I actually want to present this question in two parts:

1) First of all, xenos comes from ξένος. Nevertheless, it is pronounced with "z" instead of "ks" (/ks/). How come?

2) Let's take the word "xenocide" (the killing of xenos - strangers). Should 'Xe' be pronounced as "ze" or "zee"? In popular culture, you usually see "zee" being used. But, in the context of xenocide, there is a clear connection with genocide (/ˈʤɛnəsaid/, [jen-uh-sahyd]). What should be preferred?

I always pronounced it "zee-no-cide".

For easy reference:


As another example, take "Xena".


4 Answers 4


English (and most other European languages) imported many of the Greek roots it uses a long time ago -- long enough that ordinary sound changes took place subsequently which modified the original Greek pronunciations. Just as we no longer pronounce Anglo-Saxon words the same as the Anglo-Saxons did, we no longer pronounce Ancient Greek words the same as the Ancient Greeks did. In particular the Great Vowel Shift of around 1500 CE significantly changed the way we pronounce vowels. Looking at the Greek eta έ [ɛː] vowel:

Middle English [ɛː] --> [eː] --> modern English [iː]

..giving us "ee" [iː] instead of "eh" [ɛ:] for the sound of the vowel in xenocide.

The other part of your question is covered in this Eng.SE question. Basically, many Greek roots came to English through French and then were simplified to meet English phonotactic constraints. So Gk [ks] --> Fr [gz] --> En [z].

(Interestingly enough, a similar thing happened in Greek itself, though not to ε. E.g. the letter η (eta) is now pronounced [ita], among many other changes.)

  • 6
    Well I'm English and I've never pronounced (nor heard pronounced) xeno- with a long ee sound. It's always "zenno-".
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:07
  • 1
    @AndrewLeach And yup, the OED seems to admit only "zenno". Every time someone asks the general way pronounce something in English it turns out there is no general way. Two cultures separated by a common language, indeed! Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 19:24
  • @MarkBeadles, any references for Gk [ks]=>Fr [gz]=>En [z], besides the OED? cf. Chaucer "Santippa" but Shakespeare "Zantippe"? It would seem it could have been [ks]=>[s]=>[z].
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 21:01
  • @AlexB. I am just repeating what was selected as correct in that other Eng.SE question. That may be incorrect, in which case it would be better answered over there. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 1:09
  • Yipes. OED has "xenon" with a short E. As an American, I must say I have never heard that.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 14:30

No English speaker ever says a word that begins with /ks/. This cluster can occur in certain contractions, but speakers will deny that they say it, because it is a speech contraction and they think they're saying prototype words instead of physical sounds.

The same is true for Latin, French, Italian, and pretty much all European languages that English has borrowed words from. Except Ancient Greek. From which all European languages have borrowed words, usually spelled with X, which is a letter pronounced quite variously in European languages.

Mostly they've all had to consider the /k/ silent, and then either voice the /z/ part or devoice the /s/ part. Mostly English voices it to /z/, so xeno- is pronounced /zino-/.

As to how to pronounce a Greek vowel in English, that varies with a lot of factors, like how long ago the word was borrowed, and how many sound changes it has been through since then. We call the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle /pai/ because the word was borrowed, with a long /i:/, straight from Greek /pi:/ before the Great Vowel Shift (GVS) that changed all the /i:/ phonemes in English to /ai/ phonemes.

If the xeno- prefix was borrowed before the GVS, its vowel should be /i/; but if it was borrowed after the GVS, it should be /ɛ/ or possibly /e/. However, as it happens, it's always pronounced /i/; so, whenever it turns out to have been borrowed, it's actually pronounced as if it was borrowed a long time ago.

  • Can you give example or a reference for the contractions you refer to with /ks/ ? Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 4:45
  • 1
    'Xactly' , pronounced as /'gzækli/ or /'ksækli/ is a shortened version of exactly, for instance. Initial unstressed vowels are often shortened to reduce syllables; the Greeks had special terms for initial, medial, and final vowel (and therefore syllable) deletion. It's a very normal phenomenon in all languages. Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 14:26

No home-grown English words begin with the sound represented by Greek ξ or (except words like 'x-ray') with the sound represented by ‘x’. /z/ is the next best thing.

  • 3
    He's actually asking about the 'e' phoneme in the second part of his question.
    – chaos
    Commented Jun 11, 2012 at 18:01

Actually, I haven't found xenocide listed as a normal word in any dictionary. It is the title of a novel by Orson Scott Card, in which it is used as a word.

So let's look at another, more common word with the prefix xeno-: xenophobia. Onelook Dictionary Search reveals that the vowel can be pronounced either /ɛ/ or /iː/.

This kind of variation in vowel length is actually common for many combining forms taken from Greek. There are some contexts where vowel letters are almost always pronounced short (before a doubled consonant or a consonant cluster that can't start a word) and some contexts where they are almost always pronounced long (before a single consonant followed by a silent e), but there are also contexts where there is no clear rule.

Unfortunately, there is no general rule for the length of vowels before a single consonant followed by the linking vowel o. They may be either short or long, depending on multiple factors such as which vowel letter it is, what the etymological vowel was in Classical languages, and which specific word you're looking at.

The pronunciation of the letter e in this context may be influenced by etymology according to the following principle: roots with a short vowel in Classical languages (such as Greek ε or Latin ĕ) tend to be pronounced in English with short e /ɛ/, while roots with a long vowel in Classical languages (such as Greek η or Latin ē) or with a diphthong (such as Greek αι, οι, Latin ae, oe) tend to be pronounced in English with long e /iː/.

Here are the combining forms I've found that are pronounced according to this principle:

Long e: eco-, feto-, kineto-, magneto-, meco-, spheno-, thero-
Short e: necro-, steno-

There are nearly as many possible exceptions to this principle as there are roots that follow it. The one definite exception: the root stetho- in stethoscope comes from Greek στηθο, with a long vowel, but it seems to be universally pronounced with short e. All of the other exceptions I've found consist of roots that had a short vowel in Classical languages and show variation between short and long pronunciations in modern English: astheno-, cteno-, geno-, meso-, telo-, and xeno-.

The Oxford English Dictionary has a note mentioning this variation in its entry for meso-:

N.E.D. (1906) gives only the pronunciation (me·so) /ˈmesoʊ/ . Variants in which the first syllable is pronounced with a long vowel appear to represent spelling pronunciations, rather than the outcome of any regular phonetic development. They are first explicitly recorded in dictionaries of the first half of the twentieth century, although the absence of earlier evidence may perhaps reflect conservatism motivated by an awareness of the short vowel in the classical Greek etymon.

For most of the other roots I mentioned, the Oxford English Dictionary seems to prefer forms with /ɛ/: it only lists /ˈzɛnəʊ/ for the pronunciation of xeno-. So apparently this is the more conservative pronunciation. It's a matter of opinion whether this makes it more preferable.

Xena is different. For one thing, it's a name, so the pronunciation is more fixed than for most words. The pronunciation that was used in the television series seems to have been /ˈziː.nə/, and it would be unusual to deviate from this even if you pronounce xenophobia with /ɛ/.

The other way Xena is different is the morpho-phonological context. The root here is not before the linking vowel -o-, but before a Classical inflectional suffix, -a (according to Wikipedia, the name is adapted from the feminine form of the Greek adjective ξένος). In this context, a vowel followed by a single consonant is often lengthened: even people who pronounce genotype as /ˈdʒɛnəˌtaɪp/ pronounce genus as /ˈdʒiːnəs/.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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