How to pronounce parameter

I find the incorrect pronunciation of the word parameter in English (and of Parameter in German) both annoying and fascinating. Remarkably, the mistake is made both by professionals who use it almost every day, and people who haven’t used the word parameter since they distanced themselves from mathematics after high school.

The OED gives the following pronunciations (listen here)

[pəˈræmɪtə(r)] (BrE), [pəˈræmɪtər] (AmE)

Note that in both cases, the stress is on the second syllable, not the first! It is a common mistake but still a mistake to stress parameter on the first syllable. However, it is quite obvious why the mistake is common, because the words
parallel, paramilitary, paramount and even parametric are all stressed on the first syllable. In the case of paralyses, the stress is on the first syllable for the verb, and on the second for the noun. Furthermore, for the words paramedic and paralegal, the stress is on medic and legal, respectively. Hence, there does not seem to be an easy-to-remember rule regarding the pronunciation of para-, but at least you know the correct pronunciation of parameter now.

A detail not captured by the phonetic spelling given above (but can clearly be heard here) is the fact that in American English, the t is typically flapped (see, for example, the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary), similar to the word city.

PS: for a related discussion of the word meter, see this post.


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