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've seen a lot of words use an X but be pronounced with a Z. Mitch Hedberg put it best:

Xylophone is spelled with an X, that's wrong, xylophone's zzzz, X? I don't $%(@#& see it. It should be a Z up front, next time you have to spell xylophone, use a Z. When someone says, "Hey that's wrong," say, "No it ain't. If you think that's wrong, you need to get your head Z-rayed." It's like X wasn't given enough to do, so they had to promise it more. Okay, you don't start a lot of words, but we'll give you a co-starring role in tic-tac-toe. And you will be associated with hugs and kisses. And you will mark the spot. And you will make writing Christmas easier. And incidentally, you will start xylophone. Are you happy, you $%(@#&' X!?!

So why is X used like this and where did it start?

share|improve this question
1  
Haha! I saw this question and was bent on coming over here to quote Mitch Hedberg. Great work! –  Karl Apr 5 '11 at 3:50
1  
I don't have a serious answer... but the same reason Z is pronounced Z? –  MrHen Apr 5 '11 at 4:27
5  
Yes, the prononciation of X definitely has to bi corrected. Everi uthur wuurd in inglish is pronaunsd sao ladjikally, sao itts ounli thu X laft to fikks. ;) –  Guffa Apr 5 '11 at 6:04
    
Just be happy we don’t spell it ξύλον+ϕωνή+, eh? –  tchrist Feb 2 '12 at 0:07
add comment

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Xylophone is from the Greek xylon, which is (or was—I'm not up on my modern Greek) pronounced with an initial [ks]. Many words borrowed from Greek via French developed a [gz] pronunciation along the way, which was reduced to [z] word-initially when adopted into English.

share|improve this answer
1  
"… which is pronounced with an initial [ks]" –  lonesomeday Feb 1 '12 at 16:45
add comment

English, like some other languages, systematically reduces certain consonant clusters; but it has a conservative spelling system (which incidentally often reminds us where a word comes from).

The clusters we reduce are mostly in borrowings from other languages: particularly initial clusters /ks/ ('x'), /pt/, /pn/ which are generally from Greek, but also for example /hr/ (and in fact /h/ anywhere but initial) as in "Tahrir square".

This reduction happens in some native words as well: initial /kn/ as in 'knave' is pronounced /n/ in modern English, though the related word 'Knabe' in German still has the /k/ pronounced; and words like 'night', old English 'niht' (with the /h/ pronounced), cf German 'Nacht'.

share|improve this answer
add comment

protected by RegDwigнt Feb 1 '12 at 19:47

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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