I watched the first programme of David Attenborough’s new series Madagascar on the television last night.
As well as following the narration and admiring the stunning pictures of wildlife and scenery, I was able to check that Attenborough pronounced sifaka, indri, tenrec and other Madagascan animals in the way I would expect. It turned out that he said these names just as shown in LPD — but there was one which he pronounced in a way that I had not allowed for. That was lemur.
Most people pronounce this word ˈliːmə(r). That is the pronunciation I prioritize in LPD, and it is the only form given in the Cambridge EPD and the Oxford ODP, not to mention Webster’s Collegiate and the OED. In LPD I do also include the rare and rather prissy variant ˈliːmjʊə which I must have noted somewhere. But what David Attenborough said on TV last night, repeatedly, was ˈliːmʊə. I don’t think I have ever heard that before.
Etymologically, the word is ‘modern Latin’, a reconstructed singular form of the Latin plural lĕmŭrēs ‘spirits of the dead’, supposedly from the lemur’s spectre-like face (COD). The OED’s first citation in this zoological meaning dates from 1795.
With such coinages there is no choice really but spelling pronunciation, hence ˈliːmə(r). In the Latin of nineteenth-century England, though, lemures would presumably have been pronounced ˈlemjʊəriːz, and in the twentieth century ˈlemʊreɪz. So this was evidently not the determining factor in pronouncing the reconstructed singular as the name of the animal.
En français on dit lémur lemyʀ; auf Deutsch sagt man Lemur leˈmuːɐ̯.