Tuesday, 21 December 2010

seismic

The English spelling <ei> is particularly opaque.
  • Other examples with the pronunciation include beige, deign, feint, rein, surveillance, vein.
  • Others with include codeine, protein, seize, Keith, Leith, Neil(l), Reid.
  • Others with include eider, kaleidoscope, Eileen, Brunei and German-derived words or names such as zeitgeist, Einstein. There is also the Greek-derived seismic.
At least, that’s the way I assumed everyone pronounces seismic: ˈsaɪzmɪk. But the other day I heard the politician Chris Huhne hjuːn speak of ‘a ˈseɪzmɪk shift’ in something or other.

Ancient Greek σεισμός seismós ‘a shaking, shock’ had during the classical period, yielding i in Modern Greek. The regular development in post-GVS English is , which we also see in dinosaur ˈdaɪn-, based on δεινός deinós ‘terrible’ (though dinosaur is of course a relatively recent coinage). Within the same discipline of geology and paleontology we also have pleistocene ˈplaɪstə(ʊ)siːn (Greek πλεῖστος pleîstos ‘most’). There is also paradise ˈpærədaɪs, borrowed from Iranian via Greek παράδεισος parádeisos.

As can be seen from these examples, the English spelling is sometimes ei and sometimes simple i. At seismic the OED comments that ‘the normal form would be *sismic’.

English is unusual among languages in that there are a large number of words whose spelling is firmly fixed, but whose pronunciation is not.

24 comments:

  1. Quaff is another good example of a variable pronunciation even within a single accent. I've always used the FLEECE vowel in Pleistocene for whatever reason, but the PRICE vowel in the rest.

    Protein, codeine, and friends were historically /i.ɪn/.

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  2. I'm somewhat surprised the coiners didn't take the Ancient δεινός deinós into deinosaur /ˈdeɪnɵsɔr/.

    Is the basic pattern that English borrowings from Greek take the Byzantine form run through the Great Vowel Shift? Or is there a reliable pattern at all?

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  3. dirck: I think they went with "dinosaur" because Greek-derived words usually come to English through the prism of Latin (in which ει was transcribed as i). This is why we have words like "septic(a)emia" instead of, say, "septikaimia". But there are many exceptions ("kaleidoscope" being a good one), and I suspect that the coiners of "seismic" chose to retain the "ei" because the Latinate "i", read by a typical English speaker, would have tended to produce a rather infelicitous [ˈsɪzmɪk].

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  4. Was seismic coined by an English speaker directly from Greek via Latin, or borrowed from German like a lot of 19th century scientific vocabulary?

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  5. What? I had always pronounced Reynolds with FACE! (Though I can't recall hearing any native speakers pronouncing it.)
    As for "either", I think I've even heard FACE in it a coupla times (by adult Irishmen).

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  6. Re Chris Huhne - maybe David Cameron told him to pronounce it that way...
    (I say this as a recently and bitterly ex-member of Huhne's party (: )

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  7. @Army
    I can firm as an Irishman that the name of the former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds is indeed pronounced with the DRESS vowel.
    I can't say I've ever heard 'either' being pronounced with FACE in Ireland, though maybe it's a possibility for those speakers who can fluctuate between FACE in FLEECE in such words as 'leave' and 'decent', the FACE vowel variant being very informal or jocular.

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  8. Army1987,

    might that have been a regular Irish PR[əɪ]CE vowel?

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  9. Or even more obviously PR[eɪ]CE, but FL[i]CE is surely overwhelmingly the local preference for 'either' and 'neither'.

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  10. Homage is another example of a variable pronunciation, but this one varies even in my own idiolect. I use /ˈɒmədʒ/ for the act, like pay homage, and /oʊˈmɑːʒ/ for the product of that act, like an homage to…. I didn't even realize they were the same word until adulthood.

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  11. John W,
    I was struck by your use of 'Iranian' for the etymology of 'paradise', and saw that some time between 1989 and 2010 the OED started calling Old Persian Old Iranian. Rooting around the online resources has not made this seem any less odd to me. In fact it makes it look quite problematic. Doesn’t it seem odd to you?

