Byzantine pronunciations

What do you call a word like controversy, which has more than one pronunciation? I don’t think there is a widely accepted term, so I would like to suggest polymorph. The word is already used in various disciplines, such as zoology and chemistry, to mean an entity that appears in two or more different forms. As far as I know, it has not been used in linguistics.

My thinking about such words was triggered by hearing the word byzantine used in a television programme. The OED gives the following as one of the meanings of the word:

Reminiscent of the manner, style, or spirit of Byzantine politics; intricate, complicated; inflexible, rigid, unyielding.

and gives only two pronunciations for GB: bɪˈzæntaɪn and ˈbɪzəntaɪn. However, the first vowel can also be and the final vowel can be also be , so it’s clear that the word is a pretty good example of a polymorph.


Polymorph plastic

An even better example is the word transitionally. I once calculated that this has over 70 different pronunciations in GB, but Jack Windsor Lewis has since come up with 100+ (if memory serves me well). I don’t know if JWL has reported on this tour de force in his blog. Perhaps you could let us know, Jack?

10 thoughts on “Byzantine pronunciations

  1. Jack,

    Many thanks. I considered polyphone (with alternative spelling polyphon), but rejected it because of…

    3. Phonetics. A written character having more than one phonetic value; a letter or other symbol which stands for different sounds.

    1872 A. H. Sayce Assyrian Gram. Pref. 7 Polyphones—that is, characters with more than one value‥actually exist in Japanese for the same reason that they existed in Assyrian.
    1896 W. St. C. Boscawen Bible & Monuments i. 18 Its elaborate syllabary, the use of polyphones‥all tend to show clearly that this writing was not the invention of the Semites.
    1937 Antiquity 11 273 Many of the Sumerian word~signs were polyphons.
    1995 Kansas City Star (Nexis) 3 Dec., The arcane world of cryptology, with its homophones, polyphones, digraphs, bigraphs and nulls.

    (OED online)

    How about multiphone? The only thing about this is the mixture of Latin and Greek elements.

  2. On second thought: If we call it ‘polyphonemic’ (as I suggested above) or ‘polyphonematic’ (as suggested by JWL), what are we going to say to express the idea that a word does not consist of one phoneme but of more than one? So I vote in favour of ‘polyphon’ as a noun: “The word transitionally is a polyphon. It consists of 160 allopolyphons.” What about an adjective then? I suggest ‘allopolyphonous’ (taking up JWL’s suggestion in his latest blog). I now disfavour any combination with ‘-phonemic’ or ‘-phonematic’ because they would restrict the variations to phonemic ones. Thus “the word transitionally is allopolyphonous.”

  3. John
    I dont worry about mixing Latin and Greek elements coz once we’ve adopted them into English they’ve in effect become English ‘words’ and so why not mix them as we like. On the other hand, I see no problem with polyphon and I slightly prefer it to multiphone or multiphon tho I accept that those are feasible other choices.

  4. “Macadamization” is Celtic-Hebrew(?)-Greek-Latin. Whatever you call the second element, it certainly mixes different language roots in one word.

  5. @Graham: Nice quiz: Who can come up with a word made up of more than 4 different source languages?

  6. @Petr. I’ll have a go (not an expert, so….)

    KTV: pronounced “kei ti vi” (I don’t know IPA, here’s a copy-paste from Wikipedia: ˈkeɪ ˈtiː ˈviː )

    Meaning: A room with karaoke facilities, for rent to a group of people.

    The K is for “karaoke”, combining the Japanese “kara”, meaning empty, and “oke”, a Japanese abbreviation of “orchestra”, the English word for a group of musicians, from the Greek word for an area of a theatre.

    The TV is an abbreviation of “television”, combining the Greek “tele” meaning far, and “vision” from the Latin for sight.

    All this put together by (I believe 95% but not 100%) Chinese speakers in Taiwan, using the English pronunciation of letters of the Roman alphabet (+ K separately, if you’re old school Roman patriot who doesn’t believe in having hellenisms like K and Y in the Roman alphabet 😛 ) and inspired by the US television channel name of “MTV”, an abbreviation representing “Music Television”.

    KTV may seem not like a word but only an acronym; however I defy anyone to find an example of someone saying “karaoke television” to mean a private karaoke room for rent, let alone it being used by Chinese speakers, for whom many Roman alphabet acronyms are used (and created, like with KTV) as an easier alternative to “native” or Sinitic neologisms and full-length loan words from languages that are very different to the phonetic structure (and limited writing possibilities) of Chinese. As with other “acronyms” from “English”, many Chinese assume it really is English and say KTV to English-speaking foreigners assuming they’ll understand.

    So, now for the scores 🙂
    Japanese + Greek + Latin + English + Chinese = 5.

    (And if i want to get really sneaky, I could change “Chinese” to Mandarin + Taiwanese to get a total of 6.)

    No doubt my choices, justifications and arithmetic can induce multiple quibbles, but I had a go at least. 😀

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *