The Grammarphobia Blog

Thong tied

Q: Until I was about 10, I pronounced “upheaval” as you-FEE-val. Maybe that’s why I notice that many people now pronounce the first syllables of “diphthong” and “amphitheater” as DIP and AMP. Are those pronunciations acceptable now?

A: Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) accept two standard pronunciations for “diphthong.” Both list DIF-thong first and DIP-thong second, without comment (which means they’re about equally common).

For “amphitheater,” American Heritage, which is the more conservative of the two, recognizes only AMF. But M-W includes both AM(P)F – the parentheses mean that sometimes the P is sounded along with the F – and “also” AMP. The “also” means the second pronunciation is much less common.

Interestingly, the earliest English spellings of “diphthong,” dating back to the late 1400s, were “diptong” and “diptonge,” suggesting that the word was originally pronounced with a DIP, not a DIF.

In fact, it was adopted from the h-less Middle French diptongue, according to The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology. But the DIF sound is found in the ultimate source of “diphthong”: the Greek diphthongos, meaning double sound.

As for “amphitheater,” we borrowed it in the mid-16th century from the Latin amphitheatrum, which came in turn from the Greek amphitheatron, a theater in the round.

As far as I can tell, “amphitheater” was pronounced with an AMF from its earliest days in English. But as you point out, and Merriam-Webster’s confirms, AMP seems to be creeping into the language.

Buy Pat’s books at a local store or Amazon.com.