March 27, 2020

Hindsight is Twenty-twunny

Greetings, readers! Posting to let you know that my family/friends and I are alright. I hope that you are all also okay, and able to quarantine to the best of your ability. These are difficult and stressful times that we've been called on to live in. I'm polishing a Dialect Dissection to be revealed soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you a micro-post about a curious little phenomenon I've encountered recently.

How do you pronounce the word "twenty"? For me, it's [ˈtwɛni]. Maybe [ˈtʰwɛntʰi] for some extra oomph. I've heard people with the PIN-PEN merger go with 'twinny' [twɪni], as Taylor Swift demonstrates in her song "22." (But Taylor doesn't otherwise have the PIN-PEN merger.... is this another example of her Southern imitation?)

But I recently found out about a third American pronunciation, which is 'twunny' [twʌni]. I discovered this through the place where all great language misunderstandings happen, which is to say Tumblr.

Some context here: there is a podcast called "My Brother, My Brother, and Me" run by three brothers from West Virginia, who are affectionately referred to as the McElroys. In one episode, they were coming up with humorous variations on the year 2020. They tried rhyming 'twenty' with 'venti' but decided that it didn't rhyme, and ended up deciding that 'twenty' did rhyme with 'funny' and 'honey'. This led to some confusion on Tumblr:

The Reddit thread dedicated to the podcast also had some confused folks:

rookie-mistake: I'm still baffled that anybody claimed venti and twenty don't rhyme

jebedia: They don't! At least, I pronounce twenty, "twun-tee", and venti, "vein-tee".

thenacho1: I pronounce "twenty" as "twoohny". The vowel sound is the same as "book". I don't think anything rhymes with it in my accent.

KillerVelocity: The fact it doesn't rhyme unless you have their exact twunny funny accent makes it all the more bizarre.

If I myself say "twunny," it doesn't sound unusual, and I've probably heard people pronounce it "twunny" before. But I've never noticed that this existed as an alternate pronunciation of "twenty," and now I'm interested to see what processes could be driving this change. I can't think of any other 'tw' words that have the vowel backed like this. 'Twelve' with the 'uh' vowel doesn't sound familiar to me at all.

Some people seem to have "twunny" as an allophone, switching between "twenni" and "twunni". Stack Overflow:

In normal speech, my twenty (especially in twenty-XXX compounds) is very likely to be [ˡtʍɛɾ̃i ~ ˡtʍəɾ̃i]. In rapid or tired speech, frequently even [ˡtʍəɹ̃i], with the /nt/ cluster becoming a nasalised, centralised, postalveolar approximate with no contact at all (I might even write it [ˡtʍə.ɨ̞̯̃i], if it weren’t so diacritically overloaded). – Janus Bahs Jacquet

But it's clear not everyone has it as an allophone. The McElroy brothers, for one, explicitly reject the notion that "twenty" and "venti" rhyme, which suggests that "twehnty" isn't in their mental dictionary. Moreover, the McElroy brothers also have the PIN-PEN merger, as you can tell from a joke they claim the name "Ken" is just "Nick" backwards - a joke that doesn't make sense unless you pronounce Ken as Kin. If anything, they should have a mental representation of it as /twɪnti/, but they don't. "Twunny" doesn't appear to be the result of any rules.

Whence "twunny", then? I haven't found any definitive answers on this extremely pressing issue, but this Scottish ballad may be a clue. This is from an 1886 book on English and Scottish ballads, and appears to be written in some form of Scots:

Nor to the kirk she wud ne gae
Nor til't she wud'n ride,
Till four and twunty men she gat her before
An twunty on ilka side,
An four and twunty milk-white dows
To flee aboon her head.

