Birders use the word species all the time – when noting a new sighting, keeping lists, making records, or denoting conservation status such as threatened, endangered, or vulnerable. We even use it as parts of other words when we talk about subspecies for all the same reasons – sightings, lists, and records. But how is it really supposed to be pronounced?
The first syllable – spe – is easy enough, and really only has one typical pronunciation, which rhymes with…
- Ski, tree, fee, me, lee, he, knee, bee, glee, pea
Clearly, the long EEE is preferred to start this word. It’s the second syllable, -cies, that creates more confusion. There are two general options for proper pronunciation, one with the hard, hissing S sound, as in…
- Seas, miss, please, keys, pass, sneeze, teas, wheeze, sell, sassy, sister
or the quieter, SHHH sound, as in…
- shack, shirt, harsh, shin, push, wash, shed, shark, shank, lash, fish, mash
Put together, and you have either speee-seees or speee-sheeez as the overall pronunciation. But which is correct?
The answer depends on your preferred type of English. In general, British English, which does tend to be a bit more formal, leans toward the softer “shhh” sound for speee-sheeez. American English, on the other hand, has no marked preference, and will use both the softer pronunciation as well as the hissing S in speee-seees. Both are equally understood, and there is no definitive leaning toward one or the other. Ultimately, which pronunciation a birder uses is individual preference, nothing more, and neither pronunciation is more or less correct than the other.
Personally, I tend toward the hissing S pronuciation of speee-seees, but that is my choice only. I’ve used the hard S for many years (having had a mild speech pronunciation difficulty as a child that led to coaching for more emphasis on the hard S), and the softer shhh doesn’t sound as correct to me. That is my interpretation alone, however, and I think no more or less of any birder regardless of which pronunciation they may use.
One other part of this pronunciation to note is emphasis, and there are three possibilities.
- First syllable emphasis – SPEEE-seees/SPEEE-sheeez
- Second syllable emphasis – speee-SEEES/speee-SHEEEZ
- Equal emphasis – SPEEE-SEEES/SPEEE-SHEEEZ or speee-seees/speee-sheeez
Equal emphasis is the most common pronunciation, without dramatic force on either the first or second syllable. In some instances, mild emphasis may be given to the first syllable, but it is not a strong or powerful difference. In no pronunciations, however, is heavy emphasis given to the second syllable. Try it yourself – equal or first syllable emphasis sounds “normal” but second syllable emphasis sounds forced and awkward.
Regardless of how you say it, species is a key word for birders, and we all wish to see, enjoy, and discover more species – no matter how we pronounce their names!