1) The Discouraging Word recounts the experience of listening to the letters-from-listeners section of All Things Considered concerning the pronunciation of “schism,” which I myself also heard. Like the good folks at TDW, I was pleased that ATC stood up for their use of skizem and justified it with the relevant usage note at the American Heritage Dictionary. I myself unthinkingly said skizem until I read somewhere that it was a grave solecism to say anything but sizem; I adopted that ecclesiastico-British version until I realized it was false to current American usage, and am now trying to reprogram myself. It’s damnably hard to know how to say words that are not in common use.

2) Last night, Geoffrey Nunberg‘s language segment of Fresh Air was on dictionary illustrations (a subject recently covered here). Mr. Nunberg came out in favor of the photographs used in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, while admitting his parti pris as a contributor to the dictionary. The odd thing is that when he said “Julia Cameron did photographic illustrations for Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King,'” he pronounced “idyll” the old British way, IDD-l, whereas the only pronunciation given in the AHD entry is the American one, EYE-dl. I can only surmise that he was influenced by a Brit at a tender age.

3) On the other hand, I was appalled, when viewing last night’s PBS special on the Spartans, to find that the host, Bettany Hughes, a “specialist in classical and ancient history,” couldn’t pronounce any of the proper names properly. As a linguist, I believe in the native pronunciation of native speakers, but that doesn’t apply in the case of ancient Greek names, which are not normally spoken except in classics departments, where there is a long tradition that everyone who deals in these matters is used to and depends on. This tradition Ms. Hughes was apparently ignorant of; she said “YOU-ro-tas” for the river Eurotas (you-ROW-tas) and me-SEH-nian for Messenian (me-SEE-nian) and tha-NAH-tos for thanatos ‘death’ (THA-natos) and os-TRAH-ka for ostraka ‘potsherds (used in ostracism)’ (OS-traka) and (this was particularly aggravating) TER-tee-us for the poet Tyrtaeus (ter-TEE-us)—I was racking my brains trying to figure out how a Spartan poet could have had a Latin name (Tertius). Sometimes there is a right way and a wrong way, dammit.


  1. Thank you for keeping up with this train of thought!
    It is closely allied with the direction my thesis is heading– showing that photographs were transformed from common nouns to proper names in the illustrative practices of the 1930s.

  2. I don’t know any Greek, but I also watched a good portion of that PBS documentary and her pronounciation of “Syracuse” was driving me up the wall. I don’t know why it grated on my nerves so much. Still, I thought it was fairly well made and it isn’t often you have a woman narrator/host for these kinds of documentaries.

  3. Personally, I find it very hard to keep up with how new words are pronounced, living overseas as I am.
    Two noteworthy examples are:
    Al Qaeda
    (Can you elucidate?)
    I also have absolutely no clue how Saddam’s sons’ names are being pronounced back home…

  4. “ecclesiastico-British”?
    We predominantly don’t say ‘sizem’ in Britain either, you realise?

  5. I’m another Brit who says skizem.
    I am fond of the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary but only have the first edition (1990) – the author, J.C. Wells, may hold the only chair of phonetics in the world (but there must surely be one in the USA?) – he gives both US and GB
    Here, he says skizem for both, sizem as a rarer British alternative. ‘The traditional sizem is being displaced, except perhaps among the clergy, by skizem. BrE poll panel preference: skiz 71%, siz 29ä%

  6. Ah. I was going by an outdated edition of Jones’s English Pronouncing Dictionary; I’m glad to learn of the newer fashion for skizem.

  7. Oh, Tyrtaeus!
    Thank you, I was wondering about ‘Tertius’ myself…

  8. You would not believe how bad the pronunciation of classical names has become, even among classicists. The only reason I [tend to] get it right is that I was taught by Barry Powell who is downright maniacal in following the traditional system. He sometimes takes it so far as to apply its rules to the pronunciation of Akkadian/Sumerian names! (I once teased him that he should be pronouncing the title of Hesiod’s ê hoiai “ee HEE-yee.”)
    The pronunciation seems to be especially bad among Hellenists, who insist on partially (but never completely!) graecizing their spelling and pronunciation.

