Why Do the British Pronounce “Z” as “Zed”?

Jack asks: Why do the British pronounce “Z” as “Zed”?

Now You KnowIt’s not just the British that pronounce “z” as “zed”.  The vast majority of the English speaking world does this.  The primary exception, of course, is in the United States where “z” is pronounced “zee”.

The British and others pronounce “z”, “zed”, owing to the origin of the letter “z”, the Greek letter “Zeta”.  This gave rise to the Old French “zede”, which resulted in the English “zed” around the 15th century.

As to why people in the United States call “z”, “zee”, it is thought that this is likely simply adopted from the pronunciation of the letters “bee”, “cee”, “dee”, “eee”, “gee”, “pee”, “tee”, and “vee”.

The first known instance of “zee” being recorded as the correct pronunciation of the letter “z” was in Lye’s New Spelling Book, published in 1677.  There still was a variety of common pronunciations in North America after this; but by the 19th century, this changed in the United States with “zee” firmly establishing itself thanks to Noah Webster putting his seal of approval on it in 1827, and, of course, the Alphabet song copyrighted in 1835, rhyming “z” with “me”.

Because of the alphabet song, the pronunciation of “z” as “zee” has started to spread, much to the chagrin of elementary school teachers the English speaking world over. This has resulted in them often having to re-teach children the “correct” pronunciation of “z” as “zed”, with the children having previously learned the song and the letter the American English way from such shows as Sesame Street.

Naturally, kids are often resistant to this change owing to the fact that “tee, u, vee, w, x, y and zed, Now I know my A-B-Cs, Next time won’t you sing with me” just doesn’t quite sound as cohesive as “tee/vee/zee/me”.

Because of the problem at the end of the alphabet song with “zed” not really fitting, a variety of other endings have been created to accommodate this, such as this one:

a-b-c-d-e-f-g
h-i-j-k-lmnop
q-r-s
tu-v
w-x
y and z
Sugar on your bread
Eat it all up
Before you are dead.

Other pronunciations of “z” you might hear in the English speaking world include:  zod, zad, zard, ezod, izzard, and uzzard.

Bonus Facts:

  • The alphabet song is based on the French “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman”, which popped up in 1761 and a couple decades later Mozart used it in his Twelve Variations on Ah, vous dirai-je, maman.  This tune is also used for such children’s songs as Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep.
  • The letters Z and Y are the only two letters Latin borrowed directly from Greek, rather than getting them from Etruscan.

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42 comments

  • Classic American attitude that other people are wrong and they are right. American English was adapted from the centuries-old English language and it is Americans who have changed the pronunciation

    • At least we still speak English with a proper pronunciation. The non-rhotic British accent started popping up in the colonial days. Shakespeare sounded more like modern Americans than modern Brits.

  • Yeh, I have to agree with money Boz. People in America tend to ignore that their society is based on that of the European nations and as a result, in an effort to give themselves an identity they changed letters and the names of foods. Sorry guys but you WEREN’T first…there is a whole lot of history that went before you and some of it is Indian. It always makes me laugh when I read about people bewildered as to why the English don’t pronounce things properly… perhaps Americans need to be taught about more than America at school? They might not think that the world revolves around them then? It’s not their fault…its the way that they think

  • Zed is the right way its the bl oody yanks who say it wrong. Bloo dy Americans always think there right they are always wrong more like. Same with right night etc its not nite its night and its not rite its right blo dy wan ker americans

    • Check out the word ethnocentrism. Language is constantly evolving, and always will be. You just need to accept that fact. If we’re being REALLY technical, the correct pronunciation is zeta or zede, since zee and zed evolved originally from that.

      Also, I took the liberty of proofreading your post:

      Zed is the right way. It’s the yanks who say it wrong. Americans always think /they’re/ right. they are always wrong more like //Butchered too badly to be fixed//. Same with right, night, etc. It’s not nite it’s night, and it’s not rite it’s right. Bloody Americans.

      Also, nobody in America spells night or right as nite or rite. At least, educated people don’t do that.

      This is comical to me. To fish out the bigots, just make a post about something trivial like the pronunciation of the letter Z.

      • Your reply makes no sense to me. I’m British and I have never heard anyone say coloeyr or neighboeyr.

