Autophagy is defined as:

Biology: Consumption of the body’s own tissue as a metabolic process occurring in starvation and certain diseases. lexico.com

It also provides a pronunciation:


The Cambridge dictionary confirms this pronunciation, as does M-W Medical.

lexico.com lists the origin, as well:

Mid 19th century from auto- + -phagy.

Essentially, the etymology is "self" + "eating."

The pronunciation seems to follow a syllabification of au / toph / a / gy , with an emphasis on a non-sequitur "toph." To this (American English) reader, a more sensible syllabification would be au / to / pha / gy.

Why don't the syllabification and pronunciation reflect the etymology?

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    If you were to follow that line of logic. Then there would be no American English. – Brad Aug 18 '19 at 12:59
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    I'm not aware of a -phagy word that does not follow this form. It appears that the "ph" is almost always preceded by a vowel, and the vowel and the "ph" are combined into a syllable, separate from the "agy" syllable. – Hot Licks Aug 18 '19 at 13:12
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    @rajah9 Similarly for macrophagy vs autophage. This has nothing directly to do with etymology as such; it’s purely a matter of stress-based vowel variation in English. A stressed theme vowel (the ‘combining -o-’ used in Graeco-Latin compounds) is, as far as I can think, always pronounced /ɒ/, never /oʊ/. That syllabification is automatic in English, regardless of etymology (cf. also verbal re/córd vs nominal réc/ord. Syllabification happens synchronically in any given language; etymology is by definition diachronic; they are very separate things. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 18 '19 at 13:52
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    @user888379 Probably more to do with the fact that automaton was borrowed directly from Greek, whereas automobile is French (coined from a mix of Greek and Latin elements). In general, stress retention is more common in recognisably Classical borrowings than in ones that come through French or German, where adaption to inherited English stress patterns (with a preference for initial stress) is more frequent. But frequency of usage also plays a part sometimes – hard to say. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 18 '19 at 14:06
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is based on a false premise that orthography prescribes pronunciation. – marcellothearcane Aug 18 '19 at 20:39

This is not unique to the pronunciation of autophagy

There is no principle saying that the pronunciation of a word must always divide it into parts that correspond to its etymological components. That's just the way compounds formed in English from English words (like paperhanger) tend to be pronounced. But not all compounds are formed in English from English words.

The pronunciation /ɔːˈtɒfədʒi/ for autophagy follows a very common pronunciation pattern for Greek-derived compound words ending in -y. I describe it in my answer to the similar previous question Pronunciation of tetrameter, pentameter, etc. There are scores of other words pronounced like this, including biology (and -ology words in general).*

Sometimes multiple stress patterns are possible for a word like this

For certain words of this type, it seems to be somewhat common for some speakers to use the stress pattern of English compound words instead. For example, the John Wells quotation in my linked answer talks about "cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, paramedics and nurses" using the pronunciation /ˌθrɒmbəʊˈlaɪsɪs/ for thrombolysis. My high school chemistry teacher used the pronunciation /haɪdroʊˈlaɪsɪs/ for hydrolysis: she was aware of the pronunciation with stress on the second syllable, but consciously chose to pronounce it with stress on the first and third syllable in the classroom to emphasize the etymology/structure of the word in her lectures.

The pronunciations of rare scientific terms are often not as fixed as the pronunciations of other, more common words. Many scientists don't care that much about pronouncing things according to a system, and the ones that do care about it don't all agree about what the system should be. I wouldn't expect anyone to start pronouncing biology as /baɪoʊ.loʊdʒi/ or astronomy as /æstroʊ.noʊmi/, but it seems more plausible that some scientists might use a pronunciation like /ˈɔːtoʊˌfeɪdʒi/. You'd have to listen to find out; I found what seems to be one example through Youglish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AA7akJ21ZI&feature=youtu.be&t=493

*Side note on syllabification

The syllabification of words like this is actually a bit of a controversial issue in linguistics. Some linguists would say that /ɔːˈtɒfədʒi/ and /baɪˈɒlədʒi/ are divided into the syllables /ɔːˈtɒ.fə.dʒi/ and /baɪˈɒ.lə.dʒi/. It's clear that English words tend not to end in vowels like /ɒ/, but it's a little less obvious that this restriction applies to stressed word-internal syllables.

If we consider the stressed syllable to be /ˈtɒf/ rather than /ˈtɒ/, the explanation would be either that stressed syllables in English tend to "capture" adjacent consonants, or that stressed "short vowels" in particular tend to "capture" a following consonant.

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    Forcing each component to retain its original, uncombined stress (and hence also reduction) makes everything sound like some sort of hyphenated word, so like extra-ordinary /ˈɛkst͡ʃrə ˈordəˌneri/ ɴᴏᴛ /ɪksˈt͡ʃrɔrdəˌneri/; photo-graphy /ˈfoto ˈgræfi/ ɴᴏᴛ /fəˈtɔgrəfi/; homo-genous /ˈhomo ˈd͡ʒinəs/ ɴᴏᴛ /həˈmɔd͡ʒənəs/; andro-geny /ˈænd͡ʒro ˈd͡ʒini/ ɴᴏᴛ /ænˈd͡ʒrɔd͡ʒəni/; iso-sceles /ˈaɪso ˈsiliz/ ɴᴏᴛ /aɪˈsɔsəˌliz/. These sound like they mean something else, like if androgenies meant only boy djinni not girl ones. :) – tchrist Aug 18 '19 at 19:56
  • As your answer (and linked answer) state: syllabification and pronunciation are controversial issues in linguistics. Your examples show how that promiscuous short vowel can capture a following consonant. And @tchrist, your examples gave me a wonderful insight into how often this phenomenon occurs. – rajah9 Aug 19 '19 at 15:00
  • @rajah9 Related to your autophagy case are an even more ungainly (read: cacophonous) pair of examples in two words describing fish-eating creatures or diets: ichthyo-phagous would be /ˈɪkθio ˈfæɡəs/ not /ɪkθiˈɔfəɡəs/, and pisci-vorous would be /ˈpɪsi ˈvorəs/ not /pɪˈsɪvərəs/. To a native speaker, the “bogus” pronunciations have deeply nasty mishearings. Similarly you would no more dare risk autophagous ever being heard as /ˈɔto ˈfægəs/ not /ɔˈtɔfəgəs/ than cacophonus ever being head as /ˈk[e∼æ∼ɑ]ko ˈfonʌs/ instead of /kəˈkɔfənəs/. :) – tchrist Aug 19 '19 at 16:01
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    antithesis, omnipotent, hyperbole, superfluous... – Nardog Aug 26 '19 at 17:21

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