  9. dungbeetle says

    let their be a skedule for this skism and then shedule a sizem: so sawri.

  10. My pro-American Dutch girlfriend used to get cross with me for saying schedule as “shedule” instead of “skedule”, asking me why I didn’t say “shool” and so on. I don’t know about ecclesiastical, but it was what I grew up saying and it seems natural to me.
    Don’t we all split the ‘sch’ two ways to make differences? Like skool (school) of children and shole (schoal) of fish?

  11. Just wanted to sah ‘hi’ and thank you for the post. I’ve been following this site for a few months via the XML feed on and I’m really enjoying it.

  12. One thing the “sizm” pronunciation has going for it is that it makes the old joke “Mysticism is something that begins in mist and ends in schism” work a lot better. (Cardinal Newman?)

  13. So Tyrtaeus should be pronounced like “tortillas”? I have ever since college always pronounced the “ae” like “eye” which Diver convinced me was the correct way to do it when speaking Latin — is it “ee” in Greek?

  14. Jeremy: You’ve just stepped into a hornet’s nest. The pronunciation of Ancient Greek has been a battleground ever since they discovered pronunciations had been changing since the old days. In England they had just achieved a reasonable approximation of accuracy when the Great Vowel Shift happened, and (since they had no idea it was happening) all the Greek vowels shifted along with the English ones; see the discussion here. Once this was realized, there was a split between adherents of the old ways (in this case, terr-TEE-us) and proponents of the new, “restored” pronunciation (tir-TYE-os). In practice, as Justin says above, few Hellenists are able to be consistent, so you’ll here a godawful mix of pronunciations. (We won’t even talk about the modern Greeks, who insist that Ancient Greek was pronounced just like Modern Greek.) Me, I pronounce Greek names in English contexts with the traditional pronunciation, reserving my best Attic accent for texts in Greek. Context is all.
    By the way, is that this Diver you’re talking about? Did you drink the Kool-Aid and become a full-fledged Diverian, or just take a class?

  15. W. S. Allen’s Vox Graeca is a good, fun, short read. Ironically, the Modern Greeks would say something like tir-TEY-o. When did we start using Latinized spellings like Œdipus rather than Oidipous? When we stopped using their alphabet?

  16. Imagine my joy at finding that someone other than me had spent three hours cringing through the recent PBS documentary on Sparta. I am a classicist, and although I am certainly not an Attic Greek expert, Latin is my field of study, it was only the well organized content that kept me from changing the channel immediately. The problem of pronunciation is a thorny one for both Latin and Greek scholars, so once you have chosen a system the best idea is to try and be consistent. I have a few undergraduate students who have gotten rather carried away with proper classical pronunciation…with occasionally humorous results.
    As for the Latinization of Greek words, I think you will find that most classicists use Oidipous rather than Œdipus. A similar problem can be seen in translation, when the translator must decide to translate literally or with the spirit of the text. Both ways have a place; it is simply a matter of knowing when and how to use them.
    Once again thank you so much for providing a much needed service to all of us language buffs.

  17. But how do you pronounce van Gogh?

  18. How do most Americans pronounce “idyllic”? Although I have no British influence, somehow I wound up pronouncing “idyll” as IDD-l, probably by extrapolating it from idd-IL-ik…
    Oh, and John, Al Qaeda can be all over the map, but I think what I hear most often is Al (like the first name) KAY-duh or kah-YAY-duh. Kazaa is kuh-ZAH.

