English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Automata theory is a study in the fields of theoretical computer science and mathematics. See this Wikipedia page for more information. What is the pronunciation of the word automata? Is it auto-m-A-ta (where the capital A says its name) or auto-m-ah-ta?

share|improve this question

closed as general reference by FumbleFingers, Daniel, Mitch, Brendon, MετάEd Jan 20 '12 at 18:46

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

It's an American accent, but this MW page has a button you can click on to hear pronunciation of this plural of automaton. Not that in my UK accent it's "ORtomata", not "Atomata". – FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 1:30
Thanks, that answers my question. Just out of curiosity, why the down vote? Did I break some rule? I'd like to know so I don't repeat it again. – Jonathan DeCarlo Jan 20 '12 at 1:36
It doesn't mean you committed a cardinal sin. Perhaps I was a bit harsh. I happen to know MW has pronunciations, and when I went to look I half-expected to find that they didn't pronounce the plural, which would explaqin why you asked here. When I found they did I was just a bit tetchy, thinking "Well, he could have found that himself!". Okay - on reflection that was definitely a bit ott, so I'll reverse it. – FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 1:40
I see. That makes sense. I did check one online dictionary, but it didn't contain the plural. In retrospect, I should have searched more before posting on this site. I understand the down vote now. Thanks! – Jonathan DeCarlo Jan 20 '12 at 1:43
ho hum. I just reversed, but apparently someone else downvoted anyway. Maybe it's one of those "to-may-to, to-mah-to" things. – FumbleFingers Jan 20 '12 at 1:44
up vote 3 down vote accepted

It's au-TOM-ah-tah, the plural of automaton (au-TOM-ah-ton - proper pronunciation here) but not to be confused with automation (au-to-MAY-tion).

I have no idea why the difference exists. However, I note that it's similar to the difference in better known words robot (RO-bot) and robotics (ro-BOT-ics).

Hopefully someone who has more familiarity with formal pronunciation notation and / or etymology can help fill in the gaps.

share|improve this answer
Your wish is granted; or rather, both wishes. ☺ – tchrist Jan 20 '12 at 3:44
Genius! Thank you. – Lunivore Jan 20 '12 at 4:25

The OED’s entry gives the pronunciation of automaton as:

Brit. /ɔːˈtɒmət(ə)n/, U.S. /ɔˈtɑməd(ə)n/, /ɑˈtɑməd(ə)n/, /ɔːˈtɑməˌtɑn/, /ɑˈtɑməˌtɑn/.

Looks like there’s plenty to choose from there! ☺ My own is /ɔːˈtɒməˌtɑn/ in the singular, and of course /-ə/ in the plural. (I don’t have the cot–caught merger.)

The notes under the etymology are particulary copious:

Etymology: < classical Latin automatum automatic contrivance and its etymon ancient Greek αὐτόματον marionette, use as noun of neuter of αὐτόματος (adjective) acting of itself, spontaneous, (of plants) growing by themselves, (of events) happening by themselves < αὐτό‑ auto‑ comb. form¹ + ‑ματος < the same Indo‐European base as Sanskrit mata thought, considered, classical Latin ‑mentus (in commentus feigned), Lithuanian mintas trodden, stamped, representing a participial formation < the Indo‐European base of ancient Greek μέμονα (see i‑mind n.. Compare automa n., automate n., autom n.

Compare the following slightly earlier attestation of ancient Greek αὐτόματον in an English context:

  • 1611      T. Coryate Crudities sig. T8ᵛ,          The picture of a Gentlewoman, whose eies were contriued‥, that they moued vp and down of themselues,‥done by a vice which the Grecians call αὐτόματον.

The Greek noun was also borrowed into other European languages, in some of these indirectly (via Latin or another language). Compare e.g. French automate automate n., Spanish autómato (1582), (now usually) autómata (1729), Portuguese autômato (1712), Italian automa, †automato (see automa n.), Dutch automaat (1813; earlier with Greek or Latin endings: †automata, plural (1552), †automaton (1558), †automatum (1769)), German Automat automat n.

In plural form automata after the Greek and Latin plural forms. The plural forms automata and automatons coexist in modern English. Attempts to establish semantic guidelines for the use of the two plural forms are rare in modern usage guides; apparently the only such attempt is made in R. W. Burchfield New Fowler’s Mod. Eng. Usage (ed. 3, 1998) 79/2, which states (echoing earlier statements in various editions of H.W. Fowler Mod. Eng. Usage): ‘The plural is automata when used collectively, otherwise (much less commonly) automatons’. Several usage guides merely comment that the ‑s plural is more common, or that the plural form automata belongs to the learned register. Corpus evidence suggests that the ‑s plural is especially frequent in the transferred sense 3c.


automaton, n.

Third edition, June 2011; online version December 2011. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/13474; accessed 19 January 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1885.

The OED’s ‘transferred sense 3c’ referenced above is the one about somebody acting like a machine, and corresponds to the RAE’s sense 3. The OED also admits a sense 4 from the field of Computing.

For the record, the RAE entry for autómata confirms that the current Spanish spelling, autómata, is not just masculine (just like all the other -ata words of Greek derivation in Spanish), but also singular. So Spanish este autómata is singular where English these automata is plural, as all students of finite automata know. The Spanish plural would be estos autómatas, oddly enough, which risks sounding like a double-plural to the English ear. English finite automata translates to los autómatas finitos in Spanish.

share|improve this answer
What would be the 'English' singular automaton in Spanish then? – Kris Jan 20 '12 at 9:30
@Kris English singular automaton = Spanish singular autómata; English plural automata = Spanish plural autómatas – tchrist Jan 20 '12 at 13:13

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