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I actually want to present this question in two parts:

1) First of all, xenos comes from ξένος. Nevertheless, it is pronounced with "z" instead of "ks" (/ks/). How come?

2) Let's take the word "xenocide" (the killing of xenos - strangers). Should 'Xe' be pronounced as "ze" or "zee"? In popular culture, you usually see "zee" being used. But, in the context of xenocide, there is a clear connection with genocide (/ˈʤɛnəsaid/, [jen-uh-sahyd]). What should be preferred?

I always pronounced it "zee-no-cide".

For easy reference:


As another example, take "Xena".

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Xi is pretty much always pronounced /z/ in English: xylophone, xenon, xylem, etc. – nohat Jun 11 '12 at 17:58
Partial duplicate of english.stackexchange.com/questions/19493/… – Mark Beadles Jun 11 '12 at 18:41
If xenocide is a word invented by Orson Scott Card, maybe the thing to do is ask him in that case. – GEdgar Jun 12 '12 at 14:32
related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/54119/… – sumelic Jul 14 '15 at 1:28
up vote 6 down vote accepted

English (and most other European languages) imported many of the Greek roots it uses a long time ago -- long enough that ordinary sound changes took place subsequently which modified the original Greek pronunciations. Just as we no longer pronounce Anglo-Saxon words the same as the Anglo-Saxons did, we no longer pronounce Ancient Greek words the same as the Ancient Greeks did. In particular the Great Vowel Shift of around 1500 CE significantly changed the way we pronounce vowels. Looking at the Greek eta έ [ɛː] vowel:

Middle English [ɛː] --> [eː] --> modern English [iː]

..giving us "ee" [iː] instead of "eh" [ɛ:] for the sound of the vowel in xenocide.

The other part of your question is covered in this Eng.SE question. Basically, many Greek roots came to English through French and then were simplified to meet English phonotactic constraints. So Gk [ks] --> Fr [gz] --> En [z].

(Interestingly enough, a similar thing happened in Greek itself, though not to ε. E.g. the letter η (eta) is now pronounced [ita], among many other changes.)

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Well I'm English and I've never pronounced (nor heard pronounced) xeno- with a long ee sound. It's always "zenno-". – Andrew Leach Jun 11 '12 at 19:07
@AndrewLeach And yup, the OED seems to admit only "zenno". Every time someone asks the general way pronounce something in English it turns out there is no general way. Two cultures separated by a common language, indeed! – Mark Beadles Jun 11 '12 at 19:24
@MarkBeadles, any references for Gk [ks]=>Fr [gz]=>En [z], besides the OED? cf. Chaucer "Santippa" but Shakespeare "Zantippe"? It would seem it could have been [ks]=>[s]=>[z]. – Alex B. Jun 11 '12 at 21:01
@AlexB. I am just repeating what was selected as correct in that other Eng.SE question. That may be incorrect, in which case it would be better answered over there. – Mark Beadles Jun 12 '12 at 1:09
Yipes. OED has "xenon" with a short E. As an American, I must say I have never heard that. – GEdgar Jun 12 '12 at 14:30

No English speaker ever says a word that begins with /ks/. This cluster can occur in certain contractions, but speakers will deny that they say it, because it is a speech contraction and they think they're saying prototype words instead of physical sounds.

The same is true for Latin, French, Italian, and pretty much all European languages that English has borrowed words from. Except Ancient Greek. From which all European languages have borrowed words, usually spelled with X, which is a letter pronounced quite variously in European languages.

Mostly they've all had to consider the /k/ silent, and then either voice the /z/ part or devoice the /s/ part. Mostly English voices it to /z/, so xeno- is pronounced /zino-/.

As to how to pronounce a Greek vowel in English, that varies with a lot of factors, like how long ago the word was borrowed, and how many sound changes it has been through since then. We call the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle /pai/ because the word was borrowed, with a long /i:/, straight from Greek /pi:/ before the Great Vowel Shift (GVS) that changed all the /i:/ phonemes in English to /ai/ phonemes.

If the xeno- prefix was borrowed before the GVS, its vowel should be /i/; but if it was borrowed after the GVS, it should be /ɛ/ or possibly /e/. However, as it happens, it's always pronounced /i/; so, whenever it turns out to have been borrowed, it's actually pronounced as if it was borrowed a long time ago.

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Can you give example or a reference for the contractions you refer to with /ks/ ? – ThePopMachine Jun 12 '12 at 4:45
'Xactly' , pronounced as /'gzækli/ or /'ksækli/ is a shortened version of exactly, for instance. Initial unstressed vowels are often shortened to reduce syllables; the Greeks had special terms for initial, medial, and final vowel (and therefore syllable) deletion. It's a very normal phenomenon in all languages. – John Lawler Jun 12 '12 at 14:26

No home-grown English words begin with the sound represented by Greek ξ or (except words like 'x-ray') with the sound represented by ‘x’. /z/ is the next best thing.

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He's actually asking about the 'e' phoneme in the second part of his question. – chaos Jun 11 '12 at 18:01

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