All across California fields of almond orchards are white and pink with blossoms and bees are actively pollinating the crop. But this story isn’t about the pollination process; it’s about how Californians actually say almond. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports there’s a long-running debate over what's the right way to pronounce the word.
Jenny Holterman is an almond farmer in Kern County, but she doesn’t grow almonds.
“I farm am-ends,” Holterman says.
Aren’t those the same thing? Yes, but not quite, says Holterman who grew up in Northern California.
ROMERO: “Am-ends. You say am-ends and you live down here.”
HOLTERMAN: “I do. I am a rarity down here.”
ROMERO: “You’re like, a weirdo.”
HOLTERMAN: “Yes, everyone knows I’m a transplant whenever they hear me say am-end.”
Holterman married an almond grower after college and moved to Wasco onto her husband’s family farm. In this area of the state she often hears growers snicker about the way Northern Californians say almond.
“Whenever I go to an Almond Board meeting you can always tell where they’re located by what they say,” says Holterman. “You’ll go down the table and people will be talking about almonds or am-ends and you’ll be able to know that farmer is from the north or that farmer is from the south.”
When I asked her why she says am-end she had no clue. Her family has always said the word that way.
In fact every farmer I chatted with for this story had a similar answer and the same joke.
“Farmers will often tell you, you call it an almond on the tree and an am-end on the ground because you shake the l out of it,” says UC Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor David Doll. He’s the go-to-guy for the crop in the state.
Doll says he has no definitive answer to why Californians pronounce the word so differently from each other, just that most of the growers who live north of the Merced-Modesto area call almonds am-ends.
“People who refer to it as am-end tend to be longer term farmers, so they’ve been farming for multiple generations,” says Doll.
To find the answer I thought I’d chat with a linguist. Every year Penny Eckert travels to a different city for a project called “Voices of California” at Stanford. The team records conversations with people who spent their whole lives in a specific community. When they got to Merced she noticed people said the word almond funny.
“They were very adamant that it’s pronounced am-end and that’s something everybody in Merced would talk about, whether they were an am-end farmer or not,” Eckert says.
After the study in Merced she decided she’d ask every future interviewee about how they say the word. But when I asked her if she knew why people say am-end vs. almond she couldn’t give me a clear answer.
“I don’t really know really where that pronunciation came from; we just know that up and down the valley people are aware that there are two ways of pronouncing almonds,” says Eckert.
After many calls and interviews with farmers who shrugged their shoulders when I asked them why they say almond or am-end the way they do, I finally got a lead from a guy who studies almond breeding at UC Davis. Tom Gradziel.
“Short answer, growers who have been growing it a while tend to use am-ends, maybe derived from the French. A lot of the European countries don’t have the l,” says Gradziel.
He says 100 years ago there were around 150 varieties of almonds being tested in America. It started out with Spanish missionaries planting almonds on the Pacific coast. They call the nut almendra with an l.
“It was an unequivocal disaster,” Gradziel say. “They just weren’t productive. It wasn’t until the 1800’s when you just got a lot Eastern Europeans countries that are used to growing almonds. The French, the Portuguese, North Africa.”
These immigrants used different names for the nut. Most are derived from the Latin use of the word, amandola. In french its pronounced amande. In Portuguese: amendoa. Somewhere along the line the use of am-end stuck in Northern California while the Spanish inspired noun grew popular elsewhere.
“We started out with this original term and it sort of evolved with local usage,” says Gradziel. “That’s true in the last 100 years in its production in California. But if you look at the last 4,000 years of almond production in Central Asia you see all sorts of derivations of the terms.”
But no matter whether you call the nut almond or am-end Merriam-Webster dictionary says you’re pronouncing the word correctly. Although, since I grew up south of that Merced-Modesto line I’ll stick with the more popular, almond.