Funnily enough, the word orthoepy (or orthoëpy) meaning “(the study of) correct (or standard) pronunciation” has no single established correct pronunciation: it may be stressed on either the first or the second syllable (there is also variation in the pronunciation of the vowel in the penult syllable).

I’m curious about how the variant with stress on the first syllable originated, and how it has been justified by the orthoepists who have favored it. (A Wordnik blog post by Charles Harrington Elster, the author of “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations”, seems to say that he favors the first-syllable stress only because “authorities have ... long countenanced” it and because he thinks it better emphasizes the root “ortho”; this seems like a lame explanation to me.)

The earliest source I am familar with that describes this pronunciation is John Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1824). Walker says it is accented on the first (pre-antepenult) syllable, citing Elphinston and Nares (p. 429). It’s not clear from his respelling system whether he means for the penult syllable to have secondary stress and a long vowel (/i:/) or no stress and a reduced vowel /ɪ/, as Walker seems to transcribe both of these sounds as e².

In an earlier section about general principles of stress placement in compounds derived from Greek he gives the following odd justification for this stress pattern: “Orthoëpy, having no consonant in the antepenultimate syllable, naturally throws its accent on the first” (p. 54).

I don’t understand why this seemed “natural” to Walker. Walker loved analogies; are there any other Greek compound words where this happens that I’ve missed? I actually can only think of counterexamples, such as psychiatry.

In fact, I wasn’t able to find any other Greek-derived or Latinate words of any type ending in "V.VCy" that had stress earlier than the antepenult. There are a lot of words like sponta’neity with antepenult stress on a vowel in an open syllable. I did find polyploidy, haploidy, diploidy but in these words the “oi” is pronounced as a diphthong rather than as two vowels in hiatus, so they don’t really seem to have the same structure. (I also found the words breviary and zedoary, but I disregarded these as they end in the suffix “-ary” < Latin “-arium/-aria/-arius” and words with this suffix tend to follow different principles of stress).

I realize this question may seem to be a matter of opinion. But, I don’t actually want an answer that describes your preferred pronunciation. I want to learn facts relevant to the pronunciation of this word, in particular:

  • whether there are any words that back up Walker’s idea that antepenultimate syllables that don’t have a consonant after them are less likely to be stressed

  • whether any of Walker’s contemporaries or precursors gave a different explanation for why this word is, or should be stressed on the first syllable.

I don’t think these are matters of opinion. 
Also, note that this is not a duplicate of either of my previous questions about the position of stress in specific other words, Why does "stigmata" [often] have penult stress? and Can the stress pattern of "uroboros/ouroboros" be explained by any principle, or is it random? Those questions were just open-ended “why is this word stressed this way” questions; in this question I’m specifically focusing on the two points listed above (if there are any analogous words with the same stress pattern, and whether anyone discussing the pronunciation of this word in the past gave another justification than the ones Walker and Elster give).

  • 1
    "Nominative indeterminism" comes to mind here! I didn't even know the word until now, but the first (primary?) definition in the full OED is the linguistics-based study of the relationship between pronunciation and a system of writing or spelling. Which presumably concerns what people actually say (not "correctness" - what they should say). But they do say English speech patterns favour "iambic pentameter", and I myself would be more likely to go for stress on the second syllable if I'd had to guess. – FumbleFingers Dec 8 '16 at 18:31
  • @FumbleFingers: Yeah, Elster actually laments the OED's current definition in one of his later blog posts. The word isn't really used any more; the vocabulary.com entry on "orthoepist" notes that this word refers especially to "one of the 17th or 18th century scholars who proposed to reform English spelling so it would reflect pronunciation more closely". – sumelic Dec 8 '16 at 18:44
  • I recall that some time ago several people here were commenting along the lines of Wouldn't it be great if we could adopt an orthography that really reflected pronunciation? John Lawler pointed out that since pronunciation constantly changes, any such system wouldn't necessarily be useful for long anyway. – FumbleFingers Dec 8 '16 at 18:51
  • @FumbleFingers - My understanding is that there is a standards body in Spain that "controls" Spanish spelling and that changes the spelling if the pronunciation changes. (Or at least this is what I was told about 50 years ago.) – Hot Licks Dec 22 '16 at 18:59

Looking at words beginning with ortho- there seem to be two possible pronunciations:

/ɔːrˈθɒ-/ as in orthogonal or orthography,
/ˈɔːrθə-/ as in orthodox or orthodontist,

where the second pronunciation has primary or secondary stress on the first syllable.

But in English phonology, the vowel /ɒ/ must be followed by a consonant, so the first pronunciation is ruled out for orthoepy. This is presumably what Walker meant when he said “Orthoëpy, having no consonant in the antepenultimate syllable, naturally throws its accent on the first” (1822).

You could also pronounce orthoepy /ɔːrˈθoʊ.iː.pi/. This seems to be what Robert Nares meant when he said that "the accented vowel is long in the antepenultima" (1782). However, there aren't any other words where ortho- is pronounced this way. I suspect this discouraged people from using it.

