Don't even think about ordering a lobstah roll
January 13, 2014 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Is pronouncing "lobster" like "lopster" common? If so, is it associated with a particular region/group?

In a random discussion, my husband and I were surprised to discover that he pronounces "lobster" with a distinct "p" sound. I say it with a "b" sound, and we assumed his pronunciation was non-standard, but we weren't sure if this was just one of his linguistic quirks or if it's an actual thing. I don't think I'd ever heard it with a "p" before, but it also took 8 years for me to notice, so for all I know, I'm the one who's been saying it wrong all these years.
posted by Diagonalize to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I mostly grew up in New England and ate a lot of lobster and never heard it pronounced with a "p". Where did your husband grow up?
posted by rtha at 3:55 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of words where an internal B can be exchanged for more of a P sound, or vice versa. Habsburg and Baptist immediately come to mind.

One of my younger brothers always used to say the word "pecan" with more of a B sound. He eventually stopped doing it, though.

I don't know that there's any specific regional accent that does this, though. I think it might be more of a personal quirk.
posted by Sara C. at 3:57 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm from Cape Cod / the Boston area.

People who don't have strong regional accents say it with a "b," but it's a very soft consonant and could absolutely sound like a "p" to the listener. Even if you don't have the stereotypical Boston accent, if you're talking at full-speed then the word can end up coming out kind of like "lopstah." Especially if you're saying it mid-sentence, like "I'm gonna go get a lobster roll."

....dammit, now I want a lobster roll.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 3:57 PM on January 13, 2014 [10 favorites]

Yeah, now that I'm sitting here at my desk muttering "loBster" and loPster" to myself, I have to work to really hear the difference.
posted by rtha at 3:59 PM on January 13, 2014 [26 favorites]

Anecdotally, I have met people in my neck of the woods who pronounce "Shrimp" without the "h". Srimp. So, I can see where there might be a pocket population somewhere that might pronounce "Lobster" with a "P" sound.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:00 PM on January 13, 2014

Iowa City, Iowa. This was several years ago, but I heard at least five coworkers based at our office there pronounce it that way during a fierce debate on where to go for dinner with us. We voted against lopster that night.
posted by mochapickle at 4:01 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

Even though it is about sounds changing from P, this book provides answers: Labial Instability in Sound Change: Explanations for the Loss of P.
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:08 PM on January 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've never heard "lobster," but growing up in the South I knew a lot of "Babtist" church members. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some sort of b-p merger (or whatever the proper linguistic term is) in some regions.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:10 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


1. The difference here is mainly voicing: the p is a voiceless bilabial stop and the b is a voiced bilabial stop. It's a very simple production difference and the shift back and forth is common to every language that has those sounds.

2. In Old English the word was "loppestre."
posted by Mo Nickels at 4:12 PM on January 13, 2014 [14 favorites]

So, from googling around, a couple things come out:

First, in American English, as Mo Nickels pointed out, voicing /p/ to /b/ is more common than the reverse, especially intervocalic (between vowels). When you see devoicing in English, it tends to be the final consonant being devoiced.

Second, devoicing stop consonants is a feature of Northern Cities/Northern American English. Unfortunately, according to that paper, as of 2009, relatively little research had been done on shifts in American consonant pronunciation.

Because of that, just playing hunches, I'd bet that it's a Midwest tic (supported by the anecdote about Iowa above). But it doesn't sound common or like it's gotten much study — hopefully an actual linguist who studies American consonant shifts (or just knows of better literature) can help out.
posted by klangklangston at 4:22 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

He moved around the East Coast a bit in childhood, but mostly grew up in Nebraska, which supports the Midwest theory. His dad is from MA, and his mom grew up near D.C. When we were doing the NYT regional language map thingy, he came up heavily Nebraska, Boston (where he'd lived for reasonable chunks of his adult life), and southern California (which is where I grew up).
posted by Diagonalize at 4:50 PM on January 13, 2014

Born and raised in Alaska.

Like rtha, lobster/lopster sound near identical to me.
posted by rhapsodie at 4:52 PM on January 13, 2014

Southern Ohio, sounds nearly identical to me ('b' holds lips together a millisecond longer).
posted by matildaben at 5:00 PM on January 13, 2014

the p is a voiceless bilabial stop and the b is a voiced bilabial stop.

