How many ways to skin a cat?


I don’t usually watch the BBC’s science programme “The Sky at Night”, but last night I accidentally caught the beginning, and was hooked for the full half hour. What struck me, apart from the science, was the number of ways the various participants found to pronounce the name of a star: Proxima Centauri.

Proxima: /ˈprɒksɪmə/, /prɒkˈsiːmə/, and /prɒkˈsɪmə/

Centauri: /senˈtɔːraɪ/, /senˈtɔːri/, /senˈtjʊəri/

No pronunciation of one of the words necessarily corresponded to any one of that of the other, so that there were more than three pronunciations for the phrase (and there weren’t that many more speakers). My own preference would have been for the first in each case: /ˈprɒksɪmə senˈtɔːraɪ/, but I accept that my use of the traditional rendition of Latin vowels in English is now rather old-fashioned. I often hear people use /aɪ/ for the spelling ‘ae’, and /ɪ~i/ for the spelling ‘i’, on the grounds that “That is how they said it in Latin”. Why then will the same people not consistently – or ever – use /k/ for the spelling ‘c’? Or /w/ for the spelling ‘v’? I suspect it is because the “That’s how they said it” argument is being made by people who never learned any Latin formally and so don’t really know what they’re talking about.

But then, when did language ever change because people knew what they were talking about?


  1. Or use less aspirated prevocal stops, or even monophthongs.

  2. Phillip – but that would mean using phonetic detail that is foreign to most non-phoneticians. I don’t think we can expect those who are not trained in the minutiae of English phonetics to produce such sounds fluently.

  3. Absolutely. (One can try “think Italian/SpanishFrench”, but that typically doesn’t get one far without further means.) But all the more is the idea arrogant to correct somebody’s innocent “vice versa” to “veekay” or “weekay whe’saaaaah”. 🙂

  4. I would never suggest using “weekay wairssa” other than as a joke. On the other hand, I find it odd that people who will happily tell you that they pronounce “oesophagus” (for instance) as ‘oysoffaguss’ “because that’s how Latin is pronounced”, wouldn’t dream of using ‘weekay wairssa’, despite the same comment being applicable!

  5. Recall that Caesar thought that the army of Pontus was weeny, weedy and weaky …. 😉

  6. Absolutely! I’m reminded that Mr Chips, in James Hilton’s novel, felt that he couldn’t teach the boys the new ‘revised’ (‘authentic’) pronunciation, because VICISSIM, traditionally pronounced ‘vy-sissim’ would become ‘we kiss im’.

  7. Off topic, but a BBC website article on Canadian English assures us that there are such things as dip[sic]thongs… Aaaargh!

  8. Oh dear. But the OED has this quotation from 1749: “All Dipthongs are naturally long. But in English Numbers they are often short.” What goes around comes around.

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