I have a two-part question about the pronunciation of hygiene in English. The usual pronunciation, as shown by a variety of online dictionaries accessible from OneLook Dictionary Search, is /ˈhaɪdʒiːn/ (Merriam-Webster also lists /haɪˈdʒiːn/). This is interesting because I know of no other English word of Greek origin where ie represents /iː/ (setting aside plurals ending in -ies for people with happy-tensing).

But what really surprised me was finding that the Oxford English Dictionary lists another, more regular-looking pronunciation where the ie represents two vowels in hiatus: /ˈhɪdʒɪiːn/. (You'll need a subscription, either personal or through an institution like a library, to access the preceding link.) After some searching, I found another source that lists a similar pronunciation, with the "ie" in hiatus but the "y" apparently long (/ˈhaɪdʒɪiːn/): The Imperial Dictionary of the English Language, by John Ogilvie, 1883. (Unfortunately, due to the low quality of the Google Books scan, I'm not entirely sure if the first "I" in the transcription has a macron (which would indicate the pronunciation /ˈhaɪdʒɪiːn/) or just a tittle (which would indicate /ˈhɪdʒɪiːn/, the same as the OED).

Question A: does anyone know of any other sources that describe the pronunciation with a hiatus? I've never heard anybody use it and I wasn't able to find it listed in any other dictionaries, past or present. The earliest dictionary I found that lists the pronunciation of this word is from 1874, A Dictionary of Medical Science by Robley Dunglison (p 519), and it seems to just give the usual modern pronunciation:

Hygiène (F.), generally Anglicized Hygiene, and pronounced hy´geen

This quotation and the OED entry both seem to agree that the word in its modern form entered English from French. The OED also gives the following indications of the timing of this loan:

< French hygiène (Dict. Acad. 1762, in 16th cent. hygiaine Paré), in modern Latin hygieina < Greek ὑγιεινή (τέχνη art) [...] Formerly used in Latin or Greek form. [...]
1799 R. Southey Lett. from Spain (ed. 2) 470 : The second [Professorship] shall be of Physiology and Higiene. [...]
1811 R. Hooper Lexicon-medicum : Hygiene, modern physicians have applied this term to that division of therapia which treats of the diet of the sick.

All earlier citations in the OED are for Latin forms such as “Hygiena," Hygieina" and “Hygieine" that I assume would have been pronounced something like /hɪdʒɪˈiːnə/, /ˈhɪdʒɪˈaɪːnə/ and /hɪdʒɪˈaɪːni/ respectively.

Question B: How did the usual modern pronunciation originate? I can imagine at least three possibilities:

  1. the pronunciation with /ɪiː/ listed in the OED is older, and it was simplified to /iː/ over time, as in the word medi(a)eval or caries. This seems unlikely to me, since /ˈhɪdʒɪiːn/ > /ˈhɪdʒiːn/ requires another step to change the /ɪ/ in the first syllable to /aɪ/ before we get the modern pronunciation
  2. the pronunciation with /iː/ was a direct anglicization of the French pronunciation by analogy with the vowels used in word pairs like English piece /piːs/–French pièce /pjɛs(ə)/ or English relief /rəˈliːf/–French relief /rəljɛf/. The /aɪ/ in the first syllable is based purely on the spelling.
  3. the pronunciation with /iː/ was a direct anglicization based purely on the French spelling (by analogy with the use of the digraph "ie" to represent /iː/ in various English words, not only French-derived ones like piece and relief but also field, yield etc.) The /aɪ/ in the first syllable is based purely on the spelling.

I know the last two are fairly similar, and probably hard to distinguish based on evidence. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say the modern pronunciation most likely originates from a mixture of 2 & 3. However, I'm just an amateur. I'd love to know if any professional etymologists or linguists have said anything about the development of this word.

  • For what it's worth, Jones & Lewis both have /aɪ/, so does Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. – None Aug 3 '16 at 9:33

Fowler, "Modern English Usage", 1st edition (1926) prescribes the three-syllable pronunciation of hy-gi-ene and the four-syllable pronunciation of hy-gi-en-ic.The latter is still the standard pronunciation, at least in England.

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  • Thanks, I will look at it! Just to clarify: in these pronunciations, the "y" is short (/ɪ/)? – brass tacks Aug 3 '16 at 9:16
  • No, the "y" is pronounced [aɪ]. – fdb Aug 3 '16 at 9:18
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    Greek "y" is normally [aɪ] in English, as in hyper-, hypo-, pyro- etc. etc. – fdb Aug 3 '16 at 9:23
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    Could you write it in IPA, to make sure I understood you correctly? Not sure what you meant by the standard four-syllable pronunciation of hygenic. Four? – Alex B. Aug 3 '16 at 15:11
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    @AlexB. /hɪdʒɪˈɛnɪk/ is one of the four options given by the OED (online version). The others are: /hʌɪˈdʒiːnɪk/ /hʌɪˈdʒɛnɪk/ /hɪˈdʒiːnɪk/ – fdb Aug 3 '16 at 15:41

Fowler-3 (i.e. Burchfield 1996/2004) clarifies the confusion:

"The (first) i was fully pronounced and the y was often pronounced as /ɪ/ when the relevant section of the OED appeared in 1889; thus /ˈhɪdʒɪiːn/ with three syllables and /hɪdʒɪˈiːnɪk/ with four."

Interestingly, this entry hasn't been included in Fowler-4 (Butterfield 2015).

cf. Michaelis and Jones 1913 or Jones 1917 give one variant only, with [aɪ]. For some reason, it's missing in Walker 1859.

Chambers 1861 lists hygiene, with other variants hygieina, hygieine (all with [aɪ]?).

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