What is the correct pronunciation of the word “ma’am”?

  • Gilead

    Back in the day, the word ma’am (when addressing the Queen) was always pronounced “marm”. British TV shows from before the 80s confirm this.

    In the movie The Queen, we are told that the correct pronunciation for ma’am is “ma’am” as in “ham”, and not “ma’am” as in “farm”. Some people seem to think this has always been the case. But it has not.

    Is this pronunciation a modern development?
    Is it a preference of the current sovereign?

    Or have we been pronouncing ma’am wrongly throughout the centuries?

  • Answers
  • PLL

    This is an interesting question! I can’t find any documentation specifically on the issue, so I don’t have a conclusive answer, but here anyway is a lot of relevant information, and a bit of further speculation.

    The OED lists various pronunciations:

    Brit. /mam/, /mɑːm/, U.S. /mæm/, /mɑm/; (unstressed) Brit. /məm/, U.S. /əm/, /mˌ/.

    It also sheds some light on the recent historical usage:

    The γ, δ, and ε forms [respectively mem, mim; mum, mom; and ’m] represent pronunciations formerly common in British regional usage and in the speech of domestic staff and others of similar status; such forms and pronunciations are also well attested in U.S. regional use, especially in yes ma’am (see yessum adv.) and no ma’am, and as the second element in school-marm n. Compare marm n.

    Buckingham Palace protocol (c1990) directed that ‘the Queen should be addressed as “Ma’am” (to rhyme with jam).’

    It also includes, later:

    In 1936, R. W. Chapman ( S.P.E. Tract ii. 241) observed that ‘Except to royal persons, the contraction (whether mahm or măm) seems to be going out.’

    This is all informative, but also a bit confusing. The main thing that’s clear is that the variety of pronunciations goes back quite a long way.

    The second thing is that in modern BrE, the usage of ma’am is so restricted that it’s very hard to disentangle “what people now use” and “what Buckingham Palace asks for”. It’s a prescriptivist’s dream!

    The third is that the OED itself seems a bit confused: the very pronunciation that the Palace asks for, /mæm/, is one which the OED lists only as U.S. usage.

    The big question this leaves unresolved is: is it only recently that the Palace has asked for “jam”, or was this already officially preferred in the past?

    Another factor which might be involved is how in many words, the vowel /a/ (of farm) is partly shifting to /æ/ (of ham) in prestige BrE accents, and the vowel of jam/*ham* in these accents has changed. In eg the early 20th century, in upper-class British accents, the vowel in ham, jam etc. was more raised and fronted than today, somewhat closer to hem. Conversely, words like glass, class were uniformly pronounced with the long ah vowel, /a/. In many lower-class accents, ham was much like today, with /æ/, and grass, etc. were also pronounced with this vowel.

    Since then, the stigma of perceived lower-class and regional accents has decreased, whereas a stigma of being ‘too posh’ has become more widespread; so the raising/fronting of ham is now very rare, and the pronunciation of grass with the ham vowel /æ/ is somewhat more common among RP speakers.

    Given that this shift involves many class issues, and the alternation of /a/ and /æ/, I suspect it may have influenced the pronunciation of ma’am somewhat. I’m pretty sure that the shift in the vowel of ham is relevant, given the older spellings of ma’am as mem, mim listed in the OED. The relevance of the change in grass is much more speculative.

  • Rhoddy

    Interestingly in spite the proletarian implications, it's always 'ma'am as in harm' to a lady judge (who doesn't happen to be your worship, your honour, or my lady...so usually a District Judge)!

  • Tristan

    From my experiences of military personnel and police officers in the UK, both of whom use the word ma'am to address female, superior officers; I can tell you that it is commonly pronounced as "marm" (with the letter r, being a non-rhotic one). This has been the case for several decades, at least.

  • Henry

    Just from personal experience, it has always been "ma'am as in ham" for female royals after first using "Your Majesty" or "Your Royal Highness".

    Always in the sense that this was what my parents used when they needed to, and taught me to use with Princess Alice of Athlone; my father helped organise the Coronation in 1953, so it certainly covered the second half of the twentieth century, and probably earlier.

    "Ma'am as in hem" was a traditional Indian Empire pronunciation for European women.

  • Peter Shor

    The spelling "schoolma'am" seems to have been replaced by the spelling "schoolmarm" between 1870 and 1920, while "schoolmam" seems to be mainly American English (and quite rare even in the U.S.).

    Google Ngram for British English:

    enter image description here

    This would imply that "ma'am" was pronounced "marm" in RP.

  • MετάEd

    Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately), in Lewis, addresses his chief as “Ma’am”, and uses the long a that rhymes with the one a Londoner uses in both father and farther, rather than the a that rhymes with ham.

  • Community

    A current example may be found in the latest James Bond movie, 'Skyfall'. Bond addresses M as 'marm'. So does his co-agent, Eve. This is consistent with the military pronunciation reported by Tristan, above. Despite MI6 being civilian, Bond and Eve have military backgrounds.

  • Alex B.

    Here's some interesting info.


    Walker's PD (1828): no data

    The Phonetic Dictionary of the English Language (1913): /mæm/

    EPD-11 (1956): /mæm/

    EPD-17 (2006) and EPD-18 (2011): /mɑːm/ or alternatively /mæm/

    LPD-3 (2008): mæm (main variant), mɑːm

    Fowler's 2004: /mæm/

    Room 1986, The Dictionary of Britain: /mæm/

  • horatio

    This is called "intrusive r," and is tied up with what is called rhoticity (basically variants of the pronunciation of the "r"). It is part of regional dialects and is encountered in certain areas of the US (such as Baltimore and parts of Pennsylvania "wash"pronounced "warsh"), and I know it also exists in the UK (obviously).

  • Lynn

    M-W also has it as "mam like ham". If you look at the origin of the contraction: "madam" --> "ma'am", it would seem a little unusual to throw an "r" sound in the mix.

  • Related Question

    What is the correct pronunciation of the word "Islam"?
  • Dia

    Some people pronounce the S in Islam as Z, and others pronounce it as S.

    Which is correct?

  • Related Answers
  • RegDwigнt

    Looking at the other answers, I would like to intervene. Whatever the correct pronunciation in Arabic is, we are talking about English here. Merriam-Webster lists quite a few variations:

    \is-ˈläm, iz-, -ˈlam, ˈis-ˌ, ˈiz-ˌ\

    It also provides two audio recordings, one for /ɪsˈlɑːm/ and one for /ɪzˈlæm/.

    The Wiktionary says:


    • enPR: ĭs-läm', IPA: /ɪsˈlɑːm/, SAMPA: /Is"lA:m/
    • enPR: ĭz-läm', IPA: /ɪzˈlɑːm/, SAMPA: /Iz"lA:m/
    • enPR: ĭz'lăm, IPA: /ˈɪzlæm/, SAMPA: /"Izl{m/

    Again, with all due respect to other languages, we just don't pronounce matador the way it is pronounced in Spanish, sputnik the way it is pronounced in Russian, or kindergarten the way it is pronounced in German.

  • Dia

    Well, "Islam" (and consequently all words derived from it) is pronounced correctly with an S not a Z.

    And the importance of this distinction is that "Izlam" in Arabic means "getting dark", whereas "Islam" (with S) means "submission".

  • cindi

    If native English speaking Muslims (of whom there are many) favour 'Isslam', then this pronunciation has some authority. You are an authority on the pronunciation of your own religion, just as you are on the pronunciation of your own name.

    It would be interesting to know the Native English speaking Muslim pronunciation.

  • RegDwigнt

    Edit: the original pronunciation is something like "eeslahm", but the point is never pronounce it with a z.