When I wrote a post on the confusion between the meanings of the nouns swath and swatch, I discovered that considerable disagreement exists regarding the pronunciation of the noun swath and the verb swathe.
NOTE: The noun swath denotes the narrow path of cut grass made by a scythe or mower. The verb swathe means “to wrap up, swaddle or bandage.”
If all you want from this article is to know how to pronounce swath and swathe, please skip the middle and read the part that begins, “My advice to speakers.”
If like me you enjoy exploring changes in pronunciation, read the middle as well.
Daniel Jones Pronouncing Dictionary
This British reference, published 1967, gives one pronunciation for the spelling swath: /swɔːθ/ [swawth] and one for swathe: /sweɪð/ [swayth].
Note: The spellings between square brackets are for readers unfamiliar with the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols. Plain a represents the broad a of father. Plain th represents the unvoiced sound of th heard in thin. Th represents the voiced sound of th heard in then. Ay represents the long a heard in late.
Oxford English Dictionary
For the verb swathe, the OED shows /sweɪð/ [swayth] as both British and US pronunciation.
For the noun swath, the OED shows /swɒθ/ [swath] for both British and US pronunciation. It gives /swɒð/ [swath] as a variant US pronunciation.
The spelling swathe is noted as a variant spelling of the noun swath.
The main entry for the noun shows the spelling swath, followed by an audio pronunciation that models broad a with voiced th: /swɒθ/ [swath].
The spelling swathe is given as a variant spelling, but the pronunciation modeled for it on the audio is /swɒð/ [swath].
The noun swath is shown with the pronunciation /swɒθ/ [swath]. Two pronunciations are given for the verb swathe: “/swɒð/ [swath] or /sweɪð/ [swayth].”
This site usually gives the British pronunciation of a word first, followed by US pronunciation is applicable. However, the principal pronunciation given for swath is not OED’s /swɒθ/ [swath] but voiced /sweɪð/ [swayth]. Four “American” pronunciations are given: [swath], [swath], [sworth], and [sworth].
No doubt about it, English speakers have problems with swath and swathe.
Charles Elster (The Big Book of Beastly Pronunciation) devotes nearly an entire page to the pronunciation of the verb swathe.
He begins by showing [swayth] as the “traditional” pronunciation, acknowledging that the word is “now often” heard pronounced as [swath]. He prefaces his discussion by lamenting:
I find it nothing short of remarkable that—viewed from the perspective of the dictionaries—a pronunciation that has prevailed in cultivated speech for more than 150 years can be replaced, seemingly overnight, by a newly minted variant that no authority has recognized, rejected, or even remarked upon.
He blames Merriam-Webster for the aberration, pointing out that in 1961, “in an astonishing bit of lexicographic legerdemain,” Webster’s Third Edition “gave priority to the heretofore unknown and unbaptized SWATH and labeled the traditional SWAYTH “infrequent.”
He ends his rant with a reluctant acceptance of broad a for the verb as well as for the noun, but pleads that speakers keep the voiced th:
However you choose to pronounce the a, do not, under any circumstances, pronounce the th with a dental hiss as in breath and death. It must be voiced, as in seethe, breathe, and rather.
My advice to speakers who are not yet set in their ways regarding swath and swathe is this:
If you mean the noun, spell it swath and pronounce it /swɒθ/ [swath]. Example: “The mower cut a swath six feet wide.”
If you intend the verb, spell it swathe and pronounce it to rhyme with bathe. Example: “Do not swathe the baby too tightly.”
Note: The spelling swathe [pronounced /sweɪð/ [swayth] can be used as noun to mean “a band of linen or other fabric used to wrap something; a length of fabric.” British author Marjorie Eccles uses swathe as a noun in her mystery The Superintendent’s Daughter (1999):
Abigail eased her way…between the stands of wallpaper books and rolls of furnishing fabrics jostling modern and antique pieces of furniture. Swathes of rich, stained-glass-coloured old silk and velvet lay side by side with currently fashionable jujube-coloured cottons, lemon and lime and orange.