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This word—used to mean an elementary textbook, not a painting material—annoys me to no end. Does anyone know why, exactly, "primer" is pronounced with a short "i" sound? I don't know why, call it intuition, but I can't see why this word isn't spelled "primmer." Are there any particular etymological reasons for this spelling/pronunciation combination?

EDIT: Apparently this situation is only recognizable to American English speakers. I've only ever heard it pronounced with a short "i," but this seems to be completely unheard of to British English speakers.

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The spelling makes sense to me. I am surprised (and dismayed) by the pronunciation. – John Y Jan 26 '11 at 5:47
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I am completely boggled at this question, and its answers. I have never heard anybody pronounce it "primmer", nor ever heard before any suggestion that it might be so. You live and sometimes you learn ... – Colin Fine Jan 26 '11 at 12:29
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As an American, I am familiar with the short-i pronounciation of the word. – Matt Ball Jan 26 '11 at 16:21
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In my 21 years of living in America, I can honestly say the "primmer" is the only way I've ever heard it pronounced. – advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 3:32
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Of course my pronunciation is "standard" and everyone else's is "nonstandard". – GEdgar Jul 7 '11 at 18:41
up vote 33 down vote accepted

Personal experience: It's not. Primer is pronounced with a long i sound, like miner or buyer, and I've never heard it ever pronounced differently.

Linguistic answer: Dictionaries vary on which is the correct pronunciation, but the OED, which is generally considered the final word on the English language, accepts both pronunciations as valid. The "long i" pronunciation occurs in related words such as primary and prime.

The short i pronunciation doesn't seem to be predominant (at least not in Southern California), so that's why we stick with the single "m".

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8  
Merriam-Webster and other dictionaries give the pronunciation suggested by the original question as the first pronunciation. Indeed, the talk page on Wiktionary shows it used to have the "primmer" pronunciation but it was removed for dubious reasons. – nohat Jan 26 '11 at 6:18
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@nohat Ok, I consulted the OED (I just learned they have the coolest IPA popups) and apparently both are in use. But I've never heard of the short i pronunciation, and considering it's etymology, I'm sticking with the long i pronunciation. – waiwai933 Jan 26 '11 at 6:47
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I think the "primmer" pronunciation is a shibboleth for orthoepic pedants. It frequently appears on lists of words that people often pronounce "incorrectly", along with "err should rhyme with her" – nohat Jan 26 '11 at 7:41
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-1 for the first line. It's practically the only way it's used in America. I hear it all the time from professors and on American television. The word pronounced "pr-eye-mer" is a type of paint. The word pronounced "primmer" is an introductory text or lesson. – advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 3:36
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Why is this so highly rated? It's, what's the word, wrong and incomplete. Is this just a case of people following what they think is right based on their own local pronunciation? The correct answer is that the two pronunciations are both correct in different dialects, and that the older pronunciation is the pre-Vowel Shift one. – Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:53

The short 'i' tends to be used in American English, referring to the introductory textbooks. I have heard it quite often from good quality US media outlets (NPR etc.) so would assume it is regarded as standard. The British English is pronounced with a long 'i' (as in miner).

For the meaning of 'primer' as in a first layer of bonding material on a wall etc. before it is is painted, or in explosives/ammunition, the British pronunciation is, again, with the long 'i' (as in miner) and the American pronunciation is usually, in my experience anyhow, also with the long 'i' (as in miner).

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Yeah. I would say that primer as a type of paint is always pronounced "prymer." It's the intro-textbook connotation that has a variable pronunciation. – advs89 Feb 25 '11 at 4:34
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I'm a UK speaker who's fairly used to hearing Americans pronounce words oddly. Given the context, I guess I'd understand "primmer", but I don't recall ever hearing it. What I find odd is that many people apparently say "primer" for the pre-undercoat. To me they're both just transparent figurative usages of the one word meaning "something that primes". Different accents, I get. But I'm amazed anyone would think to split those two meanings of one word, by pronouncing it differently. – FumbleFingers Jan 3 '12 at 23:41
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@FumbleFingers The etymology of book-type primer is not from something that primes. It's from church-Latin primarius, a prayer book. – Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:55
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@Mark Beadles: As it happens, I just watched John Wayne's 1975 movie "Rooster Cogburn" last night, wherein Eula Goodnight says The Bible "was her primer" (except she actually says primmer). As johng says, Brits simply don't make that distinction in pronunciation, regardless of whether the two words have "different" etymologies (though I'd still say they really both have the same underlying origin anyway, even if you see them as separate). – FumbleFingers Jun 25 '12 at 17:15
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@FumbleFingers, you may be amazed but nevertheless it's a fact in the many US dialects pry-mer means a paint coating, an engine additive, or a projectile charge, and primm-er means a learning-book. That is, they are homographs and different words. As far as underlying origins, I suppose both do come from Latin "primus" but through different "paths", so to speak. – Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 17:27
up vote 15 down vote
+200

