Most pronunciation dilemmas arise with complete randomness, whenever a word happens to pop into the public consciousness. One point of confusion, however, is unique in that it strikes us with perfect biological regularity: How do you say “cicada”?
This spring, as the billions of cicadas of Brood II crawl out of subterranean bunkers from North Carolina to Connecticut (with a few isolated sightings in Massachusetts), their 17-year biological cycle is setting off a secondary cycle of English-language bemusement. As people point in horror or wonder to the swarms of insects, should they say “si-KAY-da” or “si-KAH-da”? Or perhaps “chi-KAY-da” or “chi-KAH-da”? How did we get so confused? Should we, in the immortal words of the Gershwins, call the whole thing off?
Here in North America, we can spend most of our lives ignoring the word “cicada,” since the bugs so labeled live underground for most of their lives. Each summer, however, a brood on a cycle ranging from every two to every 17 years may swarm up to the surface to molt. The latest “cicadapocalypse” (or “swarmageddon” if you prefer) offers an opportunity to think about how pronunciations of words can diverge into their own distinct swarms—and about how the way we say even relatively rare words like cicada reflects much larger shifts in the language.
The most basic answer to the “cicada” question has to do with where you live. The preferred pronunciation in much of the United States is “si-KAY-da.” Some Americans opt for “si-KAH-da,” like the last name of Cuban-born singer-songwriter Jon Secada. That variant, though, is heard more frequently in the United Kingdom and such Commonwealth countries as South Africa, Canada, and Australia. Those who say “si-KAY-da” need not be intimidated by “si-KAH-da,” as the latter pronunciation is a Johnny-come-lately even in Britain.
How did we get here? First, let’s roll the clock back to ancient Rome, where the Latin word “cicada” first took wing in the writings of naturalists and poets. It’s unclear where Latin got the word from—not from Greek, which had its own onomatopoetic word for the insect, “tettix.” Etymologists (and entomologists) have speculated that “cicada” was borrowed into Latin from a now-lost Mediterranean tongue.
In classical Latin, “cicada” was pronounced as “ki-KAH-da,” with hard c’s. The first “c” changed to a “ts” sound around the fifth century A.D., and the consonant further softened to “s” in Old French. When English speakers began importing Latin words, they looked to the French model, so words beginning with “ci-” like “circle,” “civil,” and “cicada” all took on the initial “s” sound.
But why would the second syllable of “cicada” be pronounced like “kay”? For that we can blame the Great Vowel Shift that marked the transition from Middle English to Modern English. Words with the stressed “a” sound, including borrowings from Latin, shifted from “ah” to “ay,” which you can hear in countless words like “table,” “radio,” and “stadium.”
For centuries, the “ay” pronunciation ruled for stressed “a” words regardless of their source. It even applied to words brought in from Spanish like “armada,” originally pronounced in English as “ar-MAY-da.” But eventually, “armada” fell prey to what the British phonetician John C. Wells calls “continental vowelism”: “Ar-MAH-da” displaced the older pronunciation because English speakers thought the “ah” sound was more appropriate for a Spanish import.
“Cicada” underwent a similar fate—but not everywhere, and years after the shift from “ar-MAY-da” to “ar-MAH-da” a century ago. Every British and American dictionary I consulted from the late 19th and early 20th centuries recommended the “si-KAY-da” pronunciation. Henry Watson Fowler, in his classic 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, did not mention “si-KAH-da.” But perhaps to make “cicada” fit the “armada” model, the “kah” pronunciation gradually made headway in the United Kingdom and other countries. By the turn of the 21st century, most British references gave “kah” as the primary variant, with “kay” still holding sway across the Atlantic.
When we try to make foreign-sounding words match certain phonetic targets, the results can be hit-or-miss, leading to what linguists call “hyperforeignism.” Thanks to French, for instance, English speakers often turn “j” into “zh” in place names where the sound doesn’t properly belong, like “Taj Mahal,” “Beijing,” and “Azerbaijan.”
And thanks to Italian, some are tempted to pronounce “cicada” as “chi-KAY-da” or “chi-KAH-da.” But Italian is a red herring—in that language, the insect is called “cicala” (“chi-KAH-la”), as it veered off from the Latin root. (French, meanwhile, has “cigale,” and Spanish and Portuguese have “cigarra.” This is one case where English is more loyal to the Latin original than Romance languages.)
The diverging pronunciations of “cicada” can leave people uncertain about how to say the word, especially those living in places like Massachusetts, just outside the regions where cicadas periodically swarm. Even in cicada-prone areas, the word only becomes prominent at certain yearly intervals. With a term that stays dormant for long stretches, it’s no wonder that we haven’t completely fixed on the pronunciation. In any case, if you’re stuck in a cicada swarm this time around, pronunciation may be the last thing on your mind.Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. He can be reached at benzimmer.com/contact.