  • Thanks, I hadn't thought about the role of analogy. To clarify, Nares shows it as "ōrthoepy", oddly enough. But maybe the accent was transposed by a typing error. – sumelic Dec 22 '16 at 19:07

SPE offers a couple of analyses that might be relevant. (1) They treat Greek-like prefixes such as "photo-", "pseudo-", "amino-" as being something like separate words (if I recall correctly, which I'm not sure I do), and (2) they suggest the final "-y" in words like "presidency" is (as the spelling suggests) a phonological glide, not a vowel, which is why it doesn't cause a heavy penult to be stressed.

If the first morpheme of "orthoëpy" is being treated as though "ortho" is a separate word, the second "o" can be unstressed and diphthongized, like the final "o" of "motto" (and unlike the "o" of "Plato"). But a word ending in a consonant (after the antepenult of "Orthoëpy", i.e.) would not work this way.

  • Thanks, that seems relevant. I'll have to think about this for a bit. What is the evidence that "motto" and "Plato" differ? I think I pronounce the final syllable the same in both of these words. – sumelic Dec 11 '16 at 22:35
  • SPE has a discussion. "Plato" has a secondary stress on the last syllable, which prevents preceding "t" from flapping. "Motto" has no stress on the last syllable, so the "t" flaps. The "o" of "plato" was vowel-shifted, unlike the last "o" of "motto". (Not all English speakers will agree to these facts -- but I agree.) "Motto" is like "city", where also the last vowel is unstressed, but diphthongized because it's word final. (Unstressed vowels are also diphthongized immediately before other vowels.) – Greg Lee Dec 11 '16 at 22:43
  • 1
    Oh, I see. I was confused because I do flap the t in "Plato". As you say, it probably depends on the speaker. – sumelic Dec 11 '16 at 22:44

I thought I’d update this as I decided to look at Elphinston and Nares, the sources Walker cites.

I was able to confirm that they both put the stress on the first syllable of “orthoepy”. Neither of them seems to give the same “no consonant in coda of antepenult” explanation that Walker does, so my best guess at the moment is that Walker came up with this explanation himself.

Robert Nares, in Elements of Orthoepy (1784), lists “orthoepy” as a word with “the accented vowel long in the antepenultima”. I don’t know what he means by saying the stressed vowel is long. Overall, Nares doesn’t seem incredibly concerned with explaining things; a lot of his book is just lists of words that belong to certain categories. On page 185, he also mentions potential pre-antepenult stress in the pronunciation of some other words such as academy, receptacle etc. (although “academy” at least has the justification that the “e” was long in Latin).

James Elphinston, in Propriety Ascertained in Her Picture, Vollume [sic] I (1786), spells the word “orthoeppy” and makes it clear that he stressed it on the first (pre-antepenult) syllable, with secondary stress on the third (penult). The passage where this is mentioned seemed to me informative enough to reproduce here:

Stres, like all elſe in our language, reduced now to’ ſcience; no word can hav doutfool emphatticizement. Dhe ſame ranks indeed dhat penultimately rely on a caracter of ov industry, ſo contrary to’ dhe ellegant antepenultimate enfoarcement, may be herd on the ſame penultimate key to’ tune dheir edducacion from an academy. Dhe Inglish clas juſt above muſt be bred at an accademy, az hoo ſhal arrain its accrimony? Yet elegant Nature in acaddemy with anattomy, az in anallogy with ſupremmacy ; in monnarky and theoccracy, geoggraphy and orthoggrapy, owns antepenultimate power. Such iz dhe unequal conteſt between dhe firſt and ſecond ov pollygamy and polyggamy. Manny tetraſyllabels, howevver, lay dheir primmary ſtres on dhe firſt, and conſequently, dheir seccondary on dhe third ſyllabel : az, pallinody, olligarky, hierarky, orthoeppy, ignominny, contumely, contumacy, cerremony, pattrimony, aggriculture, arbitrary, preffatory, and, in ſpite ov neceſſity, acces, direct, refreſh, conſiſt, all ſtrong on dhe ſeccond ; neſceſſary, acceſſary and acceſſory, dirrectory, reffectory, conſiſtory ; all ſtrong on dhe firſt ſyllabel. Stil dheze doo but ſpeak dactyllian regard to’ antepenultimate power, treating dhe laſt ſyllabel az a ſupernumerary.

So like Nares, he mentions “academy” used to have a variant pronunciation with initial stress, and he gives the additional similar example of “polygamy” (although he indicates that the pronunciation with antepenult stress was more common) and “ignominy” (which is quite interesting, since I can’t see any explanation for the initial stress in this word either).

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation.


The Oxford English Dictionary lists five pronunciations. From the ODO Community Forums:

"I think much of the variation can be explained as the result of different English pronunciations of Latin at different periods. Each variant may have seemed the logical way to pronounce the Latin-based word at the time. But then old pronunciations must have lived on while new ones were being invented." (David Crosbie)

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