Indeed, this variation of "twenty" is also found in older Scots texts (alongside many other variations of "twenty"):

TWENTY, adj., n. Also twentie, twintie (Peb. 1805 J. Nicol Poems II. 13), twinty (Sc. 1722 Earls Crm. (Fraser 1876) II. 174; Sh. 1928 Manson's Almanac 186),
†tuinty (Wgt. 1794 G. Fraser Lowland Lore (1880) 69);
†tuantie (Bnff. 1715 W. Cramond Annals Bnff. (S.C.) I. 115),
†twantie (Mry. 1716 A. & H. Tayler 1715 (1936) 286),
twontie (Sc. a.1830 Lord Thomas and Fair Annet in Child Ballads (1956) IV. 470),
twonty (s.Sc. 1962 Southern Annual 29),
' twunty (Sc. 1776 Lord Ingram and Chiel Wyet in Child Ballads No. 66. C. xxii., 1824 S. Ferrier Inheritance II. xxx.; Abd. 1861 J. Davidson Poems 18; Kcb. 1893 Crockett Stickit Minister 77; Slk. 1914 Southern Reporter (17 Dec.) 9; Per., Fif., Lth. 1915–26 Wilson; Lnk. 1951 G. Rae Howe o' Braefoot 74; Rs., em.Sc., Uls. 1973);
twoonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 42; s.Sc. 1928 Border Mag. (July) 107);
toontie (s.Sc. 1873 D.S.C.S. 161),
toonty (Abd. 1880 W. Robbie Yonderton (1928) 63; Rxb. 1923 E. C. Smith Braid Haaick 11, 1966 Hawick Express (26 Jan.) 4). Sc. forms and usages.

The ordinal twentieth is occas. used where Eng. uses the cardinal, e.g. twentieth and second, twenty-second (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 227). Among older speakers the rest of the numbers in the decade are expressed as ane and twenty, twa and twenty, etc. [n. and wm.Sc. ′twɪnti; ne.Sc. + ‡′tunti; em., sm. and s.Sc. ′twʌnte, s.Sc. + ′tunti]

"Twunty" dates back to 1776! Notice that alongside "twunty," we also get the "twoonty" that a Redditor earlier spoke of.

There is now a clear mechanism for spreading - this variation of "twenty" developed in Scotland and was probably brought over by Scottish immigrants. West Virginia, conveniently, was settled by the "Scotch-Irish." It seems likely that the distribution of "twunty" (and the much rarer variant "twoonty") in the United States and Canada would match places with heavy Scottish settlement.

What are your thoughts? Do you say "twunty," and if so where are you from? Are you aware of any other explanations for "twunty"? I would have thought the "w" had a backing effect, much like how historical w[a]r became w[ɔ]r, but I can't think of any other words affected by this change.


  1. I remember when Al Gore campaigned on the promise that he'd get something done bw thw yr twni-twlv with just one vowel in it.

    (That was also my first encounter with "twenty" instead of "two thousand" in the number of a year.)

    So I suspect complete vowel reduction in "21", "22"..., then extraction of this reduced form from these compounds. Stressed [ə] is not a thing in the great majority of Englishes, so it was replaced in 3 ways: for many Americans, unstressed [ə] and stressed [ʌ] seem to be the same phoneme, so [ʌ] was the obvious choice; others turned [wə] into [wu]; yet others contracted [wə] to [u], as seen in the attestations of toonty you found.

    For a really dramatic example of several cycles of de- and restressing, look no further than I.

    Incidentally, something odd is also going on in German with "20": it's not clear to me what the /a/ is doing in zwanzig, and even less what it's doing in my dialect, because Standard German /a/ and Bavarian-Austrian /a/ never correspond to each other...

  2. I know this is a year late, but I have always said something like [ˈtwʌnti] or, in rapid speech [ˈtwʌni]. Even if I approximate [ˈtwɛnti] I cannot get it to rhyme with "venti" without sounding affected (to my ears). I'd guess it's the influence of [w] on the [ɛ], pulling it towards a central position. Similar to the development of "woman" from [ˈwɪvman] to [ˈwɪman] to [ˈwʊmən] (with the conservative variant ['wɪmən] being reinterpreted as an umlaut plural).

    I grew up in Southwestern Ontario.

    Chris B.