This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, the annual prize in journalism and letters established by the estate of Joseph Pulitzer in 1916 and run by the Columbia School of Journalism (also established by Pulitzer’s estate). The first Pulitzer Prizes in reporting were given in 1917 to Herbert Bayard Swope of New York World for a series of articles titled “Inside the German Empire” and to the New York Tribune for its editorial on the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The first Pulitzers in literature were awarded that year to French ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand for his work, History With Americans of Past and Present Days, and to Laura E. Richards and Maude Howe Elliott for The Autobiography of Julia Ward Howe.
Over the years, the prize categories have evolved; poetry, general non-fiction, fiction, and more were added in the literary arts, and categories such as editorial cartooning, local and national investigative reporting, and editorial and feature photography were added in journalism. The category of telegraph reporting has quaintly fallen away. Today, there are more than twenty categories of awards. And it is worth noting that Oxford University Press books have won a fair share of awards—in history, biography, and even one in music.
This year, the Pulitzer Board is sponsoring a year-long celebration of the 100th awarding of the prizes, in collaboration with state humanities councils, journalism schools, museums, and foundations. A friend of mine, a Pulitzer winner himself, was telling me about this over coffee. “Wow,” I exclaimed, “I had no idea that the Pulitzer Prize was a hundred years old.”
I pronounced the name PEW-lit-zer, and he gently explained the preferred pronunciation to me. The Pulitzer Board pronounces it PULL-it-sir, which is the way Joseph Pulitzer said it and liked it. A few days later, I was talking with another friend about the centenary and complimented him on pronouncing it as Pulitzer did. “Yeah,” he said. “I was saying PEW-lit-zer, but someone corrected me.”
The PEW-lit-zer versus PULL-it-sir situation got me to thinking about the pronunciation of names. It’s one of the few aspects of language where a dose of prescriptivism seems warranted. A person ought to be able to pronounce their name as they see fit (within orthographic reason, of course). I may not like your pronunciation of insurance, economics, or route, but I have no special authority to approve or correct it. However, with a name, the situation is different. The owner of the name gets to establish the pronunciation. So PULL-it-sir it is.
But why do so many American speakers say it the other way, with PEW as the first syllable? The answer to that lies in the phonological process of palatalization, and specifically what is known as u-palatalization. The term refers to the way that in English, consonants are often palatalized before a long u sound. A palatal semivowel (a gliding sound represented by the phonetic symbol /j/ but often spelled with a Y in popular transcriptions) occurs between the consonant and the long “u” vowel. Long u , by the way, is often phonetically transcribed as /u:/ but can be spelled in various ways as eau, oo, ou, ue, ew , or as u followed by a single consonant and a vowel (as in dude or tuna).
Palatalization before /u:/ tends to occur in some relatively well-defined phonetic situations, such as when the /u:/ occurs at the beginning of a work as in university or usual. That is why you use a rather than an with many words that start with u—perhaps they begin with /ju:/ not /u:/.
Palatalization is especially robust after labial consonants in American English. These include the stops /m/, /p/, and /b/ (as in mute, amuse, pew, pure, puerile, repute, beauty, bureau, vocabulary, constabulary) and also the fricatives /f/ and /v/ (as in fuse, fuel, fuel, futile, view, revue, uvula). Palatalization is not automatic after these sounds, however, and spelling is often a clue: pew and pooh, beauty and booty, feud and food, mute and moot.
This brings us back to Joseph Pulitzer, who emigrated to the United States in 1864. He was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.
Palatalization, incidentally, is also common after velar consonants like /g/ and /k/ (as in cute, cue, skew, factual, regulate, angular, and argue), and you find a similar extension of palatalization in the pronunciation of the word coupon. Coupon is etymologically French (from the Old French couper, meaning “to cut”) but has the alternate pronunciations COOP-on and CUE-pon. And last week, I heard someone pronounce Kubrick as CUE-brick.
The pronunciations of coupon and Pulitzer aside, it turns out that the palatalized versions of many common words are often the older forms, still used among many speakers of British and Canadian English. Thus you hear palatalized due, tune, dune, news, lewd, and so on. Twentieth-century American speech tended to drop these palatal glides, but they seem to be re-emerging in some dialects. Perhaps there’s a Pulitzer in the story.
Image Credit: “Signature of United States publisher Joseph Pulitzer” (1918). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.