/i/ is usually pronounced in English with the vowels: e, ee, ea, ei, ie, and y. What is the origin of the pronunciation of words such as amoeba, phoenix or onomatopoeia?

I got curious about this after going through my daughter's phonics work and realizing that oe is never taught pronounced as /i/. Is this pronunciation of oe non-standard?

  • Are you making a distinction between words like phoenix and bioelectric? What is your daughter taught about -oe-? – Andrew Leach Apr 1 '14 at 6:31
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    @AndrewLeach Yes - fiːnɪks versus ˌbaɪoʊɪˈlɛktrɪk. Right now, she is just learning phonics, so the diagraph oe (toe). – jdphenix Apr 1 '14 at 6:42
  • This is where etymology and hyphens are useful! At the end of a word like toe or floe or sloe (and sloe-like) it's /oʊ/; bio-electric doesn't have -oe- at all; and phœnix and amœba come from Greek. Phonics is only a rudimentary start in reading; but a proper answer here needs a teacher who uses phonics and can explain its methodology. – Andrew Leach Apr 1 '14 at 6:52
  • @AndrewLeach I don't believe the OP was asking in regards to his daughter, but rather out of his own curiosity. I think he just mentioned that he came up with the question while looking at his daughter's work. I imagine teaching the correct pronunciation (and spelling) of words like amoeba, onomatopoeia or foetus can certainly wait until the girl is old enough to know what those are or (in the case of diarrhea) has any need to actually read or write them... – Alicja Z Apr 1 '14 at 6:58
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    @AlicjaZ Exactly. When starting to read, a new reader is hardly going to be introduced to Greek etymology, so phoenix as /i:/ is left out. Phonics is rudimentary, and deliberately so. Enhancements such as unhyphenated bioelectric or Greek amoebae are left till later. That's what I meant; I'm sorry that my comment was unclear. – Andrew Leach Apr 1 '14 at 7:02

So, etymonline provides the following comment:

oe found in Greek borrowings into Latin, representing Greek -oi-. Words with -oe- that came early into English from Old French or Medieval Latin usually already had been levelled to -e- (e.g. economic, penal, cemetery), but later borrowings directly from Latin or Greek tended to retain it at first (oestrus, diarrhoea, amoeba) as did proper names (Oedipus, Phoebe, Phoenix) and purely technical terms. British English tends to be more conservative with it than American, which has done away with it in all but a few instances.

It also occurred in some native Latin words (foedus "treaty, league," foetere "to stink," hence occasionally in English foetid, foederal, which was the form in the original publications of the "Federalist" papers). In these it represents an ancient -oi- in Old Latin (e.g. Old Latin oino, Classical Latin unus), which apparently passed through an -oe- form before being levelled out but was preserved into Classical Latin in certain words, especially those belonging to the realms of law (e.g. foedus) and religion, which, along with the vocabulary of sailors, are the most conservative branches of any language in any time, through a need for precision, immediate comprehension, demonstration of learning, or superstition. But in foetus it was an unetymological spelling in Latin that was picked up in English and formed the predominant spelling of fetus into the early 20c.

So basically the unusual /i/ pronunciation of 'oe' originates from the Greek 'oi' via Latin.

Interestingly, even within the same field of e.g. medicine, while some words seem to be in the process of changing their pronunciation (oestrogen is pronounced both ways), others are still in the /i/ phase (diarrhoea).

That said, the above is likely just a starting point for a better, more thorough answer from somebody else...

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