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The Encyclopædia Brittanica still uses the symbol "æ". However, I still hear everyone pronounce it as "Encyclo pee dia", when their spelling suggests more along the lines of "Encyclo pah dia" or "encyclo pay dia". In a more general sense, should æ or Æ always be pronounced as a long e sound? When I see it used, it is in dæmon, æther, or æon.

The wikipedia page makes it clear that they should be pronounced with another sound along the lines of ah or eh... confusing because I want to pronounce it as "ai" or "ay". Given the name "Aion" as a recent videogame, and the common pronunciation of a CS mailer-daemon as "Daymon", clearly others behave the same way.

The problem lies in that æ used to be pronounced as ah/eh, and now seems to be pronounced as ay. Encyclopædia is the only exception... being pronounced as ee?

How do I pronounce it when seen in English? ee, ay, or ah/eh?

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There’s no simple answer to any question of the form “How is <letter>/<digraph> pronounced?” It depends. As you’ll have seen in the Wikipedia article, what would have been pronounced /ai/ in Latin is usually pronounced /iː/ in English, but there are inevitably exceptions like the name Æleen, or examples like paedophile where the British rendering /iː/ goes through both a spelling and a pronunciation change to become /ɛ/ in American English. And that’s to say nothing of the Mediæval Bæbes... – Brian Nixon Jun 13 '12 at 22:01
Encyclopaedia does not contain, and has never contained the letter 'Ash'. It is however sometimes written with the digraph 'æ', which has only an accidental resemblance to the ash. – Colin Fine Jun 13 '12 at 22:58

7 Answers 7

up vote 23 down vote accepted

You have to distinguish English vowels from English orthography. There are between twelve and fifteen distinct vowels in English, depending on your dialect, but there are only 5 vowel letters in the orthography. This causes no end of problems.

The letter æ was used in Old English to represent the vowel that's pronounced in Modern English ash, fan, happy, and last: /æ/. Mostly we now spell that vowel with the letter a, because of the Great Vowel Shift.

When æ appears in writing Modern English, it's meant to be a typographic variant of ae, and is pronounced the same as that sequence of vowel letters would be. So Encyclopaedia or Encyclopædia, no difference.

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As I said, you have to distinguish English spelling from pronunciation. There's no difference between the letters"ae" together and the "æ" ligature; and there's no rule for how to pronounce them, either -- every word is different. The words encyclopædia, encyclopedia, and encyclopaedia are all pronounced the same, however you pronounce them. I pronounce that vowel as /i/, myself. – John Lawler Jun 13 '12 at 22:39
@Lawton - You're missing the fact that English spelling does not represent English pronunciation -- and was not meant to represent it, whatever they told you in school. It represents Middle English pronunciation, not Modern English. Don't look at spelling and expect to get pronunciation; it doesn't work that way. Sorry. – John Lawler Jun 13 '12 at 23:16
@Lawton: Consider aestivation/estivation, aestrus/estrus, anaemia/anemia, archaeologist, bacteraemia/bacteremia, paean, paediatric/pediatric, &c. Perhaps also consider amoeba/ameba, apnoea/apnea, oestrogren/estrogen, diarrhoea/diarrhea, oecology/economy, logorrhoeic/logorrheic, coelacanth, oenology, Phoebe, phoenix, subpoena, ooecium/oecium. In all cases I can think of in classically derived words, whether it is spelled æ/ae/e or œ/oe/e makes no difference (French imports like bœuf, hors d’œuvre, cri de cœur, trompe l’œil don’t count—just Latin or Greek for ae and Greek for oe.) – tchrist Jun 13 '12 at 23:33
@Lawton: trademark restrictions may be one explanation, but you may see 'ae' elsewhere where trademark isn't involved. There the explanation would be that it is an archaic spelling, like all of tchrist's alternate spellings. – Mitch Jun 13 '12 at 23:57
@Mitch The British don’t always consider the ae or oe spellings archaic, although most are perceived as such in America. You’d have to ask someone from the UK or Ireland what their own take on those is. I just know that when doing NLP work (read: using a computer for natural language processing, as it is termed) on biomedical journal articles, you have to be especially careful for those variants, as they are not at all uncommon there (like in The Lancet). You sometimes even get the ligature versions. – tchrist Jun 14 '12 at 0:04

English orthography is rule based...except it's not very good at following the rules. Sometimes it uses a regular literal one-to-one pronunciation, at oher times the spelling got stuck centuries ago but sounds changes occurred in speech, and sometimes, the word is written as from the foreign language it was borrowed from but the impossible or unlikely pronunciation is adapted to English mouths and ears.

