Ask Language Log: How to pronounce "Antifa"?

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From P.D.:

Long time reader, first time caller, etc. etc. As an armchair linguistics fan and someone who gets his news primarily online rather than from cable news, I've been wondering how one ought to go about pronouncing the word "antifa." I'd like to discuss current events with friends without putting my foot in it, like the friend I once had who pronounced "archive" as though it were something you might chop up and put on a bagel with some cream cheese.

My impression is that Norma Loquendi in America seems mostly to have decided on [ˌæn'ti.fə] — first syllable "Ann", second syllable "tea", third syllable rhymes with "uh", with the main word stress on "tea", as in this 8/19/2017 ABC 20/20 segment:

But there's an alternative — so in this 8/19/2017 CNN story, Jake Tapper has something like ['æn.ti.fɐ], with intitial-syllable stress and more of a full vowel on the final syllable:

It's easy to see why people come out different ways on this one. The source word anti-fascist has primary stress on the third syllable and secondary stress on the first syllable. One approach would is to trim the pronunciation of anti-fascist to the portion corresponding to the spelling "antifa" — but this runs into the problem that  [æ] doesn't normally occur in English final open syllables. So the solution is to remove the stress from the third syllable, which shifts the main stress to the first syllable, and then either change the final vowel to one that can end a stressed syllable in English, or reduce it to schwa, or leave it in some kind of quasi-reduced limbo as Tapper does.

In the other direction, there's strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English, as in "Tiramisu" or "Samarra" or "NATO". So I'm predicting that  [æn'ti.fə]  is going to win in the end. But for now, at least, you can take your pick.

On a related note: is there a term of art for a mispronunciation borne of learning a word solely from written context, a sort of spoken eggcorn?

It's called a "spelling pronunciation".

Update — there's a third option, from later in the same ABC 20/20 segment, where Lacy Macauley, self-identified as an Antifa activist, uses the pronunciation [ˌɑn'ti.fə], with penultimate stress but a low back vowel in the first syllable — perhaps taken from a European version of the movement?:

 



49 Comments

  1. Language links 8/21 | Everyday linguistic anthropology said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 7:53 am

    […] Do you know how to pronounce 'antifa'? […]

  2. cliff arroyo said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:08 am

    I mentally pronounce it (haven't had the opportunity to actually say it spontaneously) more like the second but with a longer 'ah' vowel (or law vowel, I have the cot/caught merger). I want to pronounce the first syllable with the same vowel but it comes out with the apple vowel….

  3. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:26 am

    ".. there's strong pressure to apply penultimate stress to vowel-final borrowed or constructed words in English"

    Would you agree that there is similar pressure for antepenultimate stress in consonant-final words of three or more syllables (Esteban, Vladimir. ASEAN), and (at least in the US) ultimate stress in disyllabic ones (Gabor, Loren, Perez, Wiesel)?

  4. Zeppelin said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:40 am

    I'd only ever heard it pronounced with initial stress before, so [ˌæn'ti.fə] made me do a double-take.
    On a hunch, I'd predict initial stress to be more common among leftists and other people familiar with Antifa — the movement's core seems to be in Germany, where it's pronounced /'an.ti:ˌfa:/. Do we know how Antifa members in English-speaking countries pronounce it themselves?

  5. Stefan said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    Well, it's the 2nd pronunciation for me. The shortform is, AFAIK, a German coinage, which had its current reincarnation back in the early 1980s, but with origins before that. And the 2nd pronunciation is the German one. The first pronunciation sounds like chalk on blackboard squeak to me.

  6. 'Antifa member in English-speaking country' said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 9:26 am

    this has been driving me out of my mind! 'antifa' is not a new word (even if cnn just found out about it) and has always had initial stress, in english as in german, as Zeppelin points out. just had a conversation about this at an antifa protest yesterday. everyone was confused.

  7. GeorgeW said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 10:11 am

    Before hearing it (and knowing its origin), my first impulse was [æn'tI.fə] or [æn'ti.fə], both with penultimate stress.

  8. David said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    When I saw it for the first time, I mentally said it like Jake Tapper ['æn.ti.fɐ] with a distinct fah at the end. The word reminded me of "intifada" and I guess I modeled the pronunciation on that word.