And s and t are both unvoiced. 'bst' is going to be a lot less stable than 'bzd' or 'pst', if people aren't carefully enunciating.
posted by empath at 5:32 PM on January 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think I pronounce it with a "p" sound. Born and raised in Vermont, one Vermonter parent, one midwestern parent.
posted by papayaninja at 5:33 PM on January 13, 2014

Following from Mo Nickels' second point, lopster was the normal pronunciation of the word until the 1500s. If there is any population still saying it that way it could be a survival rather than an alteration in sound. Indeed, it's the majority who has shifted.
posted by Thing at 5:35 PM on January 13, 2014

I have seen both Hapsburg and Habsburg for the Archduke Ferdinand's family name.

I don't think it's regional to interchange b/p in the middle of a word, i think it's just what our mouths do.
posted by sio42 at 5:36 PM on January 13, 2014

I've been sitting here on my couch saying "lobster, lopster, lobster, lopster" for just long enough to make it sound like a complete nonsense word. Fun! And now, like rtha and rhapsodie, I'm having a hard time hearing the difference between the b and the p. I think I probably say lobster, though. (Born in SoCal, raised in Seattle by a native Seattleite who says warsh instead of wash, and yet the NYT regional language map thingy puts me squarely in the Bay Area, so... I have no idea.)

(Also, I am hungry, someone come bring me a lobster roll kthx bai)
posted by palomar at 5:38 PM on January 13, 2014 [4 favorites]

I grew up in Illinois, the descendant of many generations of Illinoisans, and I'm pretty sure I say it with a 'p' -- I don't think I hold the 'b' long enough for a full 'b' sound.
posted by jabes at 5:41 PM on January 13, 2014

I think conversationally it sounds like I say "lopster" because I am speaking quickly and not enunciating. But if I am asked to pronounce the word I would say "lobster." Nthing that it is really hard to tell the difference and I've said the word so many times that I can't tell any more.

From an island in Maine.
posted by unreasonable at 6:00 PM on January 13, 2014

Born in Iowa, I say loPster.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:09 PM on January 13, 2014

To me, the rub is in whether or not he is aspirating the /p/ in "lopster". When I'm saying it quickly (as previously mentioned), I don't release the /p/, that is, there's no puff of air after it. instead I just kind of softly stop and then roll right into the "-ster". But it isn't all the time, only when I'm speaking quickly in conversation to another New England native. When I'm speaking to a non-native, or formally, I get the full voiced /b/ in there.

I was born and raised in Rhode Island with a south-eastern MA mom and a Brooklyn-ite dad. Now live in Western MA and married to a Bostonian.
posted by absquatulate at 6:12 PM on January 13, 2014

I am from far SE Mass. I definitely say LoPster (but I don't say Lopstuh).
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:24 PM on January 13, 2014

This is like how you can tell people that you like to listen to MPR and virtually everyone will hear NPR. The 2 consonants following the B in lobster (S and T) force the sound to be more unvoiced.

Also, now I will start telling people that I don't like lopster. While I listen to MPR.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:25 PM on January 13, 2014 [5 favorites]

How does he pronounce "mobster" -- is it with a P sound, too?
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 6:31 PM on January 13, 2014

He definitely pronounces "mobster" with a "b". Although now he's sitting next to me saying "lopster" "lobster" "mobster" "mopster" over and over and over again.
posted by Diagonalize at 6:33 PM on January 13, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am from NY. My son just told me I pronounce it "lopsta". I know I try to say it "lob-ster". Go figure.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:45 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

I pronounce it 'lop-ster'. When I do the 'lop-ster' 'lob-ster' thing back and forth, what I notice is the quality of the 'o' sound is different in the two. in my 'lop-ster' the 'o' sound seems shorter and further back in the oral cavity. With 'lob-ster' it's more like an 'ah' sound, more forward and longer.

