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There are two common pronunciations of "either": British /ˈaɪðər/ and American /ˈiːðər/. If Americans are more or less consistent in this regard, then the Brits seem to be freely using both. In fact, from what I can tell, "either this or that" is more often in the first form, whereas "me either" is in the second. But I may be wrong. Is there any kind of an informal rule in the modern British English with regard to this?

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I think you are mistaken in thinking this is a difference between British and American English. –  Eric Dec 2 '10 at 10:17
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Possible duplicate of “Why are there two pronunciations for 'either'?” –  RegDwigнt Dec 2 '10 at 10:45
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"Me either" is uncommon in British English; "me neither" is the more usual form. –  Steve Melnikoff Dec 2 '10 at 11:33
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Count me among the Americans who uses either pronunciation, depending on the context. –  res Dec 2 '10 at 14:17
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This is a definite a duplicate, please vote to close. –  Noldorin Dec 2 '10 at 20:14

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up vote 8 down vote accepted

Usage of /i:/ ("EE-THUR") and /ai/ ("EYE-THUR") in Great Britain and in Canada seems to be mixed. In the United States, the predominant usage has always been /i:/. However, there's also a long history of /ai/ occurring among a few Americans, including Benjamin Franklin and James Fenimore Cooper in earlier times, and Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama more recently. For many years, /ai/ was associated in the United States with British usage and, by extension, with certain elites who tried to imitate British usage. It seems to have become more widespread in recent decades, however. While some Americans have adopted /ai/, perhaps because they feel that it sounds sophisticated, other Americans regard it as pretentious.

Spelling, by the way, has nothing to do with the difference. In English, the spelling ei usually represents the "long a" pronunciation ([ei]), as in eight, feign, or rein. In such words, it is derived from the Middle English /ai/ diphthong, which normally developed into the "long a" sound. In a smaller set of words, such as receive, ei represents the "long e" sound ([i:]). It's rare for ei to represent the "long i" sound ([ai]) in words that have been in English more than two or three hundred years; most words spelled with ei and pronounced with "long i" are recent borrowings, such as Poltergeist (from German), or other words that only recently developed a standard spelling, such as heist (originally a variant of hoist).

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I suppose ‘eider’ (which joined the ranks of English words just slightly over 300 years ago) would be the only word to push that boundary up just a tad higher. At least the only one I can think of. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 0:43
    
Worth noting that /aɪ/ is older—*either* comes from ægðer, pronounced /æjðer/, which is quite close to /aɪðə(r)/. –  Jon Purdy May 25 at 15:39

I think the variation in British usage is almost all between users, not between examples of use. It's mostly a regional and class distinction: I grew up saying /ˈaɪðə/, and we looked down on people who said /ˈiːðə/.

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I don't read IPA, but I suspect /ˈaɪðə/ corresponds to EE-THUR. If so, this is actually incorrect! The historically correct pronunciation was always EYE-THUR. (This is also more inline with other Germanic languages.) –  Noldorin Dec 2 '10 at 20:16
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No, /aɪ/ is made of a kind a 'a' and a kind of short 'i', and thus represents what you write as 'EYE'. /i:/ is a lengthened /i/, and so means what you write as 'EE'. Thus the prejudice I was silently taught as a child corresponds with your preference. I now know that it is absurd to call one or other pronunciation 'incorrect'. –  Colin Fine Dec 3 '10 at 15:36
    
@Noldorin: that is nonsense! The ‘historically correct’ pronunciation would be something like /ˈɛɪðəɹ/ (AY-thur), which is not found anywhere (at least not anymore). The first part of ‘either’ is the same word as in ‘for aye’ (think Scots), OE ǣ. None of the forms is really ‘in line’ [even less ‘inline’] with any other Germanic language: they’ve all had so much chopped off that any correspondence they once had with one another has long been quite impossible to maintain. Dutch has ieder and German jeder, neither of which fits with neither /ɛɪ/, /aɪ/, nor /iː/ in English! –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 1:02
    
@Colin Fine: Apologies, and thank you for correcting me on the IPA. (I should really learn it at some point!) Incidentally, I just saw your comment, so I know this reply is ludicrously delayed! –  Noldorin Nov 15 '13 at 12:25
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@Noldorin, I have just reread my comment, and you’re absolutely right: it is very poorly worded and comes off as quite rude. I apologise for that; it was not my intention. Typing in a tiny box on a phone (and trying to include IPA and other special characters by copy-pasting from Wikipedia) clearly annoys me more than I realised, and obviously also makes me forget what I have just written. And I quite agree that /ˈaɪðəɹ/ is the prescribed and ‘correct’ RP pronunciation. (I use /slashes/ to indicate phonemics, rather than phonetics, so the final /ɹ/ is of course dropped by non-rhotic speakers.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 20:18

If you listen to Ira Gershwin's lyrics, you realize that this argument has been going on for quite some time in America as well.

