Write the number dow-uhn
February 24, 2012 9:08 AM   Subscribe

Why the two-syllable pronunciation of "nine" for the telephone?

Does anyone have an explanation of why, in the Nichols and May comedy bit "Telephone", Elaine May (in her role as a telephone operator) pronounces "nine" as "ni-uhn"? Walter Mathau also uses this pronunciation on the telephone in Plaza Suite to incredible comic effect.

May uses this two-syllable approach for "down" and "dime" in the bit as well.

Also, for bonus points, where else is there recorded evidence of this pronunciation?
posted by activitystory to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
Because it's funny.

(Seriously: stretching out a syllable or chopping a word up unusually is a guaranteed crowd pleaser. I'd not be surprised if it came from Vaudeville, like so many comedy tics do.)
posted by beaucoupkevin at 9:11 AM on February 24, 2012

I've always presumed it was pronounced that was as to differentiate it from "five"; on older, lower-fidelity telephones, the two words were hard to distinguish from one another. Much the same reason airline pilots and traffice controllers said "niner" instead of "nine."
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:12 AM on February 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's less easily misheard as "five."
posted by milk white peacock at 9:13 AM on February 24, 2012

I'm with Oriole Adams on this one. I remember seeing an old phonetic alphabet chart indicating "nine" being pronounced "ni-yine" or something to the equivalent. The official NATO/military/police phonetic alphabets have long since been changed to "niner" to distinguish it from "fife" (five).
posted by Mister Fabulous at 9:17 AM on February 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks, I thought it had something to do with clarity, but hadn't considered that it would be confused with five. I had never made the connection with "niner".

Beaucoupkevin's right, too. May stretching our "dime" is what makes me laugh hardest (specifically, "alleged dime").
posted by activitystory at 9:18 AM on February 24, 2012

I also find that this is a quirk of some regions. Some people in Boston where I grew up, for example, pronounce "mine" as "my-en."
posted by slkinsey at 9:22 AM on February 24, 2012

The Navy uses phonetic pronunciations over the radio for clarity, here is a chart which shows pronunciations for numbers (scroll down) and signal flags/alphabet.
posted by illenion at 9:37 AM on February 24, 2012

The official NATO/military/police phonetic alphabets have long since been changed to "niner" to distinguish it from "fife"

I was told it was to differentiate it from the German "nein", which might also be why it's used that way over the phone.
posted by bondcliff at 9:44 AM on February 24, 2012

Alpha bravo Charlie Nine-er has saved my bacon on bad VOIP and other shakey services many times.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:23 AM on February 24, 2012

My grandmother was an operator for Bell Telephone in the 1930s, and pronounced "nine" with two syllables for years after she retired. She always told me that she was trained to do it that way to distinguish it from "five".
posted by muhonnin at 1:36 PM on February 24, 2012

Also: Therr-ree.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:30 PM on February 24, 2012

A similar phenomenon: when total accuracy is needed over a noisy channel, Mandarin Chinese numbers are modified for maximum distinctiveness.

1 & 7 (yi1 and qi1) are very similar, and in Cantonese, 2 is pronounced yi, so for military and police communications, these three numbers are totally different:

1 2 7 = YAO1, LIANG3, GUAI3

6 & 9 are also similar (liu4 and jiu3), so 9 becomes GOU1

All ten noise-proof digits for reference:

##1,, 2,, 3,, 4,, 5,, ## 6,, 7,, 8,, 9,, 0
yi1 er4 san1 si4 wu3 ## liu4 qi1 ba1 jiu3 ling2
YAO1 LIANG3 san1 si4 wu3 liu4 GUAI3 ba1 GOU1 DONG4
posted by juifenasie at 8:11 PM on February 24, 2012

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