Anyone report a similar correlation?
posted by bertran at 6:55 PM on January 13, 2014

Yes, bertran, I noticed the same in my desk-mutterings!
posted by rtha at 6:57 PM on January 13, 2014

lopster is easier to say.
posted by variella at 7:03 PM on January 13, 2014

Just a couple of data points

1) Here's a video of Chicago chef Cliff Ostrowski saying "lobster" a few of times. To my ear, it sounds like he's saying "lopster" but honestly, it can be a little tricky for me to tell. link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4

2) Here's a video of someone from the Pentagon news channel reporting on a lobsterman rescued by the Coast Guard: link
posted by mhum at 7:21 PM on January 13, 2014

So maybe it is regional or personal variations in the vowel sound that's the determinater, and the consonant follows by some sort of phonological rule?

Also, about 'mob-ster' vs 'mop-ster': here the difference between first syllables has independent semantic significance, which isn't so much the case in 'lop- and lob-ster. A 'mobster' is someone who belongs to the 'mob', while a 'lobster' does not belong to a 'lob'.

So maybe that's why Diagonalize's friend stays with 'mob-ster'. The meaning of the word is at stake.
posted by bertran at 7:25 PM on January 13, 2014

So maybe that's why Diagonalize's friend stays with 'mob-ster'. The meaning of the word is at stake.

Interesting... I just realized I pronounce the name Elizabeth as Elizapeth. And Baptist as Babtist. I'm from everywhere, really, but I usually score Kansas City when taking those language quizzes.

What happens when your husband says the following sentence: "Elizabeth the Baptist mobster ordered a lobster."
posted by mochapickle at 7:34 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]

As far as I can tell, he's saying "Elizabeth the Baptist mobster ordered a lopster." It sounds like "Baptist/Babtist" could potentially happen based on the way the sounds kind of mush together, but he's still definitely on the "Baptist" side of things.
posted by Diagonalize at 7:39 PM on January 13, 2014

I say loPster and moBster. Born and raised in New York City.
posted by melesana at 8:48 PM on January 13, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's absolutely a P. Lahp-ster. Like, Flopsy the Lobster.

Lobster and mobster do not rhyme.

I've always considered myself to be pretty hip to regional accents but this is insane to me right now. I definitely am going to be accosting everyone at work tomorrow.

(Manhattan/Long Island, but I scored Yonkers on the NYT quiz, probably because my parents come from old-timey '40s Bronx.)
posted by thebazilist at 9:04 PM on January 13, 2014

I agree with thebazilist. Lobster and mobster are slant rhymes. I feel like my more "neutral" accent pronounces lobster with more of a p, while my more "Boston" accent pronounces more of a Laaahbstah.
posted by fermezporte at 4:59 AM on January 14, 2014

I pronounce the "b", but you guys have totally messed up the ending !
posted by lobstah at 6:15 AM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just a point to think about. I'm guessing everyone or nearly everyone who voices the B also voices the S (turning it into a Z sound). And unvoiced P corresponds to unvoiced S.

It's hard but possible to pronounce voiced B followed by unvoiced S in this context, and unvoiced B followed by voiced Z is pretty much impossible. (Both become more possible if you separate the two with a bit of glottal stop or something).

The T, by contrast, will always be unvoiced if following unvoiced P and S. But if the BZ is voiced, the T can go either way--could be voiced (D) or unvoiced (T).

So when you're listening for voiced/unvoiced, pay attention to voicing/non-voicing of both the B and S sounds--and the T as well.

Your basic choices are:

Possible but unlikely: BST
posted by flug at 8:28 AM on January 14, 2014

I grew up in Nova Scotia- never heard "LoPster", and "lobster" does indeed rhyme with "mobster".
posted by beau jackson at 11:31 AM on January 14, 2014

"It's hard but possible to pronounce voiced B followed by unvoiced S in this context,"

Not really; the /b/ follows a vowel; vowels are all by definition voiced. If people are pronouncing the "pster" as a single phoneme, then yeah, it would follow that they'd say the /b/ as an unvoiced /p/, but if they're separating it lob-ster, then it's not at all hard and doesn't require a voiced /z/ (or even a glottal stop), just a different vowel emphasis. This goes along with the paper I cited, noting that English devoicing of intervocalic plosives is much rarer than the opposite, and as far as I can tell roughly no one voices the /s/ or the /t/.
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 PM on January 14, 2014

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