        And I hardly think that the free American colonies decided to drop a u to stick it to us Brits. They’d just won a war, their independence and freedom. It’s hard to conceive of anyone thinking “Hmm, that’s not enough – you know what would really be the cherry on the cake…?”

        There are indications that American English didn’t drop the “U”, but British English adopted the “U”. During the 17th century British English went through a Europeanisation whereby spellings were adopted to look more French – hence color became colour, harbor to harbour, etc. The same is true for the British English use of “s” instead of “z” in such words as analyse (not analyze).

        This trend didn’t cross the Atlantic and so what was British English on the east coast of North America stayed true to its original form (but eventually became known as American English) while British English evolved to that which we use today.

        Now, can someone tell me if beta is beeeta or bayta?

      • “it’s not rite it’s right”… “it’s not nite it’s night”… My entire eduction was spread around the states and we have never spelled right as rite or nite as night. If I ever did see it spelled like that, I thought it was a typo.

        • So far as I remember, “rite” for “right” and so forth started in advertising.

          So we Americans think throwing in a consonant when no other letter of the alphabet is pronounced that way is odd–get over it.

          And for you people who get worked up that we call ourselves Americans: It’s part of the name of our country. It’s United States of America, not just United States, and we’ve been called that from the very beginning.

    • Yeah because the language you speak in England has NEVER changed through natural progression. Imagine what the early Brits would think of the language you speak now if they heard you. Classic Brits stuck in the old times and refusing to change.

    • Another question you kinda alluded to..
      Why are they called “Americans”
      Mexicans, Canadians, Brazilians, Peruvians, etc. are also in America.
      It would be akin to calling people from Spain “Europeans” to distinguish them from Italians or Germans.

  • ^Typical Yuros being pretensious.

    But the real question is why do the British and others spell certain words with the letter u?

    Sometimes t makes sense, but a majority of the time it just does not. I mean do you really pronounce the word color as, col-OUR or color; another one being neighborhood or neighb-OUR-hood.

    Also its funny you complain about american on an american site, dont see many british owned sites do we now…

    • “Nobel_Guy” That is the stupidest comment I’ve seen in my whole life… British owned sites? Are you THAT ignorant?
      I do believe the language is ENGLISH! When we say “colour” we pronunciate the second half of the word differently to the first half… as do American I believe. Thus, usually, In Britain, coloUR is pronounced more like col-eer, but with an “oey” sound to it. As for Neighbour, if that’s the case why not just write naybour? Also, we write bour, because it’s pronounced our, NOT OUR like hour, but like the U in curse with an oey sound to it, we don’t say neigh-BOR.
      The dropping of the U by the Americans was just to make a statement that they were free of the British… FACT! Get your own language! ahaha I joke
      also, if one in to make the assumption that one is pretentious, it may be necessary for one to learn how to spell PRETENTIOUS! :/ YIKES that was awkward….

    • And if not for the invention of the telephone by Mr. Bell (a Canadian), the Internet would not have a medium to exist on.

      • Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922)[4] was a Scottish-born[N 3] scientist, inventor, engineer and innovator who is credited with patenting the first practical telephone.[

  • We inherited both “zee” & the English language from England. Why we chose the less common “zee” over “zed,” I don’t know. Zed is said to derive from Greek Zeta. Apparently no one says “bed” for “bee” from Beta.

  • The lyrics to rhyme with zed are scary! Say zed or you’re going to die!

    • Ah, the ignorance of Americanism.

      “[…] W, X, Y and Zed
      Now I know my abc’s
      Now it’s time to go to bed”

      Funny how Sesame Street could get it right when broadcast in Canada (a certain percent of the show had to be made with Canadian content or linguistic correction), but Americans in general can’t.

  • “… Now I know my ABC’s”. Ergo the letter ‘C’ and not Zed is what is rhyming with ‘me’. Why don’t you people just start pronouncing it properly and while you’re at it switch to the metric system like the rest of the world? 😉

  • Uhm, Just as the British, “we” were brought up to learn this language you call “stupid” or “ignorant” seems to me by these comments this is more racial than anything who cares how to say whatever it is you have to say. Who cares whos RIGHT or who won the war lol you people are a bunch of judgemental selfish creatures thats why the war began in the first place. (this including america) And all countries lie, steal, and cheat each other GET OVER IT. What makes you so special where you can act as victims? Hmm? And some of us didn’t choose to be here anyway ( African-Americans) so deal with it.

