Thursday, 29 July 2010


I'm sure anyone reading this blog is familiar with the Queen's English Society and their mission to protect English from the rampaging hordes of young people and Americans. I didn't write about it because Stan Carey at Sentence First said everything that needed to be said. But recently Gabe at Motivated Grammar addressed a specific complaint the QES makes, and I became interested in doing the same (or biting his style, as the kids say).

The QES objects to either pronounced with /i/ (the "ee" sound) instead of /aɪ/ (the "eye" sound). Their reasoning is twofold:

1. The /aɪ/ pronunciation is "upper-class" and "cultured", and changed to /i/ in the 50s "probably" under American influence.
2. "many words in English come from some form of Old German", and in German the letter combination ei is pronounced /aɪ/, so therefore in English words of Germanic origin, ei should be pronounced /aɪ/ as well.

Regarding point 1: I'm not sure how the QES knows how and when the pronunciation changed. For the record, both pronunciations of either are standard. The /i/ pronunciation is usual in American English, while /aɪ/ is more common in British English. However, /aɪ/ is found in the speech of "well-educated speakers in urban areas of the Northeast" US.[1] I find it weird that pronouncing a word with a high front unrounded vowel as opposed to a falling diphthong is seen as a "regrettable" infiltration.

Regarding point 2: there are several problems with this. From one point of view it is true that many English words are derived from a form of "Old German", but this in turn means that many German words are derived from a form of Old English. The ancester of both languages is a putative language called Proto-Germanic, so Proto-Germanic is a very old form of German, but it's also a very old form of English. So why don't the Germans look to English to find out how to pronounce their words?

Next, the claim that ei should be /aɪ/ in English because that's how it's pronounced in German looks like a form of the etymological fallacy: the belief that we need to look to another language to determine what makes correct English.

Finally, the argument that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is correct because of the word's Germanic history doesn't make sense because historically, the /aɪ/ pronunciation is wrong. Either developed from Old English ǣġhwæðer, a combination of ā "always" plus ġehwæðer "each of two" (modern whether). It was contracted to ǣgðer, then later spelled either[2] - so it's the development of the initial ǣ that concerns us here. Old English ǣ was usually pronounced /æː/, and this generally became Middle English /ɛː/ which became Modern English /i/. For instance, Old English tǣcan with /æː/ became Middle English teche which became Modern English teach with /i/.[3] So it seems that the etymologically correct pronuncation of either is with /i/.

The OED notes that the /aɪ/ pronunciation is "not in accordance with the analogies of standard Eng[lish]" (I'm not even sure what that means, actually) but that it is "in London somewhat more prevalent in educated speech" than the /i/ pronunciation.

Summary: The /aɪ/ pronunciation still seems common in British English, but even if it isn't nothing important has been lost, and German spelling is irrelevant to English pronunciation.

[1]The American Heritage Book of English Usage (1996).
[2] Oxford English Dictionary, either.
[3]Millward, A Biography of the English Language (1988), p. 131.


arnie said...

I'm beginning to think that it's a little unsporting to refute the quibbles of the QES like this. It's a little like aiming at sitting ducks.

On the other hand, they put their heads over the parapet so should expect to get them shot at (to mix a metaphor). It's good fun, too! :)

vp said...

Wouldn't the regular development be more like "ayther" (i.e. with the FACE vowel)? I thought that words with ǣġ became "ay" -- e.g. DAY. Could be wrong, though.

goofy said...

doesn't "dæġ" have a short /æ/? But you could be right anyway.

Harry Campbell said...

Refuting the QES is indeed a bit like wasting the time of an astronomer to explain in words of one syllable to a six-year-old that there actually are no little green men living on the moon. But when the toddlers are given so much exposure by a childishly ignorant British media, I suppose it has to be done.

Amelia said...

I must admit that I only learned to pronounce this word correctly /ai/, but when I started to work with American people, I changed... quickly. It's just usage and I guess that being understood is very important, especially in the oral language.
I guess that this kind of changes would take longer for written issues.

I would also like to get your insights on interesting topics related to translation in this blog:

Best regards,


goofy said...

vp: According to The History of English Spelling (Upward & Davidson, 2011), the most common reflex of OE ǣ is /i/ (the FLEECE vowel) spelled ee or ea. There are other reflexes too.