  9. Ben Zimmer said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 3:03 pm

    Mark Bray (author of the forthcoming Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, so presumably an expert), wrote in the Washington Post recently that it's "pronounced ANtifa." That doesn't help with vowel quality, but initial stress does seem to be preferred by those in the know.

  10. Doug said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

    Interesting.

    I've always pronounced "antifa" with initial stress (mentally — I've never had occasion to say it aloud in my brief acquaintance with the word).

    If I had ever heard anyone pronounce it stressed on the second syllable, I would have assumed that the person pronouncing it that way had missed the meaning/etymology "anti"+"fascist".

    Similar to "biopic" pronounced like "myopic" in Geoff Pullum's post:

    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=3560

  11. Xtifr said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 3:51 pm

    I'm with cliff arroyo: first syllable stress, and the "fa" I pronounce like the musical note.

  12. CD said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:00 pm

    Yeah. Maybe there's a counterexample, but every English word I can think of with the anti- prefix pronounces it with the initial stress — antiwar, antibiotic, antifreeze, antisocial.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

    CD: It wasn't initially clear to me that the 'anti-' in this word was the 'against' prefix. All of the examples seem have a complete word following the 'anti-.' This is not the case of antifa. Against fa? Hmm.

  14. CuConnacht said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 4:36 pm

    CD: Antipodes, antipodean. Having said that, I pronounce antifa as does cliff arroyo.

  15. Matt said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 5:02 pm

    I have heard another version [ˈæntɨˌfɑ].

  16. Ethan said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 8:08 pm

    antipathy antiphony antimony antithesis

    FWIW the local newscasters here seem to stress all 3 syllables equally.

  17. Mike said,

    August 20, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

    Joe Clark (https://blog.fawny.org/2017/02/24/anteefa/) collected recordings of a dozen people pronouncing it and came to the following conclusion:

    The problem here is the variability of words that begin with anti‑ (in various senses): antidote, anti-inflammatory, antigen, antithesis. I've heard antifa pronounced about half a dozen different ways. There seems to be a convergence on this pronunciation:
    an·TEE·fa – Strong stress on middle syllable; start that syllable with T; end vowel is the same as in hut and is not [a:] or schwa†
    IPA: [ˌænˈtiːfʌ]

  18. CD said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 12:25 am

    Antigua. Down with gua!

  19. CL Thornett said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 12:47 am

    With no context, the word looks not-English (perhaps an island somewhere warm?), with stress probably on the second syllable when Englished, on the pattern of Antigua, resulting in something like an-TEE-fuh. Encountering it in news reports with a clear political context primes me to hear it mentally as anti-fa[scist], probably with the final vowel as ah (father), but wondering if it should be the CAT vowel from fascist. I don't think I've actually heard anyone say it in the UK.

  20. Graeme said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 1:13 am

    The origin of this neologism would be interesting.
    Assuming the activist left, whoever coined it can't have been unaware of a superficial similarity with 'intifada'

  21. Vilinthril said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 3:54 am

    I'm with Zeppelin on this, initial stress.

  22. Lazar said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:26 am

    @Graeme: <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=Antifa&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=20&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2CAntifa%3B%2Cc0"I doubt it."

    Myself, I use /ænˈtiːfə/, but I think I mostly arrived at that on my own from seeing it in print. My second choice, which I guess I might use depending on the interlocutor, would be /ˈæntiˌfɑː/.

  23. Lazar said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:27 am

    (Yeesh, mistyped the tag.)

  24. George said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:50 am

    It would never have crossed my mind to pronounce it any differently than I would pronounce antifascist with the final syllable lopped off: ANT-ee-FA (with the same vowel sound in the first and last syllables in my case, as I'm Irish).

  25. George said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:53 am

    … although that last A would be a bit longer, so we're really talking about essentially the same thing as LAH-dee-DAH in terms of stress pattern and vowel sounds.

