Kean Mutiny

This post has to do with linguistics, not Spanish, but please do give it a try.

Thursday night I took a Greyhound bus from New York City to Atlantic City in order to lead a workshop at the annual NJEA Convention (gotta blog about that, too!). As we barreled down the Garden State Parkway I spotted a billboard for Kean University, a public university in Union Country, New Jersey. Formerly known as Newark State College, the university was renamed in 1973 in honor the illustrious Kean family, whose members have included New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, Sr., the chair of the 9/11 Commission.

The Kean family name is pronounced ‘Caine’, a fact that has apparently faded from common knowledge since Governor Kean’s time. The University has therefore embarked on a $313,000 advertising campaign to bring attention both to the university and its correct pronunciation. The billboard I saw was part of this campaign, and it was a linguistic abomination:

The // slashes indicate a phonetic transcription (spelling), but as any Linguistics 101 student could tell you, the phonetic transcription of Kean (or Cainecain, or cane) is /ken/. The transcription /cane/ represents a two-syllable word that has the vowels of latteblase, or sashay but cannot be pronounced in English, since the phonetic symbol /c/ represents a sound not found in our language. Called a “voiceless palatal stop”, it is somewhere between a /t/ and a /k/.

Kean was a major sponsor of the convention and had a large booth in its exhibit hall. Never one to pull a punch, I stopped by to complain about the billboard, and was told that the advertising campaign was meant to be humorous. Call me a goody-goody, but I don’t think that phonetic transcription is funny. To me it is an utterly serious tool for research in an important discipline.

So — grrr.

4 thoughts on “Kean Mutiny

  1. alice

    I am accomplished in a few areas but not linguistics. I would never think to pronounce “ken” as anything other than Ken…as in Ken and Barbie! The phonetic transcriptions in dictionaries are a total mystery to me. I have a big one….I need to see if there is a legible legend for phonetics in it somewhere. In one of my next lives I think I will study linguistics. So many things to do, so little time!

  2. jhochberg Post author

    It’s English spelling that’s getting in your way — /e/ has the ‘eh’ sound (as in ‘cane’) in Spanish and many other languages. I just wish Kean had done something like “Sounds like ‘cane'”.

  3. Kathy King-Watters

    It’s very disappointing that an educational institution would be so blasé about an academic error. To me, it speaks volumes about the educational standards they aspire to. I think you should follow up with a letter to the president of the university and cc the linguistics/languages department head.

    1. jhochberg Post author

      I reached my limit already by complaining in person at the convention and tweeting about it. But you are welcome to protest on your own!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *