In an ESL class, we were discussing an article about hearing problems among young people via such modern devices as IPods, and I couldn't offer the correct pronunciation of "tinnitus" because I don't think there is one.

According to the American Tinnitus Association, tinnitus is

...the perception of sound in the ears or head where no external source is present...The word comes from Latin and means "to tinkle or to ring like a bell."

In almost all cases, tinnitus is a subjective noise, meaning that only the person who has tinnitus can hear it. Someone with tinnitus often describes it as "ringing in the ears," but people report hearing all kinds of sounds: crickets, whooshing, pulsing, ocean waves, buzzing, even music.

I heard about this problem a while ago, and assumed it was pronounced "ti-NIGH-tus" but when I saw a television report about it, they pronounced it like "TI-nitus" (the first part being pronounced like "tin").

So what's the right pronunciation? No one knows, not even the American Tinnitus Association: "Both pronunciations are correct; the American Tinnitus Association uses ti-NIGHT-us."

I thought finding an audio file at a website would settle the dispute, but there are different approaches to this minor yet confusing word: Mirriam-Webster dictionary pronounces it "TIN-itus" but yourdictionary.com pronounces it "ti-NIGH-tus".

I can see a bunch of nerdy linguistics discussing this word in conferences and in academic journals. I'm not nerdy enough to seek those out or bring up the issue in meetings. So you be the judge.


a guy in pajamas said...

Well, for a condition defined by subjective sounds, it just makes sense that the pronunciation should also be subjective.

Anonymous said...

Whoa--I had to think about that for a moment. I think that philosophy class is affecting you. ;)

a guy in pajamas said...

Is it showing already? I've only been in the class for a few weeks; what'll I be like in December!?

Oh, the existential angst of it all ...

Jay said...

Tinnitus comes from the Latin (tinnit, tintinnabu, tinnire) for "to ring" http://www.wordinfo.info/words/index/info/view_unit/3585
and since it's originin is the word "tinnit" there is nothing that would suggest a long "i" sound. The long "i" sound is introduced by people who think of other conditions that end in "itis" (with and "I-s" not a "U-s" such as: conjunctivitis,
ALL OF WHICH involve inflammation ("itis" is Greek and Latin for inflammation).

I hate seeing people's ignorance and incorrectness changing our beautiful language in dictionaries. Just because a website or dictionary says, "both are correct" doesn't make it so in my mind.

Margaret Larkin said...

Interesting...I wonder what would happen if people started using the Latin pronunciation for all those words. People would say it's incorrect, plus, the long "i" sound is typical English. So I guess the pronunciation has been co-opted.

Jay said...

I might have been unclear. Those other words ARE pronounced with the long "i" because they involve inflammation and the suffix is "itis" not "itus". The "u" makes all the difference.

Margaret Larkin said...

Thanks for the clarification--I thought you were suggesting those other words shouldn't be pronounced with the long i.

Unknown said...

The correct pronunciation is tin-NI-tus (accent on second syllable, long i). The reason: The word comes directly from the Latin (tinnire), and in Latin, that i is long. In general, English words that derive directly from Latin retain the Latin stress and the long or short vowels (based on the Latin root). Unlike previous generations, most doctors today never studied Latin in grade school. Instead, they take a crash course in it, and tend to apply the "stress on the antipenultimate syllable" rule. But in Latin that rule is governed by whether the vowel is long or short.

Margaret Larkin said...

I was thinking the same thing, but then why would Merriam-Webster have the other pronunciation?

Anonymous said...

In nursing school it was always pronounced "TIN-i-tus" same i sound in first two syllables.
Pronouncing it Tin-NIGHT-us does make it sound like an inflammation (which it's not) as in all the words that end in "itis" (EYE-tis).
Now if we could get people (even medical people!) to stop pronouncing pharynx "Fair-nix" !!!
That's the one that gets my goat!
It's "Fair-inks" !! Would you call a Lynx a Ly-nix ??

Jay said...

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. In Latin, the 2nd "I" in "Tinnire" is pronounced "EEE" (like "Machine") not like "Tire".

Unknown said...

J, you're clearly correct. One can argue over whether the emphasis is on the first or second syllable, but there is no long "I" sound ("eye") in Latin. If Tom wants to be pedantic, he can say "ap-pen-di-SEAT-is" instead of "ap-pen-di-SIGHT-is." But there is no basis in Latin or English for saying "tin-NIGHT-us."

Kristy said...

As a former Tinnitus sufferer I know how life changing this can be.

Great post!
Looking forward to future posts...

I have forwarded this link along to readers of my newsletter the Tinnitus Insider.


Tinnitus Insider

Margaret Larkin said...

Thanks for visiting and letting your readers know about it :D

Unknown said...

I have to say that you are right, the pronunciation of tinnitus is confusing, in all honesty who cares right, as long as we understand what it is and how to relate symptoms to treatments.

Unknown said...

The anonymous nurse above is correct in her pronunciation. TIN-ih-tus. No long i sound in this word and the accent is on the first syllable.

Tom said...

...emphasis on the itis is misleading and makes the speaker sound uniformed since thete is no inflammation. TIN uh tis....forever

Unknown said...

It's bad enough to have a condition with no cure. It's also discouraging to have a condition whose pronunciation is in dispute.

Tom Anderson said...

It's funny to read this stuff. Many strong ideas but most people just say things without real support for their argument. Latin was spoken many places. Therefore there are multiple ways to say Latin words in Latin. There are different pronunciations of the word "tinitus". The Latin word is spelled tinnītus.

Classical Latin IPA: /tinˈniː.tus/, [tɪnˈniː.tʊs]

Let's consider the classical Latin pronunciation of tinnītus. The first syllable spelled "tin" can be long-e (/tin/) or a short-i (/tɪn/). The second syllable "ni" is a long-e (/ni:/) as in "scene", with the colon (:) indicating that the second syllable is longer. And the final vowel sounds like "boot" (/tus/) or "hook" (/tʊs/). In this way, we can consult a scholarly source and understand how a foreign word might be pronounced. Obviously the vowels of a Latin speaker would vary slightly, but we'd be close.

That's classical Latin. Latin nowadays is generally spoken only in Rome and according to an Italian pronunciation. Thus, I believe that it would be pronounced the first way, /tinˈniː.tus/.

Finally, English is a hodgepodge language. Accepted pronunciations often vary from their origins. American English is much more reliant on Webster's pronunciation decisions than on any other language. Thus, there are three different accepted pronunciations, depending where on Earth you are and who you are, and none of them follow Latin for the second syllable: /ˈtɪn.ɪ.təs/, /ˈtɪn.ə.təs/, /tɪˈnaɪ.təs/

Unknown said...

Yes! You are correct! Can’t believe this is mispronounced by so many, especially those advertising remedies. It is not an “inflammation of the tin”.

FieryLover said...

As a Latin teacher, with backing from a respected online Latin dictionary, I offer these clarifications, none of which definitively settles the argument however:


In Latin tinnitus is NOT the past participle tinnitus (where the 2nd syllable "i" is short), that particple being from the 4th conjugation verb tinnire. Rather it is a 4th declension NOUN noun where the 2nd syllable "i" is LONG.

As someone has already noted and Wikipedia confirms,
"With few exceptions, Latin words are stressed on the penult (second-to-last syllable) if it is "heavy" (having a long vowel or diphthong or ending in a consonant), and on the antepenult (third-to-last syllable) if the penult is "light" (ending with a short vowel)." The Latin NOUN "tinnitus" has a long 2nd syllable "i" and would therefore be accented there.

Because the 2nd syllable "i" that's where the accent/stress is put, and the location of stress generally carries into American English, arguably "tin-NIGHT-us" trumps "TIN-i-tus"...generally speaking, but not necesarily definitively.

I hope not to buffet anyone nor incite any indecorous defense by offering the insight that the Brits often tend to prefer regressive accents--i.e. moved "to the left" on a three-syllable word. (A veritable buffet of examples abound.) So for the Brits I suppose the first syllable would be stressed, "TIN-i-tus". But ask most Brits on the street and they'll be as certain and as confused as any of us! Let's call the whole thing off.