What's the correct way to pronounce 'Tesla'? We asked.

Tesla’s (TSLA) plans for the future dominate the news, but one seemingly simple question continues to nag consumers, analysts, investors and newscasters: How do you pronounce the name?

There has been some discussion of whether the electric car company is pronounced with an “unvoiced s” as in “cups” or a “voiced s” that sounds like “z” as in “boys.”

And the uncertainty has continued, even as the company’s market cap has ballooned past Ford (F) and General Motors (GM), with its pending rollout of the mass-market Model 3.

Co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, who has been heralded by some as “the world’s greatest living inventor,” pronounces it with a “voiced s” (or with a z-like sound).

But that hasn’t settled the matter. Even the analysts who cover the stock and listen to the pronunciation all day long don’t have an answer.

“I’ve heard both ways and I think both are correct,” according to RBC’s Joseph Spak, who covers the company. “I’m not a linguist so I’m not sure.”

After listening through past conference calls and industry conference Q&As, Yahoo Finance found that the standard pronunciation among industry analysts contrasts with Musk’s choice: Most analysts use an “unvoiced” or “soft s.”

“I pronounce it with the s, not the z pronunciation,” according to Cowen’s Jeff Osborne. When asked about Elon Musk’s alternate pronunciation, he said “I always chalked that up to him being South African, but who knows.”

Turns out that Nikola Tesla, who was a Serbian-American inventor and the company’s namesake, pronounced his name with an “unvoiced s” (soft “s”) as well, according to linguistics experts who spoke with Yahoo Finance.

“The Serbo-Croation way is to pronounce it is with an unvoiced,” according to Erik Singer, a Hollywood dialect coach.

REUTERS/Toby Melville
REUTERS/Toby Melville

So who’s right?

Yahoo Finance went straight to the source and spoke with the public relations team of Tesla, asking them to set the record straight.

The answer? Musk indeed pronounces the company with a “voiced s” that sounds like “z” but others in the company use an “unvoiced s.” As it turns out, according to company representatives, both are right and Musk doesn’t care.

MIT linguist Adam Albright added some academic support for this answer, arguing both pronunciations are correct from a linguistic perspective in English.

“The difference really just comes down to two options provided by the rules of English, and has nothing to do with dialects or foreign languages,” he told Yahoo Finance.

“There are few existing words in English with that sequence of phonemes,” added linguist and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker. “‘Islam’ may be pronounced either way, though the unvoiced pronunciation is more common. The only other common word that I’ve found is ‘legislator’ where the “s” is unvoiced.”

But the debate may not be over

According to Pinker, the jury isn’t out on Tesla.

“The ‘correct’ pronunciation would be whichever achieves sufficient popularity,” Pinker told Yahoo Finance. In other words, time will tell.

And Singer said that when it comes to many words, while there may be no one “correct” way to pronounce something, groups of people seem to think the specific way they say something is “right.”

“How do you pronounce orange? Or Florida? Whatever way you say it is correct, and language is constantly changing also so you can’t really nail it down,” Singer said. “It’s kind of like saying what dialect or accent is correct. They’re all linguistically equal language varieties.”

Singer added that different associations with different pronunciations have no underlying importance.

“There’s social prestige associated with certain accents and pronunciations or speech sounds but they’re arbitrary and generally reflect social bias against or for the people that you think use that pronunciation or accent,” Singer added.

And, according to MIT’s Noam Chomsky, “It’s up to the person who invented the name.”

For now, though, it doesn’t seem to matter.

“When you’re talking about a person’s name, there’s something to be said about pronouncing it the way the person likes. But if the person doesn’t care, it shouldn’t matter,” Singer said. “When it comes to a company, if people say it different ways even within the company and they don’t seem to care, you really can’t say that one is correct and one isn’t.”

And Tesla doesn’t seem to care.

Nicole Sinclair is markets correspondent at Yahoo Finance

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