The pair 'ae' or the single mushed together symbol 'æ', is not pronounced as two separate vowels. It comes (almost always) from a borrowing from Latin. In the original Latin it is pronounced as /ai/ (in IPA) or to rhyme with the word 'eye'. But, for whatever reason, it is usually pronounced as '/iy/' or "ee". Encyclodpeeedia, alumneee (for many female 'alumnae'). Another variant is /ɛ/ in an-eh-sthetic for 'anaesthetic'. Note that many of these spellings are now variants and the more common spelling removes the strange looking 'a'.

Another pair borrowed from Latin is 'oe' is in (the old fashioned spelling) 'oesophagus' where it is pronounced /ɛ/ 'eh' eh-sah-fuh-gus.

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Mitch, see my comment. BTW, when I was taught Latin, we were actually told to pronounce ae as /ae/, but everyone turned the /e/ into the familiar glide of English mice. – tchrist Jun 13 '12 at 23:52
@tchrist: thanks for that list of many examples. That's was what I was alluding to. I only answered separately from JL because i felt there needed to be a direct answer to the OP's 'How do you pronounce it?' – Mitch Jun 14 '12 at 0:00

In most cases, "ae" or "oe" will result in a long or short "e" sound. These spellings originated in Greek and found their way into English. Many of them have changed as spelling is "reformed," but others have not.


  • Oedipus - "oed" = "ed"
  • oesophagus - usually spelled "esophagus" now
  • Aegypt - now spelled "Egypt"
  • anaesthetic - sometimes spelled "anesthetic"
  • paedophile - now spelled "pedophile"

As for "daemon" -- despite what you will hear from some computer people, it is pronounced "demon" -- and despite what you will hear from some others, they are really only variant spellings. The older spelling "daemon" came to be used in the computer sense, similar to when the "compact disc" was introduced to an international English-speaking audience, the original "disc" was used, even though the spelling of "disc" had mostly been reformed to "disk" by that time. This resulted in the current situation in which "compact disc" and "hard disk" are spelled differently.

Now... When "ae" is used at the end of a Latin word, it is technically pronounced "eye." I say "technically" because it's confusing that the "real" pronunciation of "alumnae" sounds like the the popular pronunciation of "alumni" (which "really" should be pronounced "ah-loom-nee" which probably only happens inside a Latin classroom.

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I pronounce alumni to rhyme with knee, and alumnae to rhyme with nigh, as do most of the British people I know. – Henry Oct 3 '13 at 23:47

Encyclopaedia is a Greek work. It is a compound word and it has three morphemes: en - cyclo - paedia, meaning in - cycle - education (general education).Paedia comes from the Greek word παιδεία /pε:δΙ'Λ/. So, the spelling is influenced by the Greek spelling just like all the other Greek words mentioned above in other posts. In some cases pronunciation stays the same as in Greek like in anaesthetic.

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You may be mixing up the IPA pronunciation symbol æ and the alphabetic letter æ.

In English text, the letter is used as a slightly old-fashioned form of the Latin digraph ae (also in Latin-mediated Greek words) and in some names from Danish, Norwegian, Old English and a few other languages that use the letter natively.

The pronunciation doesn't have to be anything like the IPA [æ].

For Latin loanwords in ordinary English text, it's essentially equivalent to the letter "e" (so always "encyclopEEdia", "julius cEEsar") but in the study of Latin language and culture it's common to pronounce names and terms in ways more similar to how the original speakers did.

In Danish (etc.) names, you'd adapt to what ever approach you would otherwise use for those names in English text. It may end up actually sounding like the IPA [æ].

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I have never heard an American say it any other way than "Encyclo-pee-dia". I have no research to back up that pronunciation, but you will not sound strange if you say it that way. (among Americans)

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It's the same in Britain; the difference is that anaemia, for example, is here pronounced with the long e but spelt ae. OPs question seems to spring from a transatlantic misunderstanding. – TimLymington Jun 13 '12 at 23:06

The Danish alphabet has both the mentioned vocals, ae = æ and oe = ø. Æ is pronounced very close to e in echo, and when I read the English word encyclopædia I naturally pronounce it as described, confusing an American listener. ø or oe is pronounced as the German ö, also as a single sound. Needless to say, I'm Danish.

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The question specifically asked about rules for "ae" in general, not about the pronunciation of the specific word "encyclopaedia" or about the pronunciation in other languages. – sumelic Jan 18 at 18:25

protected by tchrist May 25 '14 at 18:01

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