  26. Martin Ball said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 7:47 am

    /ˌæntiˈfɑː/
    Welsh, living in Ireland :)

  27. Bob Ladd said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 11:00 am

    @ CLThornett, @Graeme:
    If the earlier commenters are correct that the term originated in Germany, there's a good reason it looks non-English. German regularly truncates syllables after the vowel to create short snappy words. A couple of familiar (if now mercifully in the past) examples are Gestapo and Stasi. The first involves three truncated words: GEheimSTAatsPOlizei ('secret state police') and the second involves two STAatsSIcherheit ('state security'). Newer examples, unlikely to be familiar to non-German speakers, are Trafo ('(electrical) transformer') and Kita ('nursery, daycare') (from KInderTAgesstätte). So Antifa is a perfectly normal neologism in German and would obviously be pronounced on the first syllable. But because it looks weird in English, and because of the other possibilities suggested by the other commenters, that's not obvious in English.

  28. Zeppelin said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 11:07 am

    @Graeme

    It's a word in the German tradition of abbreviation by removal of syllables (as opposed to initialism) — compare Stasi, Stuka, Flak, Nazi, Haribo… — so it sounds much less "exotic" to a German. I've known the word for as long as I can remember and it never occured to me that someone might connect it with "intifada".

  29. Zeppelin said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 11:08 am

    And Bob Ladd beats me to it with a better post on the subject.

  30. Bob Ladd said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 12:43 pm

    @Zeppelin:
    What are the components of Haribo? I never knew that was one of those.

  31. Doug said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 12:45 pm

    Thanks Bob Ladd,

    I guess an example of the closest English equivalent to the process that produced German "antifa" would be "neocon" from "neoconservative."

    I expect that if an American English speaker had decided to clip "antifascist", they might have wound up with "Antifash", preserving the consonant sound at the end.

  32. Bob Ladd said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    I missed an opportunity to make my comment topical: During the solar eclipse in Germany in 1999, I saw at least a couple of signs offering parking spaces, etc., for the Sofi (SOnnenFInsternis, i.e. solar eclipse). This is definitely a productive pattern in German.

  33. Zeppelin said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 4:42 pm

    @Bob Ladd

    Haribo is short for "HAns RIegel, BOnn", after the founder and his home town! And if we're talking hoary German brands we might also include Sinalco soft drinks, from "SINe ALCOhole".

  34. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    August 21, 2017 @ 5:22 pm

    This is interesting phonologically. In these neologisms, German seems not to mind changing a checked vowel to a free one (Antifa, Stasi, Haribo, presumably also Sofi). I think the reason Antifa looks weird to English eyes is that English does not normally do this, and prefers to keep the consonant. Am I right?

    That's why I find the comments by Mike, claiming final STRUT, and George, claiming final TRAP, quite remarkable.

  35. Bob Ladd said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 2:56 am

    @Doug, @Jarek Weckwerth
    Losing the final consonant is certainly part of what makes the German forms seem odd in English. Phonologically, English respects the standard analysis of the syllable as consisting of onset and rime, whereas German creates a new syllable by taking the onset and part of the rime (the nucleus) and dropping any coda.
    But it's possible this is partly orthographic rather than really phonological – to cut a word for a neologism, you just stop after the first vowel letter. The neologisms are always pronounced according to normal orthographic rules, not the vowel quality of the original uncut word. So Sofi would have a long [o:] and a long [i:], even though those vowels are short in Sonne and Finsternis

  36. Robert said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 3:47 am

    This mirrors the alteration in the American pronunciation of "Adidas", also coming from a German abbreviation with first syllable emphasis originally.

  37. Rose Eneri said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 8:43 am

    When I first started seeing it recently, I too thought antifa was related to intifada. And I would have placed stress on the 2nd syllable. It seems odd to truncate just one syllable, albeit one with lots of Cs (CVCC). This differs from neocon, which truncates 3 syllables.

    Now that I know the derivation, I would pronounce it like other "anti" words with stress on the first syllable, but with the father vowel at the end in line with what Prof Liberman said in the original post "that [æ] doesn't normally occur in English final open syllables". But more likely I would just say anti-fascist.

  38. bobbie said,

    August 22, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    I assumed that it was from anti + fascist, hence accent on the first syllable. Aan-TEE-fuh sounds silly to me and reminds me of Queen Latifah.
    AAN-tee-FASH-ist makes much more sense than An-TEE-fash-[ist].

  39. Geoff Nunberg said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 1:04 am

    I say it with initial stress and [æ] in the final syllable. This is no doubt a lost cause, but it seems to me that this is the pronunciation that best evokes its etymology and resists the facile equivalence of DJT's "on many sides."

