Lightweight Pronunciation Guide

Womans Mouth Wide Open With Red Lipstick.Not long ago, I listened to a sermon in which I learned a word I didn’t know. It was displayed on the screen above the speaker: brephos.  The word is Greek, and it means both embryo and newborn, but I didn’t remember that until I looked it up a minute ago. Now, I can even remember what the sermon was about–how very precious life is from conception to death.

But, up until I looked it up again, the only thing I could remember was how it was pronounced: brep-hoss. The mispronunciation drove me nuts every time I heard it, so its definition didn’t stick with me. It dawned on me that people aren’t being taught linguistics anymore. For many, a “linguist” is a person who speaks many languages. That’s not an accurate definition. A linguist is someone who is proficient in linguistics–“the science of language, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and historical linguistics” (dictionary.com).

It’s been years since I studied linguistics, but I remember a few basic principles, though I’ve forgotten tons more. But let me share a bit about what I remember.

When a language that has an alphabet different from ours is translated into English, certain pronunciation guidelines are followed. Today they seem odd, even the source of confusion and jokes about the English language. But the guidelines help to keep pronunciation uniform across these translated languages. Even so-called “dead” languages have words we still use, and if we know how to pronounce them, we’ll know how to pronounce others.

So let’s look at the Greek word “brephos” and see what else has that “ph” combination–

  • phobia
  • phrase
  • euphoria
  • physics
  • Epaphras (a name found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians)

Using this guide, we can pronounce brephos.

One of the earliest words in the Bible that throws people for a loop is the simple town of Ai. This one is my favorite because it illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:

  • Cairo
  • Saigon
  • Sinai
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • aisle
  • acai (another commonly mispronounced word)

These words are from languages that have alphabets different from ours and different from each other. To assure uniform pronunciation, however, they were translated using certain linguistic guidelines.

There’s also the long a sound of the “ei” combination–lei, neighbor, Taipei, weigh–but that one’s a killer because “seize” and “heist” also have the combination. That’s when it helps to know where the word came from, but we can’t always know when a word we use daily comes from Old French, Old English, or American slang.

However, there are a couple of websites that help tremendously: Phonics on the Web and Online Etymology Dictionary.  If you’re a language and word lover like me, these two will come in handy. If you just want to make sure you’re not mispronouncing something, these sites will help.

And I hope I helped.

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
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11 Responses to Lightweight Pronunciation Guide

  1. This Greek salutes you for pointing it out. Too often people who don’t speak my language mispronounce Greek words. I want to let them know of the error, hoping to help them, but I don’t want to come off as snobbish, so I let it go.

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  2. Pearl R. Meaker says:

    Great post! 🙂 I often have trouble with acai. It doesn’t help that, at least in English, we so often have the same pairings of letters get pronounced differently, like read and read – and of course sometimes that is from borrowing words from other languages.
    How do you pronounce your last name? 🙂

    Hugs!

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  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    So how *is* Ai pronounced?

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  4. Very interesting, Linda. Those internet pronunciation sites are great for clarification of proper pronunciation. We often learn the wrong pronunciation for common words at home, never mind the more unfamiliar. Yes, very interesting. (Now, I am going to say, “pronunciation” one more time just for the heck of it. 🙂 )

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