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In French, from whom we’ve borrowed the word, it’s /fɛt/ “fet”.

But if we pronounced it as if it were an English word after dropping the accent, it would be /fi:t/ “feet”.

Yet the pronunciation we actually use is /feɪt/ “fate”.

Does this derive from a confusion between the acute and circumflex accents, or is there some other reason for this?

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Must be a regional thing; I have never heard "fayt", only "fet". – Hellion Jul 3 '11 at 16:06
I've just had a look, and it seems that British dictionaries give only /feɪt/ and American ones /feɪt/ and /fɛt/ as alternatives. – Stewart Jul 3 '11 at 16:22
I never heard it pronounced other that "fayt" here in UK. – FumbleFingers Jul 3 '11 at 17:26
Simple answer is, we don't in American English. I've heard it used and used it myself, but never heard it pronounced "fate". Only "fet". – zenbike Jul 4 '11 at 7:27
Many French-derived words are mispronounced as the result of incorrect knowledge of French pronunciation. It's common to naïvely convert 'e' to 'é' if the word seems foreign. Can't think of examples now but there was another similar on EL&U a couple months ago. Similar is "fleur-de-lys" which many English speakers mistakenly assume the 's' is silent, but it should be pronounced. – tenfour Jul 13 '11 at 11:35

4 Answers 4

Does this derive from a confusion between the acute and circumflex accents, or is there some other reason for this?

I doubt it's to do with confusion over the accents, rather not really caring about them. The pronunciation likely evolved from /fɛt/ "fet to /feɪt/ "fate" independently of dropping the accent. It seems unlikely we would decide to drop the accent and only then sitting down (with a nice cup of tea) to decide how that word should be pronounced.

It's interesting to see the word is fairly recent; Online Etymology Dictionary says the English word is from 1754, "Apparently first used in English by Horace Walpole (1717-1797)".

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Sorry for the downvote but it's speculation rather than an expert answer. It might be right. It might be wrong. English does have spelling pronunciations for other words such as British "herb" so it's not good to assume it didn't happen here without knowing for sure. It would be perfectly good as a comment though. – hippietrail Jul 4 '11 at 7:40
Thanks Robert, I fixed it. Feel free to just edit things like this yourself. – Hugo Jul 13 '11 at 6:53
@Hugo: Minuscule edits are discouraged for users who must have their edits approved. – Daniel Jul 15 '11 at 18:40
The same mispronunciation apparently happens with bête in bête noir, at least according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. – Peter Shor Jul 16 '11 at 8:38

The vowel used in the French pronunciation /fɛt/ is not really used in modern English.

I suspect that the /feɪt/ (fate or fayt) pronunciation is a hyper-correction; to English ears the French word uses a vowel which is different from (and longer than) the English short e /e/, but in attempting to pronounce it properly there is a tendency to overshoot the target, and use the "next" vowel found in English - the /eɪ/ dipthong.

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It is /fɛt/ in French, and clearly not /fet/ (see As a French, I'm used native English speakers pronounce French /ɛ/ as /eɪ/ both in loanwards and when they speak French. It's part of the English accent to me. – Frédéric Grosshans Jul 20 '11 at 10:32
Apologies. It looks like I got these two IPA vowels mixed up. I was thinking that /ɛ/ was the short vowel used in English, but it appears that is actually /e/. – TomH Jul 26 '11 at 20:20
Anyway, the stuff about the great vowel shift is a much better answer. – TomH Jul 26 '11 at 20:25
@TomH /ɛ/ is the short vowel used in English. Though some dictionaries do deviate from the IPA standard a bit. – Stewart Aug 10 '11 at 12:08

It's commonly pronounced that way because it's one of those words that appears far more often in print than in the spoken language.

Everyone has heard someone mispronounce a word because they'd obviously read it before but never heard it spoken; fête is one of those words that many people are familiar with, but perhaps the majority of English-speakers have never heard spoken.

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Warning: The following explanation is pure speculation: I am not a linguist, just a French with an amateur interest in linguistics.

In French, fête was written feste (or feſte) before the 18th century, and its /ɛ/ was¹ long to compensate for the lost s (see this wikipedia page). So Its pronunciation at time of its arrival in English was probably /fɛːt(ə)/.

Then, if one looks at Wikipdia's article on the Great Vowel Shift, one sees a transition in English from /ɛː/ (17th century) to /eː/ (18th century), then /eɪ/ (from 19th century). This would perfectly explain the modern (English) pronunciation of fête as /feɪt/.

By the way, as a native French, I'm really used to hear the native English speakers pronounce French /ɛ/ as /eɪ/, both in borrowed words and when they speak French. To me, it is part as the English accent as strongly as /ɹ/ for /ʁ/. So the short answer is maybe : because they say a French word with an English accent [insert Monty Python Holy Grail jokes here ;-)]

¹: Some French speakers still distinguish between /ɛː/ and /ɛ/, but it is no longer part of the standard French pronunciation.

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protected by RegDwigнt Feb 21 '13 at 9:58

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