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Is there an etymological explanation to this? Why is "meta" pronounced ˈmɛtə while "beta" is pronounced ˈbeɪtə or ˈbiːtə?

(Pronunciations taken from Cambridge Dictionaries Online)

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    Related: english.stackexchange.com/questions/11363/… – user66974 May 19 '15 at 8:28
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    Letters are never pronounced. Sounds get written down. The question should be "why are the spellings the same". The question "why are the pronunciations different" makes no sense. The pronunciations are different because these are two different words. – RegDwigнt May 19 '15 at 9:01
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    @RegDwigнt Derrida would disagree with your first two sentences, and find the third irrelevant. The final is true independently of the preceding claims that you make. (-: – Sycorax May 19 '15 at 13:42
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    @DogLover the only "r" sound in "water" is at the end of the word. And the "t" sound isn't dropped—it's flapped – nohat May 19 '15 at 16:07
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I guess the easiest explanation is that the vowels that are represented by the English e are different in the Greek words.

beta => βήτα
meta => μετα

Pronunciation of (originally) Greek words and their individual phonemes is, alas, not always straightforward, consistent or logical.Different words were borrowed at different times, and from different sources (straight from Greek, or through Latin, Italian, French, etc.).

In general, we should also make a distinction between words and prefixes from Greek, and the names of Greek letters. Especially in the case of the names of Greek letters, there are many differences in pronunciation, as you can see in the link that Josh61 mentioned in his comment. Why do we pronounce those names in so many ways? Well, it seems that people have been using Greek letters in science for a long time, and the first thing we learn when we learn Greek is reciting the alphabet. However, modern Greek pronounces those letters quite differently from how the ancient Greeks used to do it, and our understanding of how they were pronounced has evolved over the years.

At the same time, the names of the letters are used in everyday speech and they are used by people that do not study classical Greek. Those speakers may well pronounce the names of the letters based on the English spelling.

With words that were borrowed, pronunciation often has little to do with spelling (rather, spelling follows pronunciation!) and the (perceived) pronunciation of the borrowed word is often largely retained.

So when we look at the η, we notice that it usually gets rendered as an i: in English (similar to modern Greek), for example:

Ἀκαδημία -> academia
ᾍδης -> Hades

When we look at the ε, it usually gets rendered as e:

μέλας -> (melas) -> melancholy
μέθοδος -> method

There are, however, exceptions in both cases, like ἐγώ -> ego.

So, in short, beta gets pronounced the way it does because it is not an exception to the general rule that an η becomes an i: and meta gets pronounced because it also is no exception to the general rule that an ε gets pronounced as an e.

However, there are plenty of exception to those "rules", especially when it comes to the pronunciation of the names of Greek letters.

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    I don't think it's at all as simple as that -"omega" usually is pronounced with the same vowel as "beta", but it comes from Greek "ὦ μέγα" with epsilon. – sumelic May 19 '15 at 13:49
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    @sumelic: Pronunciation of individual Greek letters differs between speakers, but I pronounce the e in omega the same as the e in mega, and the same as the e in meta. Do you pronounce it with an [i:]? In most words that feature the Greek mega-, I assume the pronunciation fits meta-, as my simplistic approach would predict. – oerkelens May 19 '15 at 13:57
  • @sumelic That ("omega") is the difference between British and American pronunciation, apparently. The British is the more correct IMO because "omega" ("Ωμέγα") is spelled with a short e (i.e. epsilon not eta) in Greek ... though it does have that accent on the e so etc. – ChrisW May 19 '15 at 15:27
  • I think this is mostly right, but you do have to consider how they came through Latin, and how Latin came to us via three separate paths, natural assimilation, British academic pronunciation and continental or 'Church' pronunciation. The three usually split wide over etas. Beta is 'Beeta' or 'Bayta' or 'Behta' depending on the path. (It is pretty much "Veetheh" in modern Greek, to my MidWestern American ear.) And they agree on epsilons. Meta is almost always "Mehta", but can become "Mayta" when someone academic is over-correcting for training in bad Church Latin. – jobermark May 19 '15 at 16:10
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    And Latin lost vowel quantity a while after that for mid vowels; most Romance languages distinguish between lax [ε] and tense [e], at least allophonically or morphologically. Note the ie and ue conjugations in Spanish, for instance. – John Lawler May 29 '15 at 16:45
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There is probably no real reason, but I think the following interesting extract can help understand:

  • Both have come in to American English, or gotten POPULAR or WELL KNOWN in American English, at very different times. ... Remember that 500 and 600 years ago, education (European, but also British -- 'American' hadn't been invented yet :-) and scholarship was passed on by those who learned Latin, Hebrew, and ... Greek. (Not English.) I'm betting all those late-medieval 'scholars' had to be taught their 'alpha beta' before they even began with the language study, proper, of real Greek. A 'bey-ta' pronunciation may have stuck with us from the 'alpha beta' of those years? .. Well, maybe.
  • 'Meta' (mu is the Greek alphabet letter for 'm', right?, not 'meta'...) got better known and more widespread in English words much later -- whether in metaphor or metabolism or other words -- compared to the 'alpha-beta' rote learning/chanting that was common 300-500 years before it. Different 'entry-times,' different pronunciations for what looks identical.... For whatever reason, meta is 'meh-ta' and not 'mey-ta'. (No, I don't know why the difference; but I suspect that's what happened, and in rough outline, how it might have happened...)

Beta:

  • second letter of the Greek alphabet, c. 1300, from Greek, from Hebrew/Phoenician beth (see alphabet); used to designate the second of many things. Beta radiation is from 1899 (Rutherford). Beta particle is attested from 1904.

Metaphor: ( probably one of the first meta- words that entered the English language.

  • late 15c., from Middle French metaphore (Old French metafore, 13c.), and directly from Latin metaphora, from Greek metaphora "a transfer," especially of the sense of one word to a different word, literally "a carrying over," from metapherein "transfer, carry over; change, alter; to use a word in a strange sense," from meta- "over, across" (see meta-) + pherein "to carry, bear" (see infer).

(Etymonline)

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    This answer seems based on two incorrect assumptions: that the Greek words have the same E vowel, and that that vowel is pronounced ey when neither are. – OrangeDog May 19 '15 at 13:31
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In french beta can be pronounced /bɛ.ta/, /be.ta/ ou /bɛ.tɑ/ while meta is pronounced /me.ta/.

I think the difference is basically how the language pronounces the "e".

(I pronounce those identically)


On wiktionary this is mentionned :

Pronunciation

(UK) IPA(key): /ˈbiːtə/

(US) enPR: bāʹtə, IPA(key): /ˈbeɪtə/

  • But in English, the e can be pronounced as i: or as e (or in quite some other ways) so it doesn't explain why beta and meta are pronounced with different e-sounds. – oerkelens May 29 '15 at 9:29
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    English letters are not pronounced. They are arbitrary and do not reflect pronunciation. As to why meta and beta are pronounced differently, they were borrowed into English at different times, by different people, for different purposes. Naturally they aren't the same in pronunciation; it's only an accident when that happens. – John Lawler May 29 '15 at 16:42
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The Hebrew/Phoenician word beth is in modern Arabic beyt (Haus). So it is not astonishing that in Greek the word is written with eta, and not with epsilon, and that in English the pronounciation is different from meta.

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The pronunciation is different because of the spelling. Swapping pronunciations leads to different spellings which yield fake words, namely, betta and maida.

  • I don't understand the logic of this answer... – sumelic May 30 '15 at 17:49
  • Insofar as the question is 'Why is “meta” pronounced differently to “beta”?', my thinking is just that simple. – Ron Royston May 30 '15 at 17:52
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    But the question is that the vowels and all that follows them in these words are spelled the same. But the words do not rhyme. So how can you say that the pronunciation "is different because of the spelling"? – sumelic May 30 '15 at 17:53

protected by tchrist Jun 22 '15 at 11:55

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