  19. Chris: Every American I know pronounces “idyllic” as “eye-DILL-ik”. And I’ve lived on both coasts.

  20. Yes, I’ve never heard or used anything but eye-DILL-ic myself. And Qaeda (‘base, foundation, &c’) is almost impossible to pronounce correctly for an English-speaker (something like CAW-eda, with a CAW so far back it sounds like you’re strangling), so KYE-da is about the best we can do (and the best we should try to do when speaking English—it’s ridiculous to say nee-cah-RRAH-ghwah, for instance, unless you’re speaking Spanish). But kah-YAY-duh is just wrong.

  21. most classicists use Oidipous
    But do they use it with non-classicists? I don’t know, I’d feel unbearably pretentious saying to someone “It’s like the story of oy-DEE-poos,” and then explaining (every single time) “that’s the correct way to call the person you call ED-ipus.” Or (if “you” is British) EE-dipus. Which reminds me, there’s a limerick whose punch line is “Call me Oed” which a Brit once told me puzzled him because he read it as EED.

  22. Jeremy-
    Tyrtaeus should be something like turr-TEE-us (so, somewhat like tortillas 😉 )
    <ae> is indeed pronounced like the english word “eye” in Classical Latin, and the corresponding <ai> was ideally the same sound in Classical Greek, but the pronunciation of classical names in their language(s) of origin and their pronunciation in English are two different things entirely, as exemplified by that Oedipus/Oidipous example above.

  23. LH — Yep, that’s the Diver to whom I refer. I took three classes with him(!), one semester of English grammar and two of Latin grammar — this is how I spent my time as a freshman and sophomore at Columbia, supposedly majoring in German language and literature. The classes were graduate seminars but since Columbia had no graduate linguistics program (obliterated the year I began there), there were not a lot of students. IIRC the classes consisted of me (undergraduate German), a woman who was getting her teaching license at Teachers College — I think her plan was to teach English, so she was taking English grammar with Diver (?) and then ended up taking Latin grammar with him because he’s so damn charismatic and engaging, and (in the English class only) two exchange students from China who wanted to improve their understanding of English (??). A motley crew to be sure — the Chinese students were happy that the text used in English grammar was Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” with which they were familiar from their education in China, where it is apparently quite popular.
    Did I drink the kool-aid? Well these three classes are the totality of my education in linguistics, so… His method seemed to make a lot of sense to me insofar as I was able to understand it — seemed like a pretty pragmatic way of studying language to me. Every time he said the word “Chomsky” it was with an air of contempt, which I imagine would have endeared him to you. And as I said above, he was just so smart and charismatic and friendly, it would be quite impossible not to enjoy his tutelage. In sum I guess I’m a Diverian to whatever extent I am an adherent of any school of linguistics.

  24. PS — did I ever tell you his story about how useful it can be to know Latin? — He was in the Navy in the ETO during World War II, and his ship was attacked and boarded by the crew of an Italian destroyer, none of whom knew a word of English — likewise none of his shipmates spoke any Italian. But — he and the captain of the Italian ship were able to communicate and negotiate in Latin.

  25. I’m kidding (kind of) about the kool-aid; he does have some sensible ideas, and a good friend of mine is a fervent Diverian who expounds them at the drop of the hat. And I am (as you surmise) glad for any allies in the endless struggle against The Noam. But there is something a little Chomsky-esque about the “we have The Truth” attitude of the Diver tribe; it’s more charming than repellent simply because it’s such a marginal school. If they had the power and reach of the Chomskyans… *shudders*
    That’s a great story about using Latin!

