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The word elytra refers to

one of the anterior wings in beetles and some other insects that serve to protect the posterior pair of functional wings

according to Merriam-Webster. The word is also the name of rare wings in the game Minecraft (and similar concepts in many other games AFAIK).

The pronunciation given by Merriam-Webster is \ˈe-​lə-​trə\, which translates to /ˈɛlətrə/ in IPA.

Other somewhat reliable sources also say one of /ˈɛlɪtrə/, /ˈɛlətrə/, and /ˈɛlaɪtrə/:

(In fact, many dictionaries don't list this word at all.)


However, it seems that the pronunciation /ˈɛlɪtrə/ or /ˈɛlaɪtrə/ does not reflect actual pronunciation. Almost every time a YouTuber read this word, I hear either

  • /ɪˈlaɪtrə/ (or /əˈlaɪtrə/); or

  • /ɪˈliːtrə/ (or /əˈliːtrə/).

In the recent YouTube video Minecraft, But We Can't Stop Flying... (no spam intended), for instance, YouTubers GeorgeNotFound (British; 0:11) and Dream (American; 2:35) both pronounced the word as /ɪˈlaɪtrə/ (or /əˈlaɪtrə/). In another Minecraft video, YouTuber Grian (British; 0:27) read /ɪˈliːtrə/ (or /əˈliːtrə/). So far, the former seems to be the more prevalent pronunciation among speakers with both British and American accents, but the fact that the common pronunciation contradicts the pronunciation listed in dictionaries and other sources surprises me.

Searching for "elytra" on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange returned no results at the time of this writing. Is my observation correct? Or maybe there's something more about this word that I'm missing?

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    When you only read a word, and never hear it spoken, you may not come up with the standard pronunciation. My guess some of those YouTubers are in this category, and the other have heard only the earlier YouTubers. How about finding some entomologists pronouncing elytra (the plural of elytron). – GEdgar Apr 27 at 12:21
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    The natural tendency for English speakers who have never heard the word would be to stress the second syllable. On the other hand, it is a Greek word that is accented on the first syllable in its native language and I suspect etymologists pronounce it that way. – Peter Shor Apr 27 at 12:35
  • @GEdgar I did a YouTube search for "entomology elytra" and the videos I checked read /ɪˈlaɪtrə/. I guess I need a more reliable source for that ... – L. F. Apr 27 at 13:49
  • I am not a native English speaker, but it takes a huge effort for me to pronounce it with the first syllable stressed. I cannot stress anything other than the second syllable. – Anixx Apr 28 at 6:11
  • @Anixx - How do you pronounce Bellatrix? – Jim Apr 28 at 7:07
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Like many concepts, "correct" pronunciation isn't an entirely real thing. One school of thought is that any pronunciation that is widely used without negative repercussions by educated native speakers can be considered "correct".

If you want to know about what pronunciation would be expected based on things like rules, however, it would be /ˈɛlɪtrə/ (which in some accents is automatically replaced with /ˈɛlətrə/), based on the etymology. This situation with this word is somewhat complicated, though, which makes it hard to be too certain about declaring /ˈɛlɪtrə/ the single correct prounciation.

There is a rule that in English words taken from Greek or Latin, stress goes on the syllable that was or would be stressed in Latin.* In the case of elytra, because the y in the second-to-last syllable is short in Greek, the stress in Latin would regularly be placed on the third-to-last syllable. There is a small complication: the consonant cluster tr could optionally be divided between syllables in Greek and Latin, and this would cause the Latin stress to be regularly placed on the second-to-last syllable.

The pronunciation /ɪˈlaɪtrə/ or /əˈlaɪtrə/ would be regular if the Greek word had originally had a long vowel in the second syllable. Since there's no way to know the original length of the vowel without looking up the etymology, /ɪˈlaɪtrə/ or /əˈlaɪtrə/ is a plausible guess based on the spelling for the pronunciation of the word.

The pronunciation /ˈɛlaɪtrə/ is a less plausible guess: not many words have /aɪ/ in an unstressed syllable like this. I wouldn't put much trust in an unsourced Wikipedia pronunciation as evidence for more than a single person's idea about how this word is pronounced.

The pronunciation /ɪˈliːtrə/ or /əˈliːtrə/ does not follow the normal rules of English spelling/pronunciation correspondences; it looks like an attempt to partially apply foreign spelling correspondences. There isn't any particular reason to consider that correct for this word, but there also isn't a clear basis for saying that it is definitely incorrect either.


*However, many words have frequent pronunciations that violate that rule. For example, abdomen is frequently stressed on the first syllable, even though it has stress on the second syllable in Latin; and alveolus is frequently stressed on the second-to-last syllable, even though it is stressed on the third-to-last in Latin.

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  • The correct pronunciation of technical words (biochemical, mathematical, etymological) is the way that scientists who use them pronounce them, just the way that the correct pronunciation of place names is the way that people who live the pronounce them. It doesn't matter how many idiotic Americans pronounce the river through London /θeɪmz/, the correct pronuncation is /tɛmz/. – Peter Shor Apr 27 at 12:38
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    @PeterShor: However, it isn't straightforward to define what community should be considered relevant for the purposes of judging "correct pronunciation". Maybe scientists at one lab use one pronunciation and the ones somewhere else use another. And if we're talking about the pronunciation of elytra as the name of a Minecraft item rather than in reference to a body part of a real insect, does that mean that the relevant "experts" actually are Minecraft Youtubers? – herisson Apr 27 at 12:40
  • Actually, google seems to show that some entomologists pronounce it /iˈlaɪtrə/, so what do I know? Maybe the dictionaries are wrong. – Peter Shor Apr 27 at 14:32

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