(NEXSTAR) – Hundreds of Whataburger fans found themselves questioning reality last month, but not because they found out that Whataburger sells knockoff Snuggies in addition to burgers.
Rather, it was because they were told they may have been pronouncing “Whataburger” wrong their entire lives.
The team behind the restaurant chain recently suggested on Twitter that “Whataburger” is pronounced “WAT-ER-BRR-GRRR” — a pronunciation embraced by many Texans, but not directly conveyed by the spelling of the word.
Making matters murkier is the fact that Whataburger’s own commercials have featured several different pronunciations, including those that sound like “WHUT-uh-burger,” “WATT-uh-burger” and, as mentioned above, “WAT-er-burger” or WUD-der-burger.”
A series of commercials produced in the 1980s, for instance, features country singer Mel Tillis clearly pronouncing the restaurant’s name as “Water-burger.” But other ads feature voiceover artists using “Watt-a-burger” or “What-a-burger.” Many commercials also end with a voiceover remarking, “What a burger!” giving the impression that “what-a-burger” might be the pronunciation most likely intended by the chain’s founders or executives.
If that’s the case, Whataburger is being careful not to take a firm stance. Despite its recent Twitter activity, a representative for Whataburger declined to say whether “WAT-ER-BRR-GRRR” was actually the intended pronunciation, claiming “it’s not really about pronunciation.”
But many of Whataburger’s now-confused Twitter followers might beg to differ.
Dr. Lars Hinrichs, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s possible the confusion (and non-committal nature of Whataburger’s PR people) might have something to do with the evolution of the Texas accent since the 1950s, when Whataburger was founded.
“The brand got started in 1950, at a time when there were still many, many speakers of ‘non-rhotic’ accents of English in the American South,” Hinrichs told Nexstar, explaining that Southern non-rhotic accents dropped most “r” sounds that followed a vowel. (“Just watch ‘Gone With the Wind,’” he suggested, for an idea of the pre-1950s Southern accent.)
“When the dominant accent is an /r/-dropping one, then Whataburger is pronounced without any /r/ sound at all,” he said. “But as English in the South evolved, speakers started pronouncing all their /r/s.”
The reason some speakers of Texas English add an extra “r” sound in “Whataburger,” he thinks, came about because Texans in the latter half of the 20th century were starting to pronounce the “r” sound after their vowels, whereas they hadn’t before. And seeing as “Whataburger” already has two “r” sounds after two vowels, an “r” after the “Whata” portion — despite there being no “r” there — just seemed to fit with the cadence.
“It makes sense: there’s a lot of /r/ in the third and fourth syllables, so the second syllable gets rolled into the same treatment,” Hinrichs said. “You can call this phonetic assimilation.”
Most English speakers are guilty of phonetic assimilation, which is when certain words or syllables influence the pronunciation of other words or syllables directly before or after. For example, many of us might pronounce “you” as “chew” if the word “you” comes after a word ending with a “t” sound. (“I will meet you at noon.”)
Hinrichs also took an informal poll of his students at UT Austin, noting that only one hadn’t been raised in Texas. “They all found the ‘water’ pronunciation perfectly normal, though they all think it’s a thing and have had plenty of conversations about it.”
That last bit, about the pronunciation being “a thing,” is probably good marketing for the brand, Hinrichs guessed.
“[It] explains why the company has every reason to keep this going and stir the pot every time it seems like people are starting to drop that first /r/ sound,” he said.
If that’s Whataburger’s plan, though, the company is staying tight-lipped.
“Today, our guests say Whataburger all sorts of ways — and we love them all! Whether you say ‘WHAT-A,’ ‘WATT-A,’ or ‘WATER,’ we know our guests are speaking the same burger-loving language,” a representative for Whataburger told Nexstar.