TWTS: A shrinking pronunciation schism
Many standard dictionaries still list the traditional pronunciation of “schism” first. However, if you used it, a lot of people probably wouldn’t know what you were talking about.
And what is the traditional pronunciation, you ask? Well, it’s not the one that begins with a “skih” sound, which is probably what you’re used to hearing.
Let’s back up.
Historically, a “schism” is a literal or metaphorical split or shift. It has been used to refer to a formal breach of union within a religious body, especially within the Christian Church. Today, “schism” can be used to refer to any division into factions — everything from a schism between political parties to a schism among friends.
Of course, there hasn’t been anything in the news lately that comes even close to being an example of a schism, so we’ll just breeze right past that and move on to pronunciation.
“Schism” was borrowed in from Old French in the Middle English period, and the spellings indicate it was pronounced “sizz-um.” You’ll find this traditional pronunciation in the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam Webster’s, American Heritage, etc. Newer pronunciations don’t seem to become more widespread until the 20th century.
A third pronunciation, “shihz-um,” is recorded in the online OED and Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary includes it in a usage note along with a grave predication about its life-expectancy.
To hear more about where these three pronunciations of “schism” stand today, listen to the audio above.