In Early Modern English the pronunciation of “housewifery” was /’ʔɤzɪfɹəi/. What caused the apparent (partial) reversal in modern pronunciation?

By: | Post date: 2017-02-26 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: English, Linguistics

Why did housewifery used to be pronounced uzzifrie, and now it’s pronounced house-wife-ree?

Well, let’s look at housewife itself. I’m looking up OED.

OED reports that the usual pronunciation in the second half of the 18th century of housewife, as given in pronunciation dictionaries, was /ˈhʌzwɪf/, huzzwiff, with its start matching hus-band (which has the same prefix). Often the w dropped off as well; cf. Warwick, Greenwich (hence huzzif); and the initial h would have dropped off in some dialects (hence uzzif, and uzzifry).

housewife started being pronounced like it is spelled, with an initial house, a bit later. hussy is a development of housewife (> hussif > hussy), and scholars suspect housewife changed to its modern pronunciation to differentiate it from hussy:

This diphthongal pronunciation became more common in sense 1 in the 19th cent. (it is either the preferred or the sole pronunciation in this sense in most late 19th-cent. pronouncing dictionaries), and is entirely predominant from the early 20th cent. onwards. While N.E.D. (1899) records the pronunciations (hɒ·zwif) /ˈhʌzwɪf/ and (hɒ·zif) /ˈhʌzɪf/ as frequent in sense 1 (and also records for the plural (hɒ·z(w)ivz) /ˈhʌzwɪvz/, /ˈhʌzɪvz/); D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict. records /ˈhʌzɪf/ as ‘rare’ in this sense in 1917, and for the last time (as ‘old-fashioned’) in 1947; Webster (1934, 1961) gives it as still occasionally used in sense 1.

So the old pronunciation huzzif died out as late as the 1940s, though it was already marginal by 1860. housewifery would have followed the pronunciation of housewife.

Answered 2017-02-26 · Upvoted by

Heather Jedrus and

Logan R. Kearsley, MA in Linguistics from BYU, 8 years working in research for language pedagogy.

2 Comments

  • John Cowan says:

    Cf. midwifery, pronounced “midwiffery”, but the spelling pronunciation is an alternative in AmE.

    • And of course, the more obscure the profession becomes, the more likely the spelling pronunciation becomes. I admit to be an unfamiliar with the original pronunciation.

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