Some bird names might seem obvious in their pronunciation, until you hear them. Bobolink is one such name, and this type of blackbird (in the Icteridae family) has a more confusing name than many birders realize. What is the right way to say bobolink?
The bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) has a three-syllable common name, and the easiest way to deconstruct its name is to start at the end – link. This syllable isn’t disputed, and the “link” rhymes easily with think, blink, pink, ink, rink, shrink, mink, drink, and slink. No question there about the pronunciation of that syllable.
It is the first two syllables – bo-bo – that can create confusion and even arguments among linguistically-inclined birders. Are the two syllables, which are spelled identically, pronounced identically? Do they have the same emphasis? The answers can vary, and each syllable may have a different sound and emphasis.
First is the distinction between the long “BOH” (rhymes with toe, snow, flow, grow, Joe, and low) and the shorter “BAH” (rhymes with rah, ska, cha, hah, blah, and shah) sounds. If both syllables are identical in the bird’s name, it might sound like…
If, however, the pronunciation varies with each syllable, the bird’s name might sound like…
Some slurring of the second syllable is also common, which might create a third variation, with the middle syllable having a short “UH” sound (rhymes with club, mud, flood, bud, and stud).
Despite the differences in potential syllable pronunciations, another consideration is syllabic emphasis. Fortunately, regardless of how an individual chooses to pronounce each syllable, there are generally only two variations of syllabic emphasis: first syllable emphasis, or equal emphasis throughout the name.
To be fair, all these pronunciations are fairly equally distributed, and regional variations tend to follow nothing more than personal preferences. Because the pronunciations are quite similar regardless of how the individual syllables are treated, the name is easily understood even between birders with different pronunciation and emphasis preferences.
So much pronunciation complexity for a bird name that should be relatively simple to pronounce! Personally, I tend to switch between pronunciations without much preference or conscientious effort, and I’ve used boh-boh-link and bah-buh-link most frequently, though I do tend to keep the emphasis between syllables relatively equal.
In the end, how you pronounce the bird’s name is up to you, and no pronunciation is emphatically more correct than any other. So long as you can communicate which small, sparrow-like blackbird that loves grassy fields and grains you’re referring to, you’re pronouncing it correctly!
I wouldn’t, however, recommend arguing with your friend Bob that his name could be equally pronounced with the long oh – Bohb doesn’t have the same ring to it!