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A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an individual who told me that pronouncing the word "either" is wrong when pronounced like \ˈī-thər\ instead of \ˈē-thər\ , but I didn't argue the point because I'd done no research on it myself. So I looked the word up on Merriam Webster Online and wasn't at all surprised to find that both pronunciations are in fact legitimate.

Which brings me to my question: what is the history of this word? How was it pronounced in old English? Were both pronunciations common hundreds of years ago? I was unable to glean much from Merriam Webster Online apart from some small fact that the word is somehow related to whether.

EDIT: I dug up some additional information about the origins or either, and I'm hoping that someone can shed some light upon what it means.

O.E. ægðer, contraction of æghwæðer "each of two, both," from a "always" + ge- collective prefix + hwæðer "which of two, whether."
Modern sense of "one or the other of two" is early 14c.

I took this directly from Dictionary.com, but I have no idea what language those words come from.

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Let's call the whole thing off. –  mmyers Aug 13 '10 at 16:38
More importantly, why are there three spellings for "there"? –  Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 17:54
I find myself alternating, especially when reading a book out loud. –  Skilldrick Aug 13 '10 at 20:05
@Alan - that would make a good question! –  Jagd Aug 14 '10 at 5:02
@Steve: That was just my way of pointing out that "there" was misspelled in the original title. :) –  Alan Hogue Aug 21 '10 at 11:40

5 Answers 5

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I've always been told and believed that \ˈī-thər\ is the correct pronunciation, albeit both are indeed common nowadays. From what I am aware, etymologists and linguists believe this was the original pronunciation of the word too. Other contemporary Germanic languages (including the closest modern relatives, Dutch and German), suggest this pronunciation of the first syllable is correct - they have arguably been less altered/basterdised from Old Germanic. Old English (Anglo-Saxon) we know to be an almost purely Germanic language, and thus by simple statistical analysis (as is often employed in historical linguistics) we can be quite confident that this was the historically correct pronunciation.

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Hey, if it was good enough for Beowulf, it's good enough for everyone! –  Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 17:53
@Noldorin - you're a well of knowledge! This is exactly what I was looking for. I had a suspicion that \ˈī-thər\ was probably the original pronunciation, but I had nothing to ground it on. –  Jagd Aug 13 '10 at 19:00
@itrekkie: True, they are the closest. But Scots in particular is so similar to English and has evolved in tandem that it doesn't say much. –  Noldorin Aug 23 '10 at 12:13
@noldorin Which phonetic alphabet are you using? Depending on that, your transcription of “either” could be read as either /ˈaɪðər/ or /ˈiːðər/. –  user3217 Apr 25 '11 at 0:29
@Noldorin You really need to learn IPA. Not only is it the standard form, it’s much, much easier to use than these ridiculous see-it-and-spell-it systems, which never work at all. I was aghast to find people here using anything else. –  tchrist Jan 8 '12 at 17:09

The two pronunciations sound like Before and After vowels from the Great Vowel Shift. My guess is that we are hearing versions from what were originally two dialects, one which made the shift and one which did not.

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How was it pronounced in old English?

The word either is derived from the Old English ǣgther, which was a short for contracted form of ǣg(e)hwæther, of Germanic origin.

E-Intro to Old English - 2. Pronunciation reports the Old English pronunciation as it has been reconstructed from linguists.

  • ǣ as in Modern English cat
  • g as in Modern English good
  • th as in Modern English thin; between voiced vocals as in then
  • e as in Modern English fate
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How did they say those words though? How would a speaker do it today? –  Charlie Aug 22 '10 at 19:05
I added a link that reports the reconstructed pronunciation of Old English. –  kiamlaluno Aug 22 '10 at 22:48
I'd bet 14 florins that the pronunciation depended highly on which village was being sampled. –  oosterwal Feb 2 '11 at 23:35

A usage note on my part. I heard it's incorrect to say "me neither" - the "correct "version is "Neither do I". When pronouncing "me neither", it seems really strange to say the ī version. For the "correct" version, the ī version sounds better, but the ē version works too.

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Interesting observation, and I agree. I think it "sounds better" because of the vowel agreement between me/I and neither. –  ghoppe Feb 2 '11 at 22:37

OALD has the pronunciation with /ai/, BrE and AmE and with /i:/, BrE and AmE. The question what is correct does not lead anywhere. Correct is how people speak in a certain region. Even if you were a specialist in dialects and historical sound changes you might find it hard to say which pronunciation is correct.

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protected by RegDwigнt Mar 1 '12 at 15:16

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