use. (I'm not certain that the change in vowel quality is related to syllable structure, since "syrup" also shows a variant pronunciation with /ɜr/ in American English.)

I don't know of any other examples besides these two, though. (Unless you count iron = iern, which occurs also in British English, and the less common irony = ierny.)

I don't know what caused these pronunciations to be established only in North America. It seems possible that the presence of rhotic vowels somehow contributed; in most British accents it would be impossible to have "r" in disyllabic /kɑrməl/ or monosyllabic /sqɜrl/, since "r" at the end of syllables has been converted to mere alteration of the length or quality of the preceding vowel (the pronunciations would instead be /kɑːməl/ and /sqɜːl/; compare Mount Carmel /maʊnt kɑːməl/ and pearl /pɜːl/).

  • 3
    Here is historical video evidence that we Americans do indeed argue over the pronunciation of "caramel." It's that Shaq commercial for Nestle Crunch Bars Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 2:41
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    @sumelic In all British accents, whether rhotic or not, the /r/ in "caramel" and "squirrel" is pronounced because it comes before a vowel. As you point out, however, dropping /r/+<vowel> in non-rhotic accents would result in pronunciations like "camel" (as British English uses /æ/ in the first syllable of "caramel") and "squill".
    – paolo
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 14:50
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    See, I always thought it was because of venues where you have people shouting out their wares. "CAR-mel APP-ells" has a different rhythm than "CAR-a-mel" APP-ells" when shouting over a crowd.
    – Seeds
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 16:55
  • British people can pronounce the /r/ in referral. They could easily pronounce squerral to rhyme with it; they just don't. Commented Oct 3, 2020 at 21:36
  • I think what’s happening with caramel is the same things happening with caravel, caravan, carousel, and also with carmelized. It’s twofold. One part is ① tense–lax neutralization before ‹r› for most North Americans. But another part is ② the front–back distinction because although we can have a back vowel there, they never can; they always have a front vowel there. So caramel is UK [ˈkʰaɹəməl], [ˈkʰæɹəməl], [ˈkʰæɹəmɛl] but US [ˈkʰɛɹəˌmɛl], [ˈkʰɑɹməl]; caravel is UK [ˈkʰaɹəvɛl], [ˈkʰæɹəvɛl] but US [ˈkʰɛɹəˌvɛl]; caravan is UK [ˈkʰæɹəˌvan], [ˈkʰaɹəˌvan] but US [ˈkʰɛɹəˌvæn].
    – tchrist
    Commented Oct 4, 2020 at 1:10

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