The X factor: the challenges of pronouncing X

The X factor: the challenges of pronouncing X

With the addition of womxn to OED I’ve been considering the productive use of x, and the pronunciation challenges it presents. As a meaningful element, x often suggests an unknown or variable quantity; an x factor. In recent new word formations, x has been used not only to avoid having to assign gender (as in Mx) but also to signify the inclusion of all groups including trans and non-binary people and people of colour.

The pronunciation of x in English words is certainly unusually variable: it can be ‘ks’, ‘eks’, or ‘iks’, ‘z’, ‘sh’, ‘h’, ‘kh’, or silent. Where a new word is created by using x to overwrite part of an existing word, as in Mx, Latinx, or folx, pronunciations with /ks/ typically prevail. (In the case of folx, not yet in OED, the pronunciation is typically the same as it would be for folks.) There is also a possibility, when such words are spoken rather than written, that a longer phrase will be used; compare our pronunciation note on the older entry for Latin@ which explains that it is ‘often expanded to “Latino and/or Latina” or “Latina and/or Latino” when spoken aloud’.

In the case of Latinx and Mx, with x replacing a letter in final position, pronunciations which insert a vowel before /ks/ conform to the rules of English syllable structure and have generally been adopted (although when researching Mx, one correspondent did report the pronunciation ‘mixter’, by analogy with ‘mister’). Womxn, though, has an x where a non-final vowel used to be, which makes saying it out loud a little more of a challenge. My survey of video evidence indicated that, although some speakers shuffled the order of sounds (‘women-eks’), inserted more vowels to make it a trisyllabic word (‘wo-mix-en’), or used an expanded phrase (‘women-with-an-x’), in the majority of cases the word was pronounced just as if it were ‘women’ (or ‘woman’ if singular). This is also the line taken in most written sources which offer advice on the pronunciation. Therefore, the pronunciation note on the new entry advises that womxn is ‘typically pronounced the same as women or woman depending on context, although pronunciations with /ks/ are also attested’.

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