Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: Why Quark Rhymes with Pork

N. David Mermin

Why Quark Rhymes with Pork

N David Mermin

An Introduction from Editorial Director Simon Capelin

“Something I always like to mention when I talk about Why Quark Rhymes with Pork is just how funny it is! Reading the initial proposal for the book truly made me laugh out loud.

Every working physicist throughout the world knows the name of David Mermin for two reasons – firstly, in 1976 he co-authored Solid State Physics, which went on to become the most successful graduate-level textbook on solid state physics ever published.

Secondly, for 30 years he wrote a regular column in the magazine Physics Today. David’s articles in the ‘Reference Frame’ section of the magazine are famous for their insight into physics and what it means to be a scientist, but also for their humour. ‘A Quarrel We Can Settle’ was one such article.

This book brings together edited and updated versions of those articles together with newly added and insightful commentary. This humorous and unusual volume also includes thirteen longer essays, many of them previously unpublished. Mermin’s witty observations and insightful anecdotes, inspired by a lifetime in science, will entertain physicists at all levels, as well as anyone interested in science or scientists at the turn of the twenty-first century.

I hope you enjoy reading the extract below, and that it inspires you to buy the book and be truly entertained…”


A Quarrel We Can Settle


Now that the standard model has been with us long enough to have become part of the commonplace wisdom of schoolchildren, it is high time to face head on the contentious issue of how properly to pronounce the word quark. Although only a condensed-matter theorist, I am proud to contribute what follows as a low-cost contribution to straightening out one of the annoying loose ends, others of which may have to wait considerably longer for their resolution.

As a rule, only native speakers of English hold passionate opinions on how quark is to be pronounced, and that is as it should be. One of the glories of the English tongue is that its comprehensibility is undiminished and its beauty even enhanced by the systematic mispronunciation of vowel sounds by non-native speakers. But it is a sad and ugly business when the wrong sounds emerge sporadically from the mouths of natives. Quite aside from such aesthetic considerations, it is surely the duty of us native speakers of English to set appropriate standards that the others, if they so desire, may strive to attain. Nowhere is there more need for clarification than in the hotly disputed case of quark.

Nowhere is there more need for clarification than in the hotly disputed case of quark.

The opinion of the majority is clear: Quark is pronounced to rhyme with pork. There is, however, a vocal and embittered minority, biting in its rejection of the prevailing view, whose members insist on pronouncing the word to rhyme with park. It is often argued in defense of this practice that the word is taken from the German name for a horrible yogurt-like fluid, the proper pronunciation of which unquestionably comes closer to rhyming with the English park than it does with pork. This minority argument, however, is entirely spurious. If one were to adopt the German pronunciation consistently one could indeed rhyme quark with park, but only at the price of having to say kvark, which no native speaker of English has ever been known to advocate.

Clearly the decision must be made from a study of English usage and, I would maintain, either on the basis of the Irish variety of English, out of respect for the man who imported the word from German, or on the basis of the American variety, in deference to the man who transported it into physics. The fact that the international enterprise of physics is, on the whole (and alas for it!), not conducted in the Irish version of English and the fact that this column is appearing in an American magazine decisively tip the balance toward the latter approach, though I would be delighted to learn the views of anyone possessing (as I do not) a fine command of the Irish vowel.

For many years it was obvious to me that the majority view was correct, on the following grounds: Search through the dictionary for any word containing ar preceded by a w sound (including the w sound in wh or qu). Invariably you will find that such a word rhymes with pork. I cite quart, wart, ward, war, warp, warm, dwarf, wharf, quarter, thwart… To be sure, if the r is doubled there is a possibility of variation, as in quarrel or quarry, but even there the variation exists only as an alternative to the undiluted pork sound. (There are some truly marvelous things to be said about arr words, which a Reference Frame column is too brief to contain. I merely note that the methodology developed below is powerful enough to deal with them, lending further support to the conclusions reached here.) So we have a rule that I name after its simplest example:

The war rule: In American English ar preceded by any kind of w sound is invariably pronounced like the or in pork.

The war rule: In American English ar preceded by any kind of w sound is invariably pronounced like the or in pork.

I lived happily under the war rule, quarking away with the best of them, always rhyming it with pork, for many years. Then one day I was rudely awakened from my customary lecture-room stupor by a speaker of the park persuasion who suddenly abandoned his transparencies to launch a scornful attack on the practice of pronouncing quark to rhyme with pork. Instantly awake and in full possession of my rested wits, I began to conjure up an enormous list of war words with which to demolish him during the question period, when a shocking thought entered my head:

Search through the dictionary for any word containing ar followed by a k sound, and it invariably rhymes with park.

How could I have failed to notice this for so long? In addition to park itself we have the bare ark, along with bark, hark, lark, mark, embark, spark, stark, shark, snark … I had clearly overlooked:

The ark rule: In American English ar followed by any kind of k sound is invariably pronounced like the ar in park.

The ark rule: In American English ar followed by any kind of k sound is invariably pronounced like the ar in park.

Cognitive dissonance! How is one to treat a word that falls into both categories at once? Which rule takes precedence? No doubt there are principles of linguistics that would settle this issue, but it is easier simply to find an example. How do people actually pronounce a war word that is also an ark word? Wrack your brain for examples! I tried for months, without success. Then one sunny day, while raking grass cuttings, it suddenly came to me: bulwark!

A wave of joy passed over me. The issue could be settled empirically. But my joy was short-lived. “How,” I introspected, “do you pronounce that word?”

