So, I'm trying to sound smarter than the people to whom I'm pontificating about no-till gardening, and I'd like to include a pronunciation of "mycorrhizae" (which is, of course the plural of mycorrhiza: my-co-RY-zuh) that's, like, correct.

my-co-RY-zay? (which I'm inclined to say) or my-co-RY-zee? (which, frankly, sounds dorky to me) or my-co-RY-zy (like alumnae changed to alumni?) something else I haven't thought of? OK, of which I haven't thought, damn you.


Sincerely - The Compost Goddess

  • Plurals ending in -ae are properly pronounced like I, as they were in Greek and Latin. The ay pronunciation is very common, however, since these words are more often written than spoken, so that the original pronunciation gets forgotten.
    – Anonym
    Feb 28 '15 at 17:53
  • @Anonym: While it's common for people to incorporate parts of the reformed pronunciation of Latin into the pronunciation of Latinate English words nowadays, nobody actually pronounces these words exactly as they would have been pronounced in Latin. As I outline in my answer, there are multiple commonly used pronunciations of this ending, and it's mainly a matter of preference as to which is the most "proper".
    – herisson
    Feb 28 '15 at 18:13
  • 4
    “like alumnae change to alumni” — I’m not sure I understand exactly what you mean here, but just in case: alumni and alumnae are two different words, and they’re pronounced differently. Alumni is [əˈlʌmnaɪ] rhyming with ‘nigh’, and alumnae is [əˈlʌmniː] rhyming with ‘knee’. One hasn’t changed to become the other. Feb 28 '15 at 19:24
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet The frustrating thing is that other traditions virtually reverse those two pronunciations, instead saying alumni and alumnae each as it is spelled rather than saying alumnae for alumni and saying alumni for alumnae.
    – tchrist
    Feb 28 '15 at 19:37
  • 1
    Strongly linked to the following question, since as Cerberus states, most Greek-based words in English are subject to Latin-based transcription and are given a pronunciation based on this: english.stackexchange.com/questions/40671/…
    – herisson
    Jul 13 '15 at 0:17

Mycorrhizae is an English word, not a Greek one. As such, it doesn't have a "Greek" pronunciation, but rather several English pronunciations. It's true that it's derived from Greek, but that's merely a matter of etymology.

The pronunciation in English of the plural suffix -ae that occurs in Latinate or Greek-derived words is actually an area where there is currently some variance.

The traditional way of pronouncing this digraph is as a long e sound /iː/ (think of Caesar and algae). This system of pronouncing Latinate words appears to still be in use among botanists, judging by the essay "How Do You Say That? A Guide to the Perversities of Botanical Latin", by Tom Fischer, which was published in Horticulture magazine in 2000.

You said that this pronunciation sounds "dorky" to you. Luckily for you, pronouncing these words with an "ay" /eɪ̯/ or "eye" /aɪ̯/ sound is also commonly heard nowadays. So you can really choose whatever pronunciation you want, and you'll have people who pronounce it like you do.

  • 3
    /mayko'rayzi/ is the way I hear it pronounced by biologists. Nobody else ever pronounces it. Feb 28 '15 at 18:21
  • Remarkable website - thanks so much. I'm goin' for mayko'rayzi, as I'm groveling for the approval of biologists. Bless you, my children.
    – user112164
    Feb 28 '15 at 18:26
  • Since I am going to see The Mikado tonight, evidence from Gilbert's rhyming seems apropos: "He whistled an air, did he / As the sabre true cut cleanly through / His cervical vertebrae." Feb 28 '15 at 19:48

In Greek, it would have been spelled -αι "ai" and pronounced -/aj/ or -/aʲ/ (I think there is debate about this subtle distinction, which does not matter for us here: it sounds like English eye).

In classical Latin, it would have been pronounced the same as in Greek, -/aj/ or -/aʲ/. Almost all Greek words we have came to us through Latin.

In the older international pronunciation of Latin, which was based on the Romance languages but used throughout Europe, it is -/eː/ or -/eɪ/ or something similar (like English say).

English, however, went through several vowel shifts, part of which was that vowels pronounced like /e/ came to be pronounced like /i/. So the pronunciation of the English word written as see was once like modern say, but has shifted to its modern pronunciation, /siː/. Spelling changed more slowly than pronunciation, or not at all.

The English also applied this shift to words of Latin and Greek origin, because such words on -ae were often or normally pronounced /e/ (modern English say) before the vowel shifts, as I said above. It was often spelled -e instead of -ae in manuscripts, but also even in print, at least until the humanists got their way of restoring the classical spelling -ae.

That is why the traditional English pronunciation of -ae in Latin or Greek words has been like /i/ for a long time. If you want to be conventional, I would pronounce it this way, although other pronunciations are not necessarily stupid: they may correspond to different points of view.

  • "Almost all Greek words we have came to us through Latin". Really? Mar 2 '15 at 0:08
  • @BlessedGeek: Yup, in the sense that they were all first translitterated the Roman way into Latin, then adapted to the various modern languages. So we almost always have -ae for Greek -ai. Mar 2 '15 at 1:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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