Sunday, 10 May 2009

Capsicun: The plot thickems

I first became aware of the word 'capsicum' when I moved to Australia. It's what American English speakers call a 'green pepper'. But I recently became aware that some speakers of AusEng call it a 'capsicun', with an [n] sound.

I first heard it from the young lady at the pizza place when she read my order back to me. "So you're getting the pizza with capsicun, onions..."

I was surprised, but I pretended not to hear her, just to make sure it wasn't a fluke. "What was that?" I asked.

"I said 'capsican, onions...'" and so on. So it was dinkum.

Then the next week I ordered the same pizza again, and this time it was a young man who said 'capsicun'. This kind of thing always sets the linguistic sense a-tingle. Is this happening with lots of people? Is it an age thing? Economic level? Education level? And what's driving it?

Since then, I have found that many of my students say 'capsicun'. Sometimes they're surprised to discover that they say it.

As a linguist, I don't care whether people say 'capsicum' with an [m] or an [n]. The two sounds are pretty similar, and speech communities sometimes swap. Miss Perfect herself says the word 'something' with an [n] in the middle. You probably say 'input' with an [m] without realising. But that's because of a process known as assimilation, where a sound changes because of its proximity to a similar sound nearby. It's strange for 'capsicum' to be changing to an [n] seemingly independent of context.

Well, yesterday, I found a tantalising clue that this might be part of a larger pattern. The flowers I got for Mothers' Day were clearly marked 'chrysantheman', as seen in the photo below.

The chase continues. Further updates as warranted. In the meantime, do you say 'capsicun' or 'chrysanthemun'? And where are you from? Become a data point in comments.


  1. "Capsicum" and "crysathamum". "Input" for most occasions, "imput" when drunk or speaking rapidly. 20 years old, upper-middle class, university educated. Australian father, but a mother for whom English is a second language, taught nationally from primary school onwards.

    And yes, I do hear "capsicun" quite often. Along with "pacifically". *eye twitch* (I have prescriptivist leanings, but please don't hold it against me.)

  2. I'm getting flashbacks to semester two linguistics. Assimilation isn't just a Borg Star Trek reference to me anymore!

  3. Must admit - never heard of 'capsicun' or 'capsicum' (and I have been in school for a long time)

    And without a doubt 'chrysanthemum'

    And 'input' unless I am talking to fast and then I bet it sounds like 'imput'.

    And just in case you were wondering . . . always 'especially', never 'expecially'!!!!!!

  4. Ooh, the "s" becoming an "x" really gets to me. No matter how much you try to tell people that it's "espresso", they still call it "expresso".

    Which is actually kind of funny, because the name comes from the Italian "to express". So perhaps we really should call it "expresso"?

  5. Let's hope they aren't adding pure capsaicin to your pizza.

    I haven't heard 'capsicun' for the fruit.

  6. Although I'd like to think I say 'capsicum', I'm fairly sure that I say 'capsicun' in regular, informal speech. It would change to 'capsicum' in more formal circumstances though.
    I'm a regional West Aussie girl, so that probably explains it.
    Though I definitely say 'chrysanthemum'.

  7. "Capsicun" "Crysthanamum" "Imput". Born in Manchester to Mancunian speaking folk and moved to Perth at 6. Middle-working class. 19 yrs old.
    Although my mother says things like "Capsicum" & "Chimley" (for Chimney) and "Beekle" (for Beetle).

  8. Defender of Capsicum-kind13 May 2009 at 04:15

    I would dispute your claim that capsicum is what American English speakers call green pepper. At least in the northwest of the US, an area to which you are native, the capsicum goes by the name of the bell pepper. Particularly given that only the green capsicum is green, it seems unfair to the red, yellow and orange varieties for you to say that North Americans call them "green peppers".

  9. Hi daniel :P
    My partner's family say capsicun. I find it hightly amusing. Also samwich. They're from Joondalup/Geelong/Raymond Tce/Tindall. Nice RAAF family moving all over the shop. And also sometimes replace [d] with [t] at the end of words. I like words. :-D

  10. I'm 32, an IT professional, university educated, and from a middle class family (Australian father, Polish born mother).

    My Dad was from a lower class background and "made good" through hard work. He's intelligent and able to express himself very well, but has every "street" habit in the book. Capsican, parmagiamma, done in place of did, exhorb (absorb), etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc (yes, it brings me plenty of silent annoyance).

    I'm reasonably anally retentive, so have made an effort to correct any bad habits I've picked up. Being educated has also helped, as seeing words written highlights any pronunciation issues that may be picked up verbally.

    I am very much middle class and don't have a plum in my mouth by any means, but I find myself getting increasingly annoyed by the mispronunciation of simple words by educated kids who appear to do so simply to appear dumb and/or from lower class backgrounds than they really have.

    I will never understand people who choose to lower themselves to fit in.


  11. Welcome, Justin.

    This is the kind of thing we're studying in my 103 Language, Culture, and Society class.

    I applaud you for your attention to language matters.

    The conundrum is not so difficult if we realise that there are different kinds of prestige: the kind where we imitate a higher level, or a lower one. Obviously the lower kind is not what you're after, but you have to admit it does have its appeal to some.


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