In the Phonetic Jungle


A distinguished computational linguist from the University of Colorado, Professor Martha Palmer, is about to begin a lecture in the School of Informatics at the University of Edinburgh under the title “The Blocks World Redux,” when she realizes that (like all of us) she had learned the word redux (it means “restored” or “revisited”) from printed sources, and neither she nor the person introducing her has any idea how to pronounce it.

Two linguists in the front row spring instantly to her aid. “Riddúx,” I tell her confidently, stressing the second syllable, as in redúction. “Réddux,” says my friend Mark Steedman simultaneously, stressing the first syllable, as in réddish. We stare at each other blankly.

“You seriously think,” asks Mark, “that Updike’s second Rabbit Angstrom novel is called ‘Rabbit Reddúx’?

“And you think it’s called ‘Rabbit Réddux’?”

It was a standoff. Trying to intimidate each other with protestations of disbelief was clearly not going to get us anywhere.

Professor Palmer and her introducer saw which way the wind was blowing and very sensibly finessed the issue. The lecture began without anyone reading the title out. It presented new work on a “Blocks World” like the one used by Terry Winograd’s SHRDLU, an important artificial intelligence experiment in the 1970s. Winograd showed how instructions in ordinary English for moving blocks around (“Place the blue block on top of the green one,” “Put the red block into the box,” etc.) could be “understood” by a computer program, which demonstrated its “understanding” by executing graphically simulated block-moving operations. Martha Palmer’s team has been pushing the paradigm further, exposing crucial new layers of the necessary semantics in apparently simple utterances like “Add another block.”

But Mark and I were still worrying about that pronunciation disagreement long afterward. We both believe there are empirical facts about English grammar and pronunciation, and ways of confirming or refuting them. We consulted independent sources in an effort to discover the correct pronunciation of redux.

Back in my office I discovered that redux is not in John Wells’s Longman Pronunciation Dictionary or in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. No help there.

Back in his office Mark found out that redux was listed as an independent lexeme in Lewis and Short’s Latin dictionary, with a short first vowel, and should receive stress on the penultimate syllable under the Latin stress rule. But of course what we really wanted was to be sure about English pronunciation norms, not Latin ones.

A Google search for “redux” displays a dictionary entry above the top ten hits, with a phonetic representation and a linked sound file. Excellent! But, to our horror, the phonetic representation specifies a pronunciation neither of us had considered, namely réedux, with a long [i:] sound in the first syllable, as in réedy; and worst of all, the sound file does not agree with it! It backs my pronunciation, riddúx. So we now had an authority, but it contradicted not only us but also itself. (I’ve reported the contradiction to Google; eventually they may fix it, one way or the other.)

Wiktionary complicates things yet further with the phonetic representation [ˈɹidʌks] (ríddux), disagreeing with all of the above — like Mark’s réddux, with initial stress, but with the vowel of rid rather than red.

The matchless Oxford English Dictionary gives two pronunciations: “Brit. /ˈriːdʌks/ , U.S. /ˈriˌdəks/” is what it says. That’s like réedux and ríddux — disagreeing with both Mark and me.

The stipulations go on varying like this from source to source, with no apparent way to determine which is correct.

Wikipedia notes that in Rabbit at Rest, a sequel to Rabbit Redux, Angstrom sees a story in a Sarasota newspaper headlined “Circus Redux”: “He hates that word, you see it everywhere, and he doesn’t know how to pronounce it.” Nor does anybody else, it seems. Updike himself reports (in his essay collection Hugging the Shore, according to Wikipedia) that he says “ray-dooks”: different vowels (he must mean something like [ɹedʊks]), but unfortunately his nonce spelling doesn’t supply the crucial stress information.

Don’t go to YouTube for comfort. There are at least eight YouTube videos telling you how to say the word, and not only do they contradict each other (some say “réedux” and some say “riddúx“), but at least one features voices saying both.

Certain questions about human languages don’t have definite answers. Half a dozen plausible pronunciations of redux coexist. Select at will; no one can authoritatively refute you. But you may find it a bit unsettling that no one can authoritatively confirm your correctness either. You’re on your own. It’s a phonetic jungle out there.

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