  40. Doreen said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 7:11 am

    I'm another one for initial stress, but I speak some German and was aware of its etymology.

    Here's a different perspective that might carry weight for a certain demographic: https://twitter.com/ChrisStephensMD/status/900192642234949632

  41. Robert Coren said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 10:12 am

    Given the origin, I would be with the people who stress the first syllable and put /ɑ/ in the final syllable, but I saw it written somewhere that the Antifa people themselves stress the second syllable.

    Meanwhile, P.D.'s recollection of their friend's pronunciation of archive reminds me of a colleague, a native speaker of Polish who spoke accented but quite fluent English, who had a couple of tics, one spoken and one written, that I never got up the courage to correct (I'm guessing he would have appreciated it): He pronounced vague to rhyme with ague, and he spelled rogue as rouge.

    It's not particularly surprising that a non-native speaker of English would have trouble with the vagaries of final -gue.

  42. poftim said,

    August 23, 2017 @ 1:05 pm

    I didn't know it was common to pronounce Tiramisu with penultimate stress in English. It's /ˌtɪrəmiˈsuː/ for me. I'm a BrE speaker, now living in Timișoara (which some programs autocorrect to Tiramisu) in Romania.

  43. BZ said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 10:21 am

    @bobbie,
    But we have full non-abbreviated words like alTImeter, therMOmeter, paRAbola, eCOnomy, etc, not to mention all the –

  44. BZ said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    Sorry, forget the "not to mention" part

  45. Matt said,

    August 24, 2017 @ 12:05 pm

    The other day I heard Donald Trump pronounce it as [ænˈtifɐ] on TV.

  46. Hannah said,

    August 26, 2017 @ 12:23 am

    Just adding one more data point: my perception, having been part of multiple anti-racist / anti-Nazi / anti-alt-right protests recently at which antifa were a very welcome protective presence, is that the predominant pronunciation among the protesters ourselves is ['æn.ti.fæ], produced simply by truncating the longer word "anti-fascist" without reducing the final vowel at all. It does feel a little awkward, as Mark points out, but it's what I've been hearing in practice. I've certainly heard the pronunciation [æn'ti.fə], and to me it always gives the impression that the speaker is somewhat out of touch, both with the term's etymology and with the actual nature and actions of antifa in the real world.

  47. boynamedsue said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 3:13 am

    To concur with Hannah, in the UK it's ['æn.ti.fæ], with the [æ] varying according to the regional background of the speaker. Antifa is quite strong in Northern cities, so it's often [a]. It is a bit of a gobful not to reduce the vowel, so people often just say "antifascists" or use euphemisms like "red and black" or "activists".

    I'd further agree with Hannah on their welcome contribution. As a resident of Liverpool I am grateful to our local antifa and the more "boisterous" elements of our football support, black community and trade unions for stopping fascists from marching through our city on several occasions. To put it bluntly, if fascists try seigheiling through my home town, I want them to go home bleeding.

  48. Alon said,

    August 29, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

    I have [ˌæn'ti.fə], but that's because I first became familiar with the term in Spanish, where it's pronounced [an'ti.fa]. The shift in stress from the full-fledged form [an.ti.fas'θis.ta] seems unremarkable to my Sprachgefühl.

  49. Peter Remane said,

    August 31, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    Concerning the German pattern of forming words from truncated syllables: I'm German myself, and I have a feeling that this pattern, while having existed for a long time, has become more common in recent years.
    Some old examples have already been mentioned; one might add "Azubi" for AusZUBIldende(r) (apprentice/trainee), "Hiwi" for HIlfsWIllige(r) ("willing to help", originally from nazi times I've been told, but still in (unofficial) use for students with small assistant jobs at university when I was a student). If you subtract the brand names because they aren't spontaneous coinages, the number of older words of that type doesn't seem to be all that large.
    On the other hand, in recent years there have been "Groko" for GROße KOalition, "Bufdi" for BUndesFreiwilligenDIenstleistende(r) and… well, not really all that many. Guess I'm wrong then. They haven't become more common after all. Why does it feel like it though? Perhaps it's because each new one makes me wince, while the ones that have been around my whole life just seem normal.

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