What a difference one little sound can make.
Take, for example, the word “bison.” NDSU’s sports teams have been known as the Bison since 1922, and the beloved mascot fittingly honors the massive, powerful animal that once dominated the Northern Plains.
We proudly pronounce the word with a “Z.” However, nearly everyone else says it with an “S” sound.
And, therein, lies the rub.
“Sportscasters from across the country use ‘S,’ and people around here get upset,” explained NDSU senior Kellam Barta, a double major in English and psychology from Fargo. “We have a strong allegiance and a sense of local pride in our mascot, and the pronunciation also identifies who we are as people. When you hear someone say bison with an ‘S,’ you know they are someone other than us.”
Barta was a member of a team of students that conducted an investigative study for an upper-level sociolinguistics course in English under the direction of professor Bruce Maylath. Other research team participants included graduate student Tatjana Schell and undergraduate students Teresa BlackCloud and Maia Randklev.
“There really is no such thing as a correct way to say the word. But, this phenomenon is part of encoding the identity of ‘us’ or ‘them,’ ” Barta said. “Our pronunciation here is quite exceptional. Most of the rest of the country would consider it strange to hear the word ‘bison’ with a ‘Z’ in it.”
The study team found the American footprint of “bison with a Z” is fairly localized. The region is primarily eastern North Dakota, generally ending near the Missouri River. To the south, the pronunciation is found to the Sisseton, S.D., area and it extends to about Alexandria, Minn., to the east.
“The center of the ‘Z’ influence is Fargo-Moorhead,” Barta said. “We found radio signals seem to be a factor and that the ‘Z’ influence actually travels a little farther along the Interstate highways than it does off the main roadways.”
According to Barta, there may be a historical factor in all this. Bison is a French word pronounced “Bee-zohn,” and our pronunciation may have its roots there, going back generations to the area’s early fur traders and explorers.
“Perhaps we got our pronunciation from our friends to the north. Winnipeg has a significant French influence, so it’s very possible we borrowed this from them. That would also explain why hardly anyone else in the U.S. says it that way,” Barta said.
He also points out Bison fans aren’t shy about letting others know which way is truly accurate, at least from our perspective.
“Locals feel strongly about what they perceive is the ‘correct’ pronunciation,” Barta said. “We usually tell people from other parts of the country to ‘Say it right.’ ”
Barta has expanded this initial research on the Bison mascot to write an award-winning paper on the Coyote mascot for the University of South Dakota, and whether the word is pronounced “ky-yoht” or “ky-yoh-tee.”
NDSU is recognized as one of the nation's top 108 public and private universities by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education.