  26. Most classicists I’ve met would never mention Oedipus (Oidipous) to anyone but undergraduates and non-classicists – they cannot be dragged away from obscurer authors and more recently discovered fragments, you see. When, however, they do deign to discuss Greeks most people have actually heard of, they (if they are speakers of English) tend to follow our esteemed host in saying Ed-ipus (or Eed-ipus) and writing/reading oy-DEE-poos (Oidipous). Pompous twits who wish others to feel ignorant will say oy-DEE-poos in general conversation.
    I sometimes wonder if the “highly authentic” transcription/pronunciation is due to classicists learning Greek later in life, less from a tradition of learning (which would encourage Oedipus and Achilles) but from personal interest (which would introduce the student to Oidipous and Akhilleus). It is at any rate irrelevant, as the ancient Greeks did not write in English letters (please do not pounce and make a point about the Latin alphabet)* and the pronunciation (modern Greeks aside) is a matter of personal preference or country of origin. (To hear a German pronounce the diphthong “eu” when reading Greek aloud is instructive in this regard…)
    * I checked C.Epist.Lat. at Perseus to see how they spelled/pronounced Greek names and came up with: Oxsyrychitem (for Oxyrhynchitem), Suneros (for Syneros) [no. 10], Aprodisia (for Aphrodisiam), and Isituchen (for Isitychen) [no. 142]. Just for the sake of comparison.

  27. I always wondered if the truly pedantic classical philologist would change his pronunciation to fit the reconstructed “classical” pronunciation depending on the time when the author wrote: e.g., moving from voiceless aspirated stops to voiceless fricatives, /ph/ > /f/, which may have happened as early as the 1st century CE. I’ve always disliked transcriptions like Suneros for Syneros. As for /eu/ I like the modern Greek /ef/ pronunciation as in eukharistos.

  28. I sometimes wonder if the “highly authentic” transcription/pronunciation is due to classicists learning Greek later in life, less from a tradition of learning (which would encourage Oedipus and Achilles) but from personal interest (which would introduce the student to Oidipous and Akhilleus).
    Excellent point, one which had never occurred to me and which I think is likely to have a lot of truth to it. And I’ll bet it applies in the case of other foreign names; people are willing to switch to Myanmar because they’ve never spent any time reading or talking about Burma. Solipsism strikes again.
    Jim: I confess I am one of those pedants; when I read the New Testament, I use a much more modern pronunciation than when I read the classics. Silly as it may be from one point of view, it does have two valuable side effects: it forces me to be familiar with the timeline of sound changes, and it helps me be aware of what sorts of mistakes people were likely to make at a given period (you’re not going to write “suneros” once y [upsilon] has become indistinguishable from i, for example).

  29. LH– I never said that being a “truly pedantic classical philologist” was necessarily a bad thing. And if I see the name Peilatos written in Koine, it’s hard not to pronounce it /pilatos/ rather than /pejlatos/.

  30. i need to improve my english by pronounciation activities

  31. Having been brought up on American English and then taking up university studies in Korea, I find myself constantly confused when it comes to Greek names. In the US, of course, we learned the story of ED-ipus, but here it’s pronounced the Greek way with a weird emphasis on the first syllable, ending up OY-dipoos. Jason (the golden fleece myth) is pronounced YA-son here, Zeus as ze-oos, Aphrodite as a-fro-dee-te… and so on. It gets really confusing, particularly for me, since I only learned American English till I was thirteen. After that I learned both Brit and American English from various teachers, which means that most of my English is American with queer exceptions – like idyllic, which I pronounce i-DILL-ic.
    How is the word “dynasty” pronounced? I’ve heard it mostly as DY-nas-ty, but I’ve also heard it as DI-nas-ty (short i). Is the latter British?

  32. Yes, the latter is British. Everybody says “i-DILL-ic”; the division comes with the noun, which Americans pronounce EYE-dl and Brits (I think) IH-dill. You certainly have a right to be confused, with your background!

  33. Same story here. Every time I want to indulge in droping names (Greek gods or Roman emperors, and also re-translation of Latin idioms) – I’m stuck. I know how they sound in Russian, but how say it in my conversation with an American and not sound weird?
    Examples: “Beware Greeks bearing gifts” wouldn’t come to my mind at all – in Russian it’s “Бойтесь данайцев дары приносящих”.
    Or, Дамоклов меч is Damocles’ sword. Not the same thing.
    Repeatedly, I feel like in that old conversation with my then 5 y.o. son – “Michelangelo and Rafael are ninja turtles, everybody know that, mom!”