The OED pronunciation of primer, n.1 is

Brit. /ˈprʌɪmə/, /ˈprɪmə/, U.S. /ˈprɪmər/, /ˈpraɪmər/
(in sense 2d) Brit. /ˈprɪmə/, U.S. /ˈprɪmər/, N.Z. /ˈprɪmə/

That shows that apart from sense 2d, the ‘long i’ version is preferred in Britain and the ‘short i’ version is preferred in the U.S., and that apparently everyone says the ‘short i’ version for sense 2d (see below).

It also notes that:

Pronunciation with ‘short’ i (/ɪ/) is original (and is still usual in senses relating to type); pronunciation (in the other senses) with ‘long’ i (now /ʌɪ/) seems to be first recorded in British dictionaries of the late 19th cent. and is the primary one given in all editions of D. Jones Eng. Pronouncing Dict.

Which says that the ‘long i’ version is new, and that the original and historic pronunciation is the ‘short i’ version, which America has retained more than Britain has.

The referenced sense 2d is

Chiefly N.Z. A class covering one of the first years of instruction in a primary school; a child in a primary school class.


Citation:

primer, n.1

Third edition, June 2007; online version March 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/151307; accessed 08 May 2012. An entry for this word was first included in New English Dictionary, 1908.

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Peripheral regions retaining conservative pronunciation is the usual situation, no? – Charles May 8 '12 at 14:55
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@Charles Not always. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Italy is more conservative of the original Latin pronunciation than Spain, Spain more conservative than Portugual, and Portugal more conservative than France. – tchrist May 8 '12 at 15:03
    
Italy more linguistically conservative than Spain? Not on your life! Spanish is much closer to VLatin than Italian. A better example (for you) would be that French is more linguistically innovative than Italian vis-a-vis VLatin. – Charles May 8 '12 at 15:08
    
(And of course I said "the usual situation", not "always".) – Charles May 8 '12 at 15:08
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Excellent answer, also supported by Fowler. 2009 (1926). Dictionary of Modern English Usage: "primer. The traditional pronunciation is pri'mer, & the word was very commonly spelt with -mm-. This pronunciation is still used in the names of types ; but in the names of modern school manuals pri'mer is now more usual." – fileunderwater Mar 11 '15 at 9:44

Considering it comes from Latin primarius and has been spelled prymer and prymar throughout the 700-odd years since it was coined, I think it's fairly safe to say that the long i is standard.

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Wrong answer, dude. – tchrist May 8 '12 at 21:03
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Only half right. It comes from primarius, and its pronunciation started as /i/ and then was subjected to the Great Vowel Shift in some dialects. – Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:56

Tchrist's answer citing the Oxford English Dictionary pretty much says it all (so please vote for it so that it will move higher up on the page!), but I thought I'd post an answer with some useful supplementary material, as I feel the need to respond to some egregiously incorrect statements in other answers on this page.

Here is a Grammarphobia blog post on the subject: A pronouncing primer.

Relevant quotations:

The word for the elementary textbook was pronounced with a short “i” (rhyming with “trimmer”) when it first showed up in English in the 14th century.

Americans still pronounce it that way. But in the late 19th century, the British began pronouncing it with a long “i” to rhyme with “timer” and that’s now the usual pronunciation in the UK, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But English speakers on both sides pronounce “primer” with a long “i” (as in “timer”) when it’s used in other senses (such as an undercoat of paint or a cap used to ignite an explosive).

That suitably describes the current pronunciations and their geographical distribution (although it fails to mention that currently, some Americans also rhyme it with "timer.") It also describes the historical fact that the pronunciation with a "short i" is older than the one with "long i" when referring to a textbook. Both pronunciations are reasonably natural. Neither is a "corruption" (a useless term in linguistics – save it for politics and computer science).

The earliest example for the textbook sense is from “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1390): “This litel child his litel book lernynge, / As he sat in the scole at his prymer.”

Note how little (relatively speaking) English spelling has changed since Chaucer's time. You can probably tell what it means easily although he'd have pronounced it quite differently. Note also that the word little used to be spelled "litel," but we don't pronounce it as "light-el" today. Little has been respelled with double letters in modern English, but many other words like body, camel, model and primer have not. Heck, the word gamut is spelled with a single "m" even though based on the etymology and pronunciation it "should" have two! Modern English spelling doesn't perfectly reflect either current pronunciation or historical pronunciation (or etymology, for that matter).