“No,” I reconsidered. “Rhymes with park.”

“Rhymes with pork,” I answered confidently.

“No,” I reconsidered. “Rhymes with park.”

Or could it rhyme with perk and therefore, God help us, with quirk? Could quark be a homophone of quirk? Can you imagine the announcement coming triumphantly out of Geneva that they had, at long last, discovered the “top quirk”?

Not being a nautical man, the fact is I may never in my life have uttered the word bulwark or heard it spoken. To be sure, it is used metaphorically with some regularity, but more often than not you come upon it only in writing. Dictionaries proved to be of no help, offering a range of acceptable vowel sounds for bulwark, given in an ordering that no two agreed upon. My research seemed to have reached a dead end.

Then, just a few weeks ago, coming upon a group of graduate students engaged in unproductive pursuits, I attempted to jar them out of their idleness with a challenge to find a war word that was also an ark word. Within 24 hours I was presented with Newark. (I digress to remark that one of the joys of Cornell is that the graduate students do not let you down.) Could the fate of the standard model then indeed hinge on the existence of a top quirk? No, I realized almost at once, in Newark the ark is unaccented, which disqualifies it as an example. Proudly and professorially I trundled out bulwark to illustrate what they should have been looking for, only to realize that it suffered from exactly the same defect.

To this day I have found no ark word that is also a war word with the accent on the ar. I appeal to you, dear reader, to wrack your brains for a specimen. Until one turns up I am working from the hypothesis that not only are quarks the fundamental building blocks of hadrons, but, perhaps even more remarkably, quark is the only war word that is also an ark word. Have I therefore given up?


Consider the word cart. It rhymes with art. So do chart, dart, fart, hart, mart, part, smart, start and tart. But not wart. Better still, not quart! Thus if we replace k with t we find two examples of the fact that when there is a clash, the war rule is more powerful than the art rule.

“Big deal,” you may say, if you belong to the ark school, “k” is not t.”

“Well,” say I, “try another case.” Consider farm. It rhymes with arm. So do harm, alarm and (appropriately enough) charm. But not warm and not swarm. The war rule is more powerful than the arm rule.

The harder you work on it, the clearer the trend becomes: bard, card, hard, lard, chard and shard, but ward; carp, sharp and tarp, but warp; barf, but wharf; barn, but warn.

I rest my case. No rational person can deny that the data point overwhelmingly to:

The warx rule: Given any consonant x, the vowel in all accented arx syllables is pronounced the same except when a w sound (w, wh or qu) precedes such a syllable, in which case the vowel is pronounced as in war.

The warx rule: Given any consonant x, the vowel in all accented arx syllables is pronounced the same except when a w sound (w, wh or qu) precedes such a syllable, in which case the vowel is pronounced as in war.

It happens (unless, dear reader, you can rise to my challenge) that when x = k the warx rule operates only through the single example of quark. But should particle physicists, of all people, dedicated in their bones to the extraction of order and pattern out of the subatomic chaos, violate their deeply held and altogether admirable principles in their linguistic practices? Of course not! In the United States of America, quark, I must insist, rhymes with pork, not park.



1. Quarrel elicited many letters to the editor of Physics Today (September 1994) as well as personal mail and email. I was sent many spurious counterexamples, with the ar syllable either unaccented, or followed by a second r. I was also told of the villages of Warkentin, Warkton, and even simple Wark, all in lands where they do not speak standard American. Only one putative counterexample worried me: “Edwardian.” I admit to always having pronounced its second syllable to rhyme with “card”. All my English friends claim it does rhyme with “ward”, but according to my own rules their opinions don’t count. Most Americans never utter the term. So until somebody convinces me otherwise I’ve added it to the long list of words I’ve somehow managed to mispronounce all my life. Should this position become untenable, I shall fall back on the fact that proper names are notorious for defying general rules.

2. I received a gratifying letter from Geoffrey K. Pullum, a distinguished linguist, then at Santa Cruz, now at Edinburgh:

“One of the things that drives theoretical linguists nuts is that the study of language is so often taken to be a subject that any person who went to college, even for a semester or two, majoring in anything, is able to contribute to. Nobody imagines that their opinion about the behavior of liquid helium is of interest if they’re not a physicist. It’s as if nothing can get it across to people that if they’re interested in language as an empirical phenomenon—formally patterned behavior that actually occurs in the world—then you need evidence and argument to back up the claims you make. So we keep finding laypeople—the ordinary cab drivers, stockbrokers, and physicists that we meet when we travel among the common people—who regard themselves as authorities on language and want to proffer their opinion.

But the trouble with you is that you’re actually good at it. You do provide evidence and argumentation. You would actually be a great student in our subject. Too bad physics snapped you up, actually. It was when you discovered rule interaction (‘the war rule is more powerful than the ark rule’) that I realized I was dealing with someone who could have been a phonological theorist.”

I basked in this unexpected praise. But I got my comeuppance when I ran into the great Victor F. Weisskopf at a reception in Ithaca, several months after Quarrel had appeared. “I thought your last column in Physics Today was silly,” he said, drawing out that last word into a verbal stiletto.

“Well,” I stammered, “an eminent linguist wrote me to say that my methodology was remarkable for an amateur.”

“Linguistics,” replied Viki, “is also silly.”

About The Author

N. David Mermin

N. David Mermin is Author of Why Quark Rhymes with Pork (2016) and ‘Boojums All the Way Through (1990). He is Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cornell University....

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