  34. I personally say ‘dinnasty’ (I find ‘die-nasty’ somehow common, like someone who’s bee watching too many soaps).
    However, I have been laughed at by one Chinese American for saying ‘Tang (as in ‘salt tang’) Dinnasty’. I am apparently supposed to say ‘Tahng Die-nasty’.

  35. Michael Farris says

    For me, idyll rhymes with riddle (idle and idol)are already pronounced the same, a third homonym isn’t really called for.
    I’m not sure where I got that pronunciation, but it seems natural for me and not an affectation.

  36. kelly khaled says

    I am looking for the pronunciation of “brysi” (fountain). Can you help me? Thanks.

  37. Assuming you mean Greek βρυσι, it’s /’vrisi/ (VREE-see).

  38. Jimmy Ho says

    (I cannot write Greek properly on this computer, but the desinence should be ‘heta’ in dhimotiki; you may have been influenced by the wenyan form, ‘vrysis’, which ends with iota-sigma. Of course, this has no effect whatsoever on pronunciation.)

  39. Jimmy Ho says

    (I meant the katharevousa form.)

  40. Oops — you’re right, of course, including about the wenyan influence. For βρυσι read βρυση.

  41. how do you pronounce

  42. pah-nah-YO-too.

  43. I wonder if anyone can tell me how to pronounce the name of the Roman Stoic teacher Epictetus?
    Is it
    (1) e-PI-ktet-us
    (2) epic-TEE-tus ?
    Is the êta in επικτητος long?
    I see at
    “If a name has three or more syllables, then:
    accent the second-to-last syllable, if it’s long;
    accent the third-to-last, otherwise.”
    Epictetus has 4 syllables, so if êta is long, (2) is correct, but if not (1)
    is correct… Is that right?

  44. Heta, like omega, is always long. The (acute) accent is on the iota: Επίκτητος (the soft spirit on the initial vowel is missing here; I cannot write it on this computer and it wouldn’t probably not be visible, but it is evident anyway).

  45. In other words, the accent in Greek is on the iota (so that modern Greeks say e-PIK-titos), but in English, using the Latin-derived rule you quote, we say epik-TEE-tus.

  46. [Jimmy, what’s this heta business? Eta, surely.] I have not read all of the above; but my immediate concern is that we need to give a more decisive response to Keith:
    Is it
    (1) e-PI-ktet-us
    (2) epic-TEE-tus ?

    The acute accent on the iota would mean that the second syllable is stressed in Modern Greek:
    eh-PIK-tee-tos [Roughly]
    But in English the pronunciation would follow Latin norms, so that the second last syllable, being long (with automatically long eta), is stressed:
    eh-pik-TEE-tus [Roughly!]
    I would lean towards this, though (because I am an incorrigible etacist):
    eh-pik-TEH-tus [Roughly]
    (Now, should I have read all of the preceding posts?)

  47. O, sorry. Beaten to it by the ever-vigilant Hat.

  48. Jimmy, what’s this heta business?
    Like you don’t know; the sun is rising on Puh-ree and I am longing for Hera. Hence the confusion.

  49. Hokay!

  50. One might suppose that here, of all places, one could confidently use IPA (or a crude approximation thereto) rather than resorting to ugly and often ambiguous English-like forms. Even the British Empire had an explicit policy (for African names) of “consonants as in English, vowels as in Italian.”

  51. How is Qa`eda pronounced in Turkish, Swahili, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Malay? Surely those languages have consistent practices for assimilating Arabic words. (As to the names of living Arabs, I imagine they have the same debate that you and I have had over Nicaragua and Paris.) Do any of them say /kajda/?

