Jumpin' up and down yelling "KILN! KILN!"
Some words, and here I’m talking about English words that have been with us for a long time, fall into disuse in wide geographic areas. They become part of people’s reading vocabulary, the words they know because they’ve encountered them in newspapers or books but have not heard in ordinary conversation with people who learned them before they could read. Rather than look up the pronunciation in a dictionary, people often guess, based on the spelling. This reading pronunciation, as linguists refer to it, becomes widespread. Eventually dictionaries report this new pronunciation as standard and the original pronunciation, passed parent to child, mouth to ear for many generations, is lost. At least it is lost most places.
I was reminded of this particular form of linguistic change over the last week, which I spent in Kiln, Mississippi. I was there with a group of forty-some volunteers from Connecticut, doing Katrina reconstruction work. (I’ll blog about that later, when I have pictures to share.)
Rural communities like Kiln do not attract a lot of in-migration. As a result, they tend to be linguistically isolated and thus relatively stable over long periods. And place names, because they are often used as shibboleths, are particularly stable. There are no kilns in Kiln anymore, but the name is pronounced as it always was—kil. (Phonetically, that short i in the middle sounds more like a long eeeey to this Yankee, but the word rhymes with bill or mill in the local dialect.) There is no n sound at the end of the word. Aside from asking locals how they pronounce the name of the town (a notoriously unreliable way to find out that information, as locals everywhere like to preserve their shibboleths and make fools of strangers), I confirmed this pronunciation independently by noting that the local video store is Kiln-n-Time, not Kil-n-Time.
But I had a hard time convincing my traveling companions that the local pronunciation is in fact the older pronunciation and that kiln is a reading pronunciation. Everyone in the group had encountered the word away from its social context—perhaps in a pottery class or in a history book, but not in a place where one’s father or the father of one’s friend went off to work every morning at the local kiln.
The 1828 edition of Noah Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary shows only the single pronunciation kil. Recent dictionaries show kiln as the more common pronunciation and kil as less common. Given the percentage of the population for whom a kiln is not an everyday thing, this is not surprising. But the good people of Kiln, Mississippi, don’t pronounce the name of their town the way they do out of ignorance. The rest of us pronounce it the way we do out of ignorance.