The Venom trailer raises the question: how the hell do you pronounce “symbiote”?



Venom’s latest trailer goes against 25 years of assumed pronunciation.

Good afternoon, class.  I am Professor Clements, Literature instructor and professional phoneticist. Through twenty years of work and study as an actor, teacher, director, and classically trained vocalist, I have honed my craft and am here today to talk about a word that, while familiar to many fans of a certain gooey anti-hero, might be entering the mainstream lexicon thanks to the new trailer that dropped this morning.  Let’s discuss the word “symbiote.”

Finding a clear definition of the word depends on your sourcing.  Webster’s dictionary and its various forms seem to favor the word over the similar “symbiont,” proffered by dictionary.com, while others include neither word.  In general, a “symbiote” is a member of a symbiotic relationship, usually the smaller, non-host member. It is not a parasite, which benefits at the expense of the host organism, but rather, the relationship between the two organisms is beneficial to both.  We in the geek community, of course, know the word intimately from the introduction of the Marvel character Venom. The alien symbiote that attaches itself to journalist Eddie Brock attempts to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the two, for better or worse.

Now, if you are like me, you hear the word “symbiote” in your head a certain way when you read it.  Perhaps, you know you’ve said it the same way every single time it has crossed your lips in conversation.  And then, this happened:

Symbiote.  Try thinking about how to say it now.  Actress Jenny Slate, playing Life Foundation scientist Dora Skirth, pronounces it in a way that has been jarring to audiences, if Twitter hits are any indication.  Using the International Phonetic Alphabet (and a dictionary preferred method) I will break down her pronunciation and see if she – or the rest of us – are correct.

Slate pronounces the word as “sim – by – oat” with even emphasis on all three syllables.  If we look at Mirriam-Webster’s online dictionary, we get a slightly different pronunciation.

 

“Sim – bee – oat” with the full emphasis on the first syllable and the final two evenly emphasized.  Webster’s allows for both pronunciations of the middle syllable as correct, but the online dictionary prefers the “bee-” sound while Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary prefers the “by-.”

To throw another wrench in the works, we’re dealing with individualized American/British dialects, since Tom Hardy is a Brit putting on an American accent while Slate is a Bostonian.  As a native Philadelphian now living in the south, dialects are tricky things. Putting those aside, though, can give us a slightly different pronunciation of the final syllable. It certainly can be said this way:

If we decide to be a bit more American and slur our words together, this could very well be “sim – be – uht.”

So, which one is correct?  According to Mirriam-Webster, the winner is: 

or “sim-bee-oat.”  If you’re up in arms about Jenny Slate’s pronunciation, however, I’ve got bad news for you.  Linguistics is a very, very tricky field and there are very few absolutes in pronunciation. Just because she doesn’t say it the way you’ve said it in your head since the 1990s, it doesn’t make her wrong.