  52. An excellent question! I’m guessing all those languages except Bengali and maybe Swahili have native versions of the Arabic word. Let’s go to the dictionaries… In Turkish it’s kaide (with a long a) ‘rule, custom; base, pedestal’; that would be /ka:i’de/ (kah-ih-DEH). In Persian it’s pronounced similarly but with an initial sound (/q/) much farther back in the throat and the a far enough back to sound almost like English aw; Persian has retained the Arabic broken plural qawā’id, which in Persian becomes qavā’ed /qava:’ed/. The meaning is ‘rule, method; pedestal, base.’ In Urdu it is, of course, written the same, and I’m guessing it’s pronounced /’kaidə/ (with a and i two separate syllables), but I don’t know Urdu. Doesn’t seem to be in Swahili, at least in my dictionary (Johnson and Madan). I can’t find it in my somewhat haphazard Malay dictionary, but in Indonesian it’s kaidah (kaidah pembentukan kalimat ‘the rules of syntax’); your guess is as good as mine as to how it’s pronounced. Doesn’t seem to be in Albanian. In Hausa it’s kā’idā ‘rule, regulation; method; limit; law,’ with a hook on the top of the k (making it glottalized) and a grave accent on the final ā (making it low tone). If I come up with any others I’ll post them.

  53. bill rogers says

    Please comment on the pronunciation of Nike. Is it
    neekee,or neekah, or naikee or naikah or something else?

  54. naikee

  55. Bill: whose pronunciation of Nike?

  56. And which Nike: the sneakers, the ancient goddess, or something else?

  57. John Cowan says

    The goddess is immanent in the sneakers, surely? After all, they are so named because they bring victory in the race, and even perhaps in the chase, humans being cursorial hunters and all.

  58. When I was in seventh grade, I wrote a short story about Athena-Nike as CEO of Nike, Inc. This was just as Nike was making its meteoric rise to dominate the American athletic shoe business. It was about a year after the “Just Do It” slogan was introduced, and the success of the company, based in Beaverton (a suburb of Portland) was a important point of Oregon pride. The story was undoubtedly inspired by my favorite story from the 1980s Twilight Zone, “Ye Gods”. I don’t remember much about the plot of my story, but it involved Athena jetting back from Greece to Portland, a proposed meeting with the Portland Trailblazers about shoe branding, and the goddess Hebe concentrating really hard on listening to her Sony Walkman and pointedly ignoring her estranged husband Heracles.

  59. David Marjanović says

    humans being cursorial

    Rather mediportal: we can run, but we walk a lot more.

  60. Ye gods
    The 80s, when everybody still had their full hair 🙂
    The Latin in the incantation is so bad, I thought the goddess might show up just to whack the yuppie lawyer with a grammar book…

  61. John Cowan says

    we can run, but we walk a lot more

    Certainly. But cursorial modifies hunter here; we are one of the few mammals capable of running down prey over really long distances, because we sweat rather than overheating and collapsing. Instead, it’s the prey that overheats, even if it can outrun humans easily on short distance scales. (I see that WP calls this behavior persistence hunting and endurance hunting as well.)

    Canids do it too, which is one reason the human/dog partnership is so old and successful. Horses also thermoregulate by sweating, which makes them hard to hunt this way and more useful to tame, but it’s much harder on them because they lose electrolytes as well as water: a lathered horse is more like a feverish human.

    In the annual Self-Transcendence Race, the competitors run around an 883m entirely flat course (a single city block in Queens, N.Y.) in such a way that they complete 5649 laps, or just short of 5000 km, within 52 consecutive days. No running is allowed between midnight and 6 AM. Only 40 people have made it to the finish line since it was first run in 1995. The present record was set in 2002 by a German with the Hattically-delightful name of Madhupran Wolfgang Schwerk: 42 18-hour days plus 10 hours. (No race this year.)

  62. David Marjanović says

    we are one of the few mammals capable of running down prey over really long distances

    …yes, if we can carry water and the ground is unusually soft (sand or deep snow). Outside of such newfangled inventions and special situations, we have to resort to ambushing and a little sprinting like any old lion or leopard.

    It was a beautiful hypothesis.

  63. Trond Engen says

    Humans also lose electrolytes. That’s why salty food and drinks taste so good on hot days.

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