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Friday, July 31, 2015

The great divide

A Wordlady correspondent has asked about the pronunciation of "divisive". He pronounces it "di VICE iv", and the "di VISS iv" pronunciation "drives him nuts".

Apparently he is not alone in this, as there is much chatter on the web (negative, naturally, because Lord knows we need to find more things to criticize him about) about Barack Obama using the latter pronunciation. 

First off, please don't let different pronunciations than your own drive you nuts. There are many different ways to pronounce many of the words in English, and getting upset about them is not worth the effort. Just as the other person's pronunciation is driving you nuts, yours is driving them nuts too, and that makes two of you getting upset for no good reason.

In this case, if you live in Canada and say "di VICE iv", and are driven nuts by "di VISS iv", you're going to spend a lot of time tearing your hair out. At the Canadian Oxford Dictionary we found that "di VISS iv" is in fact the most common pronunciation in Canada for this word.

This preference for "di VISS iv" seems to be unique to Canada. Dictionaries from other countries give their pronunciations of the middle syllable in order of frequency:

Britain: VICE
NZ and Australia: VICE , VIZZ


So you might wonder where these pronunciations come from. "Well, of course it should be di VICE iv, because after all it comes from di VIDE," you might say. Well, so do "division" and "divisible", don't they? Sigh, I wish English were like French, where the middle syllables of the words "diviser", "divisible", and "division" are all pronounced the same way.  

Actually none of these English words are derivatives of "divide"; they were borrowed separately from Latin.

"Divide" came first, in the 1300s, with "divisor" a little later. They would have been pronounced "diveed" and "diveezor" back then. But they arrived in English just in time to be subject to the Great Vowel Shift which happened not long afterwards, eventually causing them to be pronounced as they are today, with what we call a "long i". "Division" arrived at the same time as "divide" but, because many multisyllable words escaped the Great Vowel Shift, its "veez" became "viz" rather than "vize".

By the time "divisible" arrived in the 1550s and "divisive" in the early 1600s, we therefore had two pronunciation patterns for "divide" words in English.  "Divisible" went one way, "divisive" the other. I do not know why (if anyone does, I'd be fascinated to hear the explanation). We see the same pattern with "decide, decision, decisive" (unfortunately we have no word "decisible").  But obviously we COULD have chosen to pronounce "divisive" like "division" and "divisible". I do not know how long the "di VISS/VIZZ iv" pronunciation has been in the language, but perhaps it was kicking around when settlers moved from Britain to North America and Australia, and has survived since then. 

Having lamented that our pronunciations are not consistent as in French ("pronunciation" is in fact another example of this phenomenon), I should in fairness point out that there is no word "divisif" in French. To translate the idea, bilingual dictionaries have to resort to periphrasis like  
‹of a policy› qui sème la discorde; qui entraîne la division
to be socially divisive = créer des inégalités sociales
Maybe we should send French speakers "divisive" with our compliments. At least they wouldn't argue over its pronunciation.

How do YOU pronounce "divisive"? 

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  1. Definitely 'vice' for me.

  2. I'm from the North of England & I pronounce it "diVIZZive".
    I never heard "DiVICEive" until I came to Canada.

  3. I pronounce it 'viss', and I think it's more consistent to do this phonologically, if you think of it as short i after i, and long i after e, which is a fairly consistent pattern. I think that's the pattern that guides us on this at least as Canadians. So, DEcIsive but dIvISSive. Other examples would be denial but diminish, describe but diligent, defiant but diffident, and dissident. Of course in English there are always exceptions, like denigrate, and decimate. I think other components before and after these syllables are factoring too, perhaps...


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.