Few bird names can be as confusing to pronounce as pileated – as in pileated woodpecker, pileated finch, pileated flycatcher, and pileated parrot. Of course, woodpecker, finch, flycatcher, and parrot are easy enough to pronounce, but what is the right way to say pileated?
Before understanding the pronunciation, it is important to understand what pileated really means. The word “pileated” is an adjective form of the word “pileate” which means having a pileus. A pileus is a type of distinctive cap, a brimless, relatively tall or pointed conical hat worn in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, as well as surrounding areas. These caps were initially felt, but later were cast in bronze. Today, the word pileus also refers to the softly pointed cap of a mushroom or toadstool, which has the same distinctive cone-like shape. Similar shapes – the bell of a jellyfish, or certain cloud formations, can also be called a pileus.
But what does this have to do with pileated birds? A bird with the name “pileated” has a distinctive cap, crest, or crown, and its head shape can have that cone-like feature when the crest is raised.
Understanding where the word comes from is a good start to pronouncing it, and there are several ways to pronounce pileated. Breaking the word down into syllables is the first step.
Each pronunciation can be technically correct, but different speakers tend to pronounce the name differently depending on their native language and foreign language experience. Overall, the sweet first syllable PIE (rhymes with my, buy, shy, fry, sky, and try) is generally more common, though PILL (rhymes with fill, mill, kill, dill, skill, and bill) is equally acceptable and understood. Both native English and second-language English speakers may use either pronunciation. The third option, with PEE (rhymes with me, key, sea, be, flea, and ski) leading the pronunciation, is less common and tends to be used more by non-native English speakers with far less English experience or whose native languages are more remote from English pronunciations.
More confusion can come into play when the syllables of the word are adjusted. While a four-syllable pronunciation is most common, three-syllable pronunciations are not at all unheard of, and still use similar overall pronunciation to the four-syllable variations.
Ultimately, none of these pronunciations are entirely correct, and none are entirely wrong. It is generally believed that the PIE pronunciation more closely mimics the original etymology of the word, as the pileus hat design is almost universally pronounced with the long “I” sound. Personally, I tend to prefer the four-syllable PILL pronunciation, but ultimately, all pronunciation comes down to personal preference. Still, language can and does change over centuries and between cultures, and regardless of how you actually pronounce these birds’ names, so long as you make yourself understood, you’re pronouncing it properly!