You say "either" and I say "either"
You say "neither" I say "neither"
"Either" "either", "neither" "neither"
Let's call the whole thing off

The song points up for comic effect the differences between two lovers, who come from different social strata. Although few Americans would say "potahto" or "tomahto" these days, there still remains a divide in the pronunciation of either, sometimes within the same speaker. Many Americans, even ones who use what you call the British pronunciation most of the time, will say "eether" in constructions like "an 'either/or' proposition".

I find myself using the "ee" pronunciation most of the time, but switching to the other for emphasis: "Either you help me with this project right now or I won't have time to help you with yours."

There are other words which are similarly split with regard to pronunciation to the extent that there is no "correct" way to say them. Envelope comes to mind. Many Americans pronounce the first syllable of that word to rhyme with on. I don't think you can make any hard and fast rules; it just depends on who you are and what you grew up with.

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Interesting, thanks. I somehow always thought /ˈaɪðə/ sounds a bit more narcissist, or at least emphasizing the importance of the subject (or the speaker, or both). At the same time I find it more "English" and sounding smoother. To someone whose English is not great, neither is it native, it's hard to decide which one to use. –  mojuba Dec 2 '10 at 14:03
    
The use of "potahto" in that song always seemed odd, as I've never heard anyone (British or American) who pronounced it like that. –  Steve Melnikoff Dec 2 '10 at 14:04
    
grr... ONvelope... on of my post hated pronunciations. I don't care if that usage is established or not! It's still wrong! –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Dec 2 '10 at 14:58
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@Mr. Shiny and New: that pronunciation probably comes from French, just like "garage" in American English which, again, is closer to French. –  mojuba Dec 2 '10 at 16:03
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@Martha: I'd pronounce the verb differently from either of those: en-VEL-op. –  Steve Melnikoff Dec 2 '10 at 21:07

According to The Complete Atlas Of The British Isles, "eether" is more common in the north of England and "eye-ther" in the south of England, with the Midlands and London using both. The atlas also mentioned a THIRD way of pronouncing the word, "ay-ther", in parts of the north of England, which I suppose is now extinct.

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I'm British and I use either pronunciation. I can't think of any particular rule that I use either. I would consider either equally valid.

I wouldn't say "me either" though - that is certainly an American term.

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I'm in Canada. Typically I pronounce it "ee-ther." I do notice a lot of American television dialogue uses "eye-ther," and American English has influenced Canadian English pronunciations since the radio and television age.
I say "me neither" (as in 'neether'). I never say "me either", although it doesn't really make less sense than "me neither", when properly it should be "nor I."

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From "Snails":

The other day on television I heard a member of one of the richest and longest-established dukedoms pronounce the word as ee-ther. As I had always pronounced it aye-ther I wondered whether to change (foolish snobbery!). But on reading the comments above I think I can get away with aye-ther without being looked down on! Such is the folly of trying to be "correct"!

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I actually believe that there are some Germanic influences in the British English pronunciation of the word. In German, you would read eider like /ˈaɪðər/. And in British English, you read either the same way. So I believe that there are these Germanic influences, English being a West-Germanic language. But this is nothing certain, just a guess, as I've also been thinking about the differences between the two.

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Without evidence, I would be very dubious about this suggestion. People do not learn their native language from writing: they learn most of it before they ever learn to read. –  Colin Fine Dec 2 '10 at 12:58
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No. The German pronunciation of <ei> as [aɪ] is an innovation in that branch, not a general feature of Germanic families. –  Mechanical snail May 23 '12 at 4:49
    
‘Eider’ is pronounced in German not like ‘either’, but like ‘eider’. D is not pronounced ð in German. Your guess does not work. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 1:05

I found that I tend to use "eye-ther" before words beginning with a consonant sound and "ee-ther" before words beginning with a vowel sound. The same applies when I use neither.

E.g. "eye-ther this or that", "eye-ther him or her", "ee-ther a pineapple or a grape", "ee-ther orange or black".

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Because the question is particular to British English pronunciation, does your pronunciation reflect a general variant of BE? If so, please state this in your answer. If you could find a source describing this "rule" in BE pronunciation, that would be even better. –  Theodore Broda May 25 at 15:38

Yes that is ok because of the differences in pronunciation.For example:British say people and Americans call people folks.In America they say either with a sound of ey-ither but British always needed to pronounce it like a-ither they are both correct and you do not have to pronounce in a certain way and i dont think there is something in grammer of English (British) which orgnize

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Please try to write your answers in comprehensible English, use proper spacing and punctuation, and think your sentences through before you write them down to avoid stream-of-consciousness paragraphs like this one. The last sentence appears to incomplete, too. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 15 '13 at 1:07

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