Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I recently found out that the word wife is pronounced differently in the following examples:

wife [waif] / midwife [midwaif] / but midwifery [ˈmɪdˌwɪfərɪ]

This appears to be another inconsistency of English phonetics. Does anyone know why this is?

share|improve this question
    
I've always pronounced the -wi- syllable the same in midwife and midwifery. Merriam-Webster lists both /-wi-/ and /-wī-/ as possible pronunciations. If the /whiff/ pronunciation bothers you, just use the other one. :) –  Marthaª Jun 11 '13 at 19:06
4  
No, this isn't an inconsistency of English phonetics. It's a consistency of English phonology. In wife and midwife the last syllable has primary stress, and therefore /ay/ can appear in it. In midwifery the second syllable does not have primary stress, and therefore is reduced to /ɪ/. This is an automatic consequence of English syllable-timing, which lengthens syllables with primary stress and allows all possible English vowels to occur in such syllables. In unstressed or secondarily stressed syllables, the range of possible vowels is much smaller. –  John Lawler Jun 11 '13 at 20:45
    
@Marthaª: In the UK it seems to me that in many cases where people place the stress on different syllables, it turns out that the "non-standard" version is American. But if I heard someone say mid-WIFE-ery (which I probably never have), I'd tend to assume they invented it themselves by extrapolation from the written form, not because they heard other people using it. Presumably though, you do hear others using it. –  FumbleFingers Jun 11 '13 at 21:49
    
@FumbleFingers Actually, until today, I've never heard it pronounced any other way. If I had heard someone say it (without any other indication they were using a different dialect from my own) I might have thought they'd invented themselves. –  p.s.w.g Jun 11 '13 at 22:38
1  
@FumbleFingers: (1) never trust someone whose first language was Hungarian about questions of where to put the stress. (2) I probably do say /mid-WIFE-ery/ by extrapolation, and I don't know if I've ever heard anyone else say this word, in whatever pronunciation. (When I say "I say", I mean of course my mental voice: it's just not a word that pops up in everyday conversation.) –  Marthaª Jun 11 '13 at 22:38
show 5 more comments

1 Answer

Alexander Ellis claims that the modern pronunciation [midwaif] is “orthographical”:

 -wife, midwife housewife goodwife. Here orthographical readers say (mi⋅dwə′if ʜəu⋅swə′if gu:d wə′if). But (mi⋅dif) is more common, and no actor would speak otherwise in describing Queen Mab, RJ 1, 4, 23 (717,54). The thread-and-needle-case is always called a (ʜəz⋅if), and the word (ʜə⋅zi), now spelled hussy, shews the old disuse of (w), and similarly (gu⋅di), now written goody. (1165) —On Early English Pronunciation, Pt IV (1874), 1165

Though the pronuncitation ['mɪdɪf] (in modern notation) is ignored by most old dictionaries, it is acknowledged here and there. Routledge's Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language, 1867, gives two pronunciations, “mid′wif, or mid′wīf ”, and Walker, Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, 1791, gives

MIDWIFERY, mid’-wif-re, s 144 … Though the i is long in Midwife, it is always ſhort in its derivative Midwifery, and the compound Manmidwife.

And “144” refers to this note:

 144. Thoſe ending in ife, have the i long, except houſewife, pronounced huzzif, according to the general rule, notwithſtanding the i in wife is always long. Midwife is ſometimes ſhortened in the ſame manner by the vulgar. (42)

OED 1 (1906) says “the colloquial pronunciation (mi⋅dif) is now seldom heard.”

It appears that at least by Modern English the secondary stress on the second syllable of midwife had been reduced in non-educated speech to non-stress. This may have been the case even earlier, since Middle English spellings indicate that a variant was then current with the same connective vowel between the first and last syllables which gave rise to the /ɪf/ pronunciation in housewife and goodwife. Alternately, the reduction may have come about by analogy with housewife and goodwife.

“Polite” usage eventually succeeded in stamping out the “vulgar” pronunciation of midwife; but it may be suspected that ['mɪdɪfrɪ] was acceptable under the principle of trisyllabic laxing.


Prototype of Shaw's Henry Higgins and inventor of the IPA characters ʃ and ʒ (along with several other notations which have not survived)

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.