How do you read that letter? Zee? Zed? Well, I’m about to make the argument that the “zee” pronunciation is better.
If you looked at the above statement in anger and frustration, let me attempt to dissipate some of those ill feelings. It’s funny that we can get so worked up over something like pronunciation. That’s really a testament to how connected language is to our personal identity.
As an American, it should come to no one’s surprise that I personally prefer “zee” in reading this letter: z. Ever since I was little, and the ABC song helped me memorize the order of the letters, it’s been reinforced millions of times that z is “zee”. (That internal rhyme with p and v doesn’t really work with “zed”. It’s actually really sad if you try to sing it that way…)
But does my personal preference, or the preference of the ever-present American film industry for that matter, matter?
No. In my eyes, “zee” and “zed” are equal. I mean, “zed” is the most common pronunciation, and it makes sense linguistically. In most languages that use the alphabet, z comes from the Greek “zeta”. Across European languages, z is pretty close to “zed” (zeta, zet). Our American version is the true outlier.
Linguistically, neither will disappear in our lifetimes. In other words, we need to be aware that both exist and that neither is “right” or “wrong”, as if things like that are appropriate ways to describe language.
But “zee” is more useful after a fashion, when it comes to English teaching. Let me refine that further: when it comes to teaching English in Japan.
In Japan, Z is, unsurprisingly, read as ゼット (zetto), owing to the same European origins as “zed” (though I’m not sure where exactly it comes from—according to Japanese, it’s pronounced the same as the Dutch’s z pronunciation). So when it comes time to learn English, “zed” is the more easily accessible pronunciation.
Japan’s insistence on learning American-style English might be a reason to prefer the “zee”, pronunciation, though that’s not why I’m writing this.
The reason to learn “zee”: it’s a new sound for Japanese students.
“Zed” is easy for Japanese students. “Zee” is not. If we can teach “zee” in the ABCs, it’ll be reinforced on that many more occasions. Thousands more.
I’ve unscientifically noticed a correlation between students (as well as parents and, unfortunately, Japanese English teachers) and their choice of “zed” and general pronunciation. Students who freely choose “zed” tend to choose “katakana English” pronunciation at the same time. It’s correlational, of course, not causational, but I think there’s a bigger lesson at play here. If students can “get away” with pronouncing z as “zed”, then they can get away with avoiding the issue altogether. Using something as important and basic as the ABCs helps to truly reinforce pronunciation in subtle ways.
In other languages, no doubt “zed” might be a better letter for pronunciation habits. Indeed, while many letters in English end with an “ee” sound, no other letters end with a hard “ed” sound. Pick and choose which letter you think will most benefit your students.
Why I Bring This Up
I have a new English teacher, and he falls into what I expected from English teachers in Japan: problematic pronunciation, over-reliance on grammar, and a fear of new and unknown English words. It’s a shame too—Japanese English teachers aren’t all bad. My previous English teacher was awesome. His pronunciation, while occasionally slightly off, was not glaringly bad. No English speaker would have a problem understanding him.
This new guy, while a good person, has a long road ahead of him. I’m looking forward to his progress in English. But as it is, I fear for my middle school students. Katakana pronunciation galore. Confidence in wrong words (You don’t “play” Judo or Kendo. You do Judo and Kendo. Sigh.). No general confidence in his own English, especially when dealing with material outside of the books.
My third year students, trained for two years by the last teacher, have English skills that could soar above this teacher. It pains me. Him and I are their only source of English, and I’m only there twice a week at most. Without some intervention, his English will become their English.
There is one saving grace in all this. While I could talk with my previous teacher at a normal pace using odd turns of phrase, I need to keep my English level to the grammar they learn in middle school. That means that slightly more of the language I use in school will be comprehensible input for my students, and that’s a good thing. Not so good that it makes up for everything else, but a good thing nonetheless.
Oh, and if you haven’t guessed by now, well, I think I’ve made it pretty obvious which pronunciation of z he prefers.