  • A Disgruntled Brit

    “The first known instance of “zee” being recorded as the correct pronunciation of the letter “z””

    >is one of the only countries to pronounce it this way
    >still thinks it’s right and everyone else is wrong
    >’murica

  • A Simple Irish Solution

    The English language by definition originates from England, I am sure that we can all agree on that? English is also the “international” language of the world that we live in.

    In my book there is no such thing as “American” English, there is only English. e.g. “Organisation, colour” and many other words have only one correct spelling, as is the case with todays English language.

    However, believe it or not, replacing the S with Z is not an American thing at all. The origin dates back to the early 1700s and actually came out of rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge Universities – the Americans adapted the use of Z and decided to leave out U’s.

    But this actually goes further, for some unknown reason Americans do not have a ground floor e.g. the 1st floor becomes the 2nd floor, another unknown!

    Although I am Irish, to me English is the language of England and we should respect that and follow along those lines.

    • Fortunately or unfortunately depending on your view, England cannot claim any sort of guardianship or stewardship of the English language [any more]. Not only because of how long it’s been since the split leading to Americanish and English English, but because of all the ex-colonies that speak it too, as well as the new wave of second-language speakers. More people speak English as a second language than speak it as a first.

      And of course there is no harmony within England itself either on how to spell and write things.

      On the other hand, my criticism at Americans is the general ignorance toward the language they have acquired.

  • Actually, the British adopted the “s”s and the “u”s while America was still a couple of colonies. The change just didn’t pass over the Atlantic.

  • While it is amusing to watch the “mighty” Americans getting ‘bashed’ by their “co-brothers” over who owns this language called ‘English’, I, a non-native speaker of ‘your’ language would like to gently draw the attention of the both of you to the following two pertinent facts, which obsolete your squabble:

    1) Native speakers are now substantially outnumbered worldwide by second-language speakers of English

    cited from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-speaking_world

    2) India has the largest number of second-language speakers (see Indian English)

    also cited from the same source as above.

    A map showing this is available here http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-most-english-language-speaker-map.html

    (I am unable to figure out how to insert the graphic in this reply, hence, I have just posted the URL).

    From another direction, there is the threat to English itself receding to ‘Second Language’ status with the rising numbers of Spanish speakers contra the declining numbers of English speakers, in the U. S.

    In light of such development, it may be very likely that white English speakers throughout the world will encounter the Indian accents – there are many – and, maybe, even adopt one, for wider market reach or other reasons, whether they like it or not.

    Guess, the ‘real’ Indians will be having the last laugh – in English, mind you.

    ;P

  • I love seeing this kind of thing on websites like this… Humans, arguing for years over petty and insignificant ordeals. You people fail to realize that we all live on this Earth. It shouldn’t matter how one set of people handle something and whether or not it’s different than the way you or anyone else does it is. Generalization and stereotyping are a hindrance and should be abolished from modern society. We all have out own idiosyncrasies.

    You Europeans always bash Americans for being inferior and having a superiority complex about themselves, always thinking they are better than everyone else but in doing so unwittingly become hypocrites because you yourselves are speaking through your own superiority complex. You are trying to prove how much better you are than they by doing the same thing they are which in the end makes you no better.

    You Americans take anything said negatively about your “culture” as an attack on freedom itself when you fail to remember that your culture is an amalgamation. Decades worth of cultures from around the world combining on a central location to create what you know and love today. Most people defend The country through extreme patriotism but that same patriotism has blinded you with delusions of grandeur. You say America was founded on freedom but the cost of that freedom was genocide and slavery and that’s a fact you seem to forget.

    This comments sections proves that both sides have ignorance. To hate and berate people solely basen on where they live and how they talk or type is a prime example. Just because someone makes a mistake spelling or doesn’t spell something the way you were taught doesn’t make them uneducated and inn the same light you aren’t intelligent just because you talk big game and spend to time of day to correct someones ignorance by showing your own. We (Humans) are all guilty of it and in the end it all points back to us being the same. We may live on in separate continents, speak different languages and live completely different lives but wise or not we are all homo sapiens sapiens. Embrace that fact and try getting along for once.

    On a final note I’d like to point out that any hypocritical statements (especially those that are stereotypical or generalize) made on my part are deliberate, facetious and should be taken as a point of reference for examples. I do not put myself above anyone else.

  • how very american to take something which directly derives from something MUCH MUCH older than you, thousands of years older and say “nope sry you’re all wrong, its ZEE kay thanks”.

    Άντε γαμήσου βλάκας!

  • I don’t know any British children who say Zed as Zee.

  • I’m Canadian, and like the article states, I am one of the countries that pronounces it “Zed”. Which I always found kind of funny because of our proximity to the States. I have heard some Canadians pronounce it “zee” but they’re not the majority. Funny how language evolves. Canadians still spell a lot of words like our British counterparts: centre, theatre, colour, favourite, yet we feel a closer connection with the States… for the most part!

  • It is Zee or just Z should never be said as “Zed”. Americans Improved upon it, as we do everything. A letter in the alphabet should not be said as a word which makes it sound totally different from the letter itself.

  • Proud Canadian here and I pronounce it “Zed”, but mainly to avoid confusion.

    I have never understood why anyone would want to have two letters of the alphabet pronounced the same When I hear someone say “Zee” I think of the letter “C” not “Z”.

  • To Zee or not to Zee? That is the question.

  • Just in the interest of accuracy: I don’t think it’s correct to say that “[t]he vast majority of the English speaking world” pronounces Z as zed, as the opening paragraph of this article does. About two-thirds of the world’s native English speakers are Americans, and a large percentage of non-native English speakers use the American dialect due to American creations like the Internet, Hollywood, etc., which, for better or worse, have propagated the US version of the language.

    So while it might be accurate to say that the vast majority of English-speaking *countries* (i.e. countries whose official or predominant language is English) pronounce the letter as zed, that’s probably not true for the majority of English speakers.

    I’m not saying one pronunciation is better or worse than the other; that kind of argument is just silly. People say things the way they say them because of what they’re used to. We should consider ourselves lucky to be able to communicate easily with such a large portion of the world and not squabble about petty differences.

  • I think what’s really odd is that USAvians spell ‘president’ with an s while clearly it’s a zed-sound and they use zeds in so many other places (e.g. capitalize) 😉

  • This has always been an interesting topic but as an Australian I say “Zed”, as stated by a Canadian above, when I hear “Zee” I tend to think of the third letter of the alphabet.

    Personally, I write in both types of English due to my work, if I’m writing specifically to American clients I’ll use words like “neighbor” and “organized”, to Canadians I’ll write “neighbour” and “organized” but to people in the United Kingdom I’ll write “neighbour” and “organised”. Neither are wrong in the local area so I try to adapt to their standard. If I were to write a generic e-mail to all groups, personally I would use British English, as I view it as a more accurate way of spelling.

    What annoys me though is when people from their own country (and I mainly find this from Canadians and Australians) can’t spell words their localised way, i.e. many people in Canada/Australia spell these following words like the Americans: flavor, meter and traveler. However, in their respective country it really should be spelt as flavour, metre and traveller. To be honest they more than likely do this because they have the English (US) spell check on, either way it amazes me that most people don’t check their spelling before they send something.

    As for a comment above, from a British person about Americans spelling words as “rite”, “nite” and “thru” I can assure you RIGHT now, that most Americans will tell you that these words are not the correct way of spelling in any area of the English speaking world, it’s rather an alternative way of spelling these words in a phonetic sense. Like how you see the words in Australia all the time “Lite Milk” or in the United Kingdom “Drive-Thru” anyone that has the slightest bit of education would know that these are almost like phrases than actual words.

    There is actually only ONE word in the whole English language that annoys me how Americas spell it, which is the word “cheque / check”. Spelling it the latter way gives that word many meanings then for no reason, whereas to me the word “cheque” specifically means “a form of payment.” I feel the way the Americans spell it their way is ultimately confusing.

  • I’m an American, so I pronounce it as Zee (In fact it’s my nickname because my last name starts with a Z), but honestly I don’t think an argument can be made at all on what is right or wrong. Fact is that just about all modern language is derived from some other ancient languages. So if you want to go by the rule that whoever was first is speaking correctly, it would be anyone who actually speaks an ancient language fluently. That aside, each country is entitled to their own language and grammar guidelines. We call our language English simply because it started in England, not because it’s still exactly like that language, but once America became its own country any derivation to the language is entirely up to it, just as it’s up to that country.

    Now on the point of the metric system, yes we should switch to it lol.

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