Friday 18 December 2009


The decline of classical learning and of religious knowledge continues apace. It’s beginning to make me feel quite elderly.

I’m grateful to Martyn Johnson of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory for a sound clip from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.
The newsreader announces a new carol by John Rutter, The Carol of the Magi. But she confidently pronounces Magi as ˈmɑːʒiː. The presenter then thanks her for setting him right on how to pronounce this difficult word, because he is about to interview the composer. (“That’s why you’re a newsreader.”) Fortunately a third person then intervenes to tell them that it should actually be ˈmeɪdʒaɪ.
We’d better not speculate on which language the newsreader thought Magi comes from, or in which language the reading rules for this sequence of letters would produce ˈmɑːʒiː. I bet she doesn’t know what it means, either, or why it/they would have a carol named after it/them.
The Magi are better known as the Wise Men, or the Three Kings, who in the Christmas story brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to give to the baby Jesus.

The word is (as I’m sure you know) the Latin plural of magus, which means a learned man or magician, originally one from Persia. You will also know, although the newsreader probably wouldn’t, that The Magus is a rather well-known novel by John Fowles, later made into a film.
Although in Latin măgus, măgī has a short vowel in the first syllable, its English pronunciation reflects the traditional developments affecting other long-established Latin borrowings: the vowel in an open syllable lengthens and undergoes the Great Vowel Shift, while in the plural Velar Softening changes g to .
The Romans took the word from the Greeks (Μάγος, pl. Μάγοι), who in turn took it from the Persians. Herodotus tells us of wise men (μάγοι) in Persia who interpreted dreams. According to Wikipedia they were followers of Zoroaster.
The Greeks later widened the meaning of the word to denote any kind of enchanter or wizard, and created a derived verb μαγεύω (classical magéuō, modern maˈʝevo) ‘bewitch, enchant, charm’ and an adjective μαγικός magikós. The latter is the source of our word magic.
According to Wikipedia,
Victor H. Mair provides archaeological and linguistic evidence suggesting that Chinese wū (巫 "shaman; witch, wizard; magician", Old Chinese *myag) was a loanword from Old Persian *maguš "magician; magi".

The word Magi has been in English for around eight hundred years.


  1. The vowels are in agreement with the New Pronunciation of Latin, where "new" means older than a century. That transferring it to words such as magi shows ignorance of English more than knowledge of Latin isn't new either.

    [dʒ] and [ʒ] are more and more free variants in contemporary RP, aren't they?

    So, while it looks ridiculous, I'm not sure the speaker thought it was from some magical foreign tongue; she might simply follow those two trends of RP.

    Could as well have thought it was Italian (and not known it well enough).

    (I can't think of a Romance dialect that has it like that, with the [ɑ] and the long [iː]. Any specialist?)

  2. In Spanish we have "mago" (from "magus"), and Asturian has "magu", but both plurals are "magos".
    Of course, "a" is (in both cases) pronounced /ä/.

  3. I don't know about free variants, but ʒ does seem to be the default j or "soft g" in words of foreign origin for many RP-speakers. It's the same in the US though, isn't it?

  4. Huh. I've always said magi with [æ], tracking the Latin I suppose. One does learn lots of helpful pronunciations at this blog!

    [mɑːʒiː] looks to me like the speaker is treating the word as French, with adjustments to English, which doesn't have short tense vowels: rough analogues would be rouge, beige, genre.

  5. My pronunciation is as John Cowan's. That's how I learned it in school, I think mostly from the O. Henry story.

  6. Peter Cook has an interesting alternative pronunciation here:

  7. So sorry! The YouTube version of this sketch skips the magi gag. The exchange I was hoping to share goes like this:

    M: Yeah! Anyway, Arthur, I gather later on in the evening, three wise men came by, am I right there?
    S: Three wise men arrived, yeah.
    M: Yeah?
    S: Three bloody idiots if ever I saw any.
    M: Yeah?
    S: In they come, call themselves Maggie.
    M: Three blokes come in and call themselves Maggie?
    S: Yeah, they peered round the stable door, said Hallo, we're Maggie.
    M: How very embarrassing.

  8. ok... this is my last attempt. If you care to hear the file you can find it here:

  9. Like John Cowan, I have always said magi with [æ] - that is, I have always pronounced it (and heard it pronounced) as ˈmædʒaɪ. Chiefly in the title of the O. Henry story, "The Gift of the Magi." Hmmm. Seems to be an odd hybrid of ˈmeɪdʒaɪ and the wonderful Maggie. I never could abide those fields ...

    I would love to see an IPA transcription of the way Peter Cook says "myrrh."

  10. P.S. I found a YouTube clip of Gospel Truth from Behind the Fridge, but alas, it doesn't contain the glorious pronunciation of "myrrh" whose memory I cherish.

  11. Like John Cowan, Ryan and Amy, I have always pronounced magi as /ˈmæʤaɪ/. We must all be American or something. In fact, I've never heard this word pronounced any other way in America.

  12. Among the pronunciation dictionaries, we find only ˈmeɪ- in LPD and EPD/CPD; ODP adds ˈmæ- as a variant, but only for AmE. Kenyon & Knott, Pron. Dict. of AmE, gives only ˈmeɪ- (in their notation, ˈme-). I expect trade names like Magimix have had an effect. What do American art historians do with The Adoration of the Magi?

  13. I expect trade names like Magimix have had an effect.

    And magic, magical probably.

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  15. John Wells asked: "What do American art historians do with The Adoration of the Magi?". Please, listen to the audio file at We needn't abandon all hope!

  16. I have only ever heard ['mæʤaɪ] in Canada — both in and outside of the Anglican Church.

  17. "Among the pronunciation dictionaries, we find only ˈmeɪ- in LPD and EPD/CPD; ODP adds ˈmæ- as a variant, but only for AmE. Kenyon & Knott, Pron. Dict. of AmE, gives only ˈmeɪ- (in their notation, ˈme-)."

    Bear in mind that K&K was compiled in 1944 hasn't undergone revision since 1953; I don't know how substantial that revision was. At best, it's a portrait of American "cultured" pronunciation from an earlier age, and in my work, I use it for just that purpose.

    As for LPD: I don't for a minute dispute your favored pronunciation as one in use in the USA. But as it was new to me, I hunted online, and sure enough, I found some samples. Somehow, though, your survey didn't take in anyone along what we might call the American "mæʤaɪnoʊ" Line. But there are lots of us who live around there.

    I think I'll conduct an unscientific survey among my friends. I'm curious about the results.

  18. David Marjanović29 December 2009 at 23:31

    It might be relevant that I've heard data pronounced as both [ˈdeɪ̯ɾə] and [ˈdæɾɐ] by American grad students in pal...eontology.

    (Not quite sure about the exact identities of the unstressed vowels, or how voiced the /d/ really was.)


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