    No doubt Lazar is right to suspect that the coiners of "seismic" chose to retain the "ei" because the Latinate "i", read by a typical English speaker, would have tended to produce a rather infelicitous [ˈsɪzmɪk], and presumably the same consideration motivated 'pleistocene', deictic, etc. But considerations of potential infelicitous pronunciations by typical English speakers were on a hiding to nothing from the start, weren't they? How can they be averted, with spelling like ours? I see that although you don't foresee ˈsaɪzmɪk in LPD, for 'deictic' you do have the following hair-raising entry:

    ˈdaɪkt ɪk ˈdeɪkt- —Also sometimes, by misanalysis, di ˈɪkt ɪk, deɪ-

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  12. I am curious about the pronunciation of the word "sleight," which seems to occur only in the phrase "sleight of hand." Here in the US, I almost always hear it pronounced as "slight" (with PRICE); I have only once heard it pronounced to rhyme with "eight" (with FACE). Does the same pronunciation prevail in the rest of the English-speaking world? Which pronunciation has been prevalent longer?

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  13. I think it was actually Avestan rather than Old Persian, wasn't it? "Iranian" is sufficiently vague to cover both.

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  14. @ MKR: Bono uses PRICE in the song "With or Without You" and he's Irish of course. But singing tends to make people pronounce words in strange ways, as we covered yesterday. I'm American and I use PRICE too maybe because of that song.

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  15. @ Army: Another possibility is that it was a diphthongal FLEECE you heard (an [ɪi] type realization). That can sound somewhat like FACE at times.

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  16. sleight is slaɪt for me.

    French has both séismique and sismique (though an earthquake is always un séisme).

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  17. it was actually Avestan rather than Old Persian, wasn't it? "Iranian" is sufficiently vague to cover both.

    Yes John, that does seem to be it. "Gr. παράδεισος, a. OPers. Pairidaēza" was vague enough for the OED in 1989, but where Avestan fits into the cladistics is vaguer still, apparently, so I guess they are playing safe with the generic "Iranian". I feel too faint to try to ascertain whether they are trying to update their cladistics or their taxonomic terminology, or both.

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  18. I don't remember that guy's pronunciation of FLEECE or PRICE being *that* weird... but maybe that was just my impression.

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  19. MKR,
    I think we may assume "sleight" with FACE is a spelling pronunciation anywhere in the English-speaking world. I have heard it in BrE too, but if any dictionary were likely to acknowledge it, it would be LPD, and it only recognizes "slight" with PRICE. In "sleight of hand" etc. it derives from "sly", and it's not surprising that the pronunciation conforms with the adjective whatever the spelling, as "height" with "high". I don't think anyone pronounces "height" with FACE yet, but who knows? You do get haɪtθ. However I guess the surname "Sleight" is a fancy spelling of the descriptive "slight", in which form it also occurs. I've only heard the surname with PRICE, but it's quite rare.

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  20. I of course meant to say that LPD only recognizes "sleight" with PRICE.

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  21. Thanks, Mallamb. I didn't know that "sleight" derives from "sly" (and shame on me for not looking into the matter!), but that fact seems a sufficient explanation of the pronunciation. It's really the spelling that needs explanation! (And the same for "height.")

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  22. @army1987: I can most easily imagine an Irishman producing FACE in "(n)either" as a playful alteration from FLEECE, i.e. nothing to do with PRICE.

    The conservative use of FACE rather than FLEECE in words like "tea", "meat", "Jesus", etc is (stereo)typically (stage-)Irish, and extending FACE to other FLEECE words just adds to the fun.

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  23. My father said either with PRICE, which made him an oddity among the people I knew as a child, all of whom used FLEECE. But he was second-generation Irish-American, and he liked to tell the story of the Irishman who settles the PRICE/FLEECE argument with "Ayther will do, ayther will do".

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  24. I pronounce "seismic" 'sismɪk , but I'm the only one I know of who does this. Everyone else I know pronounces the second "s" like a "z".

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