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TWTS: A shrinking pronunciation schism

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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.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
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