Primer is etymologically related to prime, but alternations in vowel length are common in etymologically related words. Another word related to these two with a short /ɪ/ is primitive. More distantly related are prince and principal, which aside from having /ɪ/, also show a change of m to n before the consonant c.

So, just why is the vowel traditionally "short"?

Moving on to the actual question: why does the historical pronunciation have /ɪ/? It's a difficult question, which is probably why none of the previous answers have really addressed it.

I don't have enough knowledge to confidently state the answer, so all that follows is just speculation. However, I will reference facts I found that seem relevant.

First, the general tendency in English for vowels to be "long" when written before a single consonant followed by another vowel seems to stem from the historical process of open syllable lengthening. Here is Wikipedia's description of the process:

Around the 13th century, short vowels were lengthened in an open syllable (i.e. when followed by a single consonant that in turn is followed by another vowel). In addition, non-low vowels were lowered: /i/ > /eː/, /e/ > /ɛː/, /u/ > /oː/, /o/ > /ɔː/. This accounts, for example, for the vowel difference between staff and the alternative plural staves (Middle English staf vs. stāves, with open-syllable lengthening in the latter word). This process was restricted in the following ways:

  1. It did not occur when two or more syllables followed, due to the opposing process of trisyllabic laxing.
  2. It only occasionally applied to the high vowels /i/ and /u/, e.g. OE wudu > ME /woːd/ > wood; OE wicu > ME /weːk/ > week. Most instances of /i/ and /u/ remained as such, e.g. OE hnutu > NE nut, OE riden > NE ridden.

The effects of open-syllable lengthening and trisyllabic laxing often led to differences in the stem vowel between singular and plural/genitive. Generally these differences were regularized by analogy in one direction or another, but not in a consistent way:

  • ME path, pāthes > NE path, paths, but ME whal, whāles > NE whale, whales
  • ME crādel, cradeles > NE cradle, cradles, but ME sādel, sadeles > NE saddle, saddles

The Oxford English Dictionary's earliest citation for primer is from the fourteenth century, in 1378; unfortunately, I'm not sure how open syllable lengthening applied in that time. Anyway, one interesting point here is the note about how open syllable lengthening generally did not apply to short /i/. This brings up a new question: when the word "primer" entered English, was the vowel short, or long?

On the one hand, many French words spelled with "i" were imported at some time before the Great Vowel Shift with long /iː/, for example, "mitre" and "nitre." However, the history of "primer" seems a little different, as the OED says it primarily derives from Latin primarius. So, it seems plausible to me that it might have had a short vowel from the time it came into English, and according to Wikipedia, it would be regular for this vowel to not be lengthened. That would explain the modern pronunciation.

Alternately, if it did originally have long /iː/ in Middle English, the Wikipedia quote describes another process by which it might have been shortened to /i/: trisyllabic laxing, which apparently would occur in forms like the plural *primeres (hypothetical; I don't know that this form actually existed) and then be generalized to the singular.

In a way, the spelling is stranger than the pronunciation: there are a number of words in English that have unetymologically doubled consonants after a short vowel (such as pillar, summer, hammer, stammer, ridden), but although double mm was used in the past to spell primer, the single-consonant spelling won out for some reason. This allowed the spelling pronunciation /praɪmər/ to eventually become established.

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I'm California born and bred and have taught for 26 years. In SoCal it is pronounced primer with a short "i" when referring to a primary level basal reader. All other uses it is pronounced with a long "i" as in "prime".

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I've heard the "primmer" pronunciation only occasionally and only in SoCal (where I now live). Why do you think it got its short-i pronunciation? – ukayer Mar 26 '12 at 1:26

the vowel in "primer" is long because there is only one consonant after it, you need two consonants to make the vowel a capital sound. eg. tiny/tinny or, pony/potty or, biter/bitter. In the old days (lol) you had to "prime" the pump before you could get water out of it, so the word is used to express the action of a precursor, something that is needed before the main point, to "prime" you ready for the following whatever. I had never heard it pronounced as primmer until I came to California.

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Pronunciation doesn't follow spelling in English. Spelling is irregular and based on old pronunciations, which have since changed. The book "primer" does not come from the need to "prime" anything; it's well-documented that it comes from Latin primarius, a prayer-book. – Mark Beadles Jun 25 '12 at 2:59
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Liver, river, give, ritual, delicious, validity, figure, and countless others are spelled with a single consonant after the I, yet the I is short. Nobody feels compelled to write livver, rivver, givve, figgure... (And don't get me started on live which constantly changes its pronunciation but never its spelling.) – RegDwigнt Jun 25 '12 at 11:55

protected by RegDwigнt Jun 25 '12 at 11:56

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