October 29, 1999
Stewart and Lillian Mein wrote:
There are two ways of pronouncing the words either and neither (with the "ei" pronounced with "ie," like the "i" in like or like the "ee" in queen.) Which is the correct way, and when did people start pronouncing them the other way?
The simple answer to the first question (and I suspect the one you have come to expect from me!) is that both are correct. (Or should I say "either is correct"?) But there is more to your question than that, and these words have an interesting history that provides a glimpse into the kinds of attitudes that can develop about language.
In 17th-century England, the prevailing pronunciation was "ay," as in cake, with an occasional alternative "e," pronounced so that either and neither rhymed with weather. The "ay" vowel remains for these words in parts of present-day Ireland and Scotland.
By 1800, both "ee" (as in "weed")and "ie" (as in "wide") were in general use in England. From the 19th century on, "ie" has come to predominate there, especially in the speech of Southern England.
In most of the United States, the "ee" pronunciation is far and away the most frequent and has been from this country's birth. It was not until the 19th century that "ie" was borrowed from British speech, and compilers of early American dictionaries (e.g., John Walker, 1836; Noah Webster, 1838) did not show the "ie" option at all. In 1911, the Century Dictionary added "ie," and from the 1930s on, "ee, ie" has been the pattern in American dictionaries.
As one might expect of a relatively recent British borrowing, "ie" is found most frequently in the parts of this country that have maintained historical and cultural ties with England--namely, New England and parts of the eastern seaboard. It is also heard on radio and television.
But this alternate pronunciation, whatever its history and regional distribution, has become a source of controversy, even vituperation. Clearly, in the minds of many Americans, it remains closely associated with British educated speech. And while for some people, that lends "ie" a certain cachet, for others, the "ie" pronunciation is a symptom of snobbery. Here, for example, is a quote from Daniel Jones' An English Pronouncing Dictionary (1924), where "ie" and "ee" are said to be the pronunciations "most usually heard in the everyday speech of families of Southern English persons whose menfolk have been educated at the great public boarding schools." And one British usage manual (Kingsley Amis, 1998) finds the "ee" pronunciation "a trifle underbred."
In sum, it is true that on both sides of the Atlantic, both "ee" and "ie" are considered standard, perfectly acceptable pronunciations, given in dictionaries without any cautionary label. However, it is probably useful to realize that in this country, at least, there are people who sharply criticize "ie" as an affectation, and a borrowed one at that.
That may sometimes, even often, be the case. But there is at least one exception. If a so-called "affected" pronunciation--like "vahz" for vase, "ahnt" for aunt, or "nie-ther" for neither--is one you grew up with, one you heard throughout your childhood from your parents or peers, it is not an affectation on your part. It is integral to your natural speech.
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