English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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.

share|improve this question
38  
Let's call the whole thing off. – mmyers Aug 13 '10 at 16:38
4  
More importantly, why are there three spellings for "there"? – Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 17:54
1  
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
2  
@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
up vote 8 down vote accepted

I've always been told and believed that \ˈī-thər\ (IPA /ˈaɪðər/) 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/bastardised 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.

share|improve this answer
10  
Hey, if it was good enough for Beowulf, it's good enough for everyone! – Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 17:53
2  
@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
2  
@oosterwal: That's not at all true. The simple "reversal" you propose has no basis in history I'm afraid. English and German share a common ancestor (in the early first millennium AD?) and this feature of pronunciation remains common to them/unchanged since. English pronunciation is of course much more variable, largely thanks to multiple sources. Note that pie is of Latin origin. – Noldorin Feb 3 '11 at 0:25
4  
@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
2  
@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.

share|improve this answer

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
share|improve this answer
    
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
3  
I'd bet 14 florins that the pronunciation depended highly on which village was being sampled. – oosterwal Feb 2 '11 at 23:35
    
Your link is giving me a 404 error, but isn't "g" generally supposed to have had multiple values in Old English? I thought that here it was the palatal variant (sometimes written ġ in modern scholarly works for clarity) that would be pronounced more like the "y" in Modern English "young" (from Old English ġeong). – sumelic Oct 2 '15 at 5:48
    
@sumelic: Yes, this would be the palatal g (Modern English y), and the th (actually þ) would be voiced because it’s intervocalic. So it would be IPA [ˈæːjˌðər], which is closer to [ˈaɪˌðɚ] than to [ˈiːˌðɚ]. – Jon Purdy Apr 22 at 20:57

It's a rather difficult question. Both pronunciations are correct today—I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a dictionary that would disagree with that. So, the individual you encountered was wrong about "ī-thər" (I assume you mean the pronunciation that's like "EYE-ther") being wrong. But this question is about the history, and the word has been spelled (and presumably pronounced) in a variety of ways across the years. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the following forms ("OE" stands for "Old English," and "ME" stands for "Middle English"):

OE ǽg-, œ́g-, éghwæðer, OE–ME ǽgðer, ME eigðer, (ME Orm. eȝȝðer), ME æiðer, aieþer, ME eiðer, eiþer, ME aiþer, aither, ayther, ( ayder, ME eyder), ME–15 ether, (? ME–15 aþer, ather, athir, ME euther, ewther), ME–16 eyther, eythir, (ME eithar), 15 eather, ME– either.

What's interesting is that some of these spellings seem to suggest that the modern pronunciation "should" be "AY-ther" (IPA /ˈeɪðər/), but nobody actually says it like that.

I don't actually think we need to compare to German and Dutch, since so many earlier forms in English are attested, but in any case the cognate words are German jeder (IPA /ˈjeːdɐ/, roughly "YAY-duh"), and Dutch ieder (IPA /iːdər/, roughly "EE-der"). In fact, both of these would correspond to the English pronunciation "EE-ther" (IPA /ˈiːðər/) rather than "EYE-ther" (IPA /ˈaɪðər/). I think some people may be misled by their knowledge of the "ei" digraph used in modern German to represent /aɪ/, but in fact this is completely irrelevant with regard to the early Germanic etymology of the word, since the German word cognate to either is not spelled with "ei."

The history of the word in English, as varied as it is, also seems to me to point more toward /ˈiːðər/ than /ˈaɪðər/. For example, there's the attested Middle English spelling "eather," and also a handful of other fairly well-established words where "ei" represents /iː/ such as key, ceiling, seize, and the set of words ending in -ceive. The OED seems to basically say the same, but notes that in practice both pronunciations have been recommended by the people who deal with such things:

The pronunciation /ˈaɪðə(r)/ , though not in accordance with the analogies of standard English, is in London somewhat more prevalent in educated speech than /ˈiːðə(r)/ . The orthoepists of 17th cent. seem to give /ˈɛːðər/ , /ˈeːðər/ ; Jones 1701 has /ˈeːðər/ and /ˈaɪðər/ , Buchanan (1766) has /ˈaɪðə(r)/ without alternative (see Ellis, Early Eng. Pron. ix, x.). Walker (1791) says that /ˈiːðə(r)/ and /ˈaɪðə(r)/ are both very common, but gives the preference to the former on the ground of analogy and the authority of Garrick. Smart (1849) says that ‘there is little in point of good usage to choose’ between the two pronunciations, though in the body of his dictionary he, like earlier orthoepists, gives /ˈiːðə(r)/ without alternative.

There are a few other English words where "ei" represents /aɪ/. It occurs:

  • in eye (if we consider "ey" a spelling variant of "ei")
  • before "gh" in some words: height, sleight
  • in words with Greek roots, which I don't believe were ever frequent enough to have had a significant influence on the pronunciation of the common word either
  • in words that were recently taken from German, as mentioned earlier

I don't know enough about the sound changes leading up to Modern English to be sure, but some other words I found that seem to have undergone similar changes are fly n. (Old English fléoge, flýge) and die v. (Early Middle English dēȝen, dēghen).

I suppose it is at least possible that the German digraph influenced English pronunciation along the lines laid out in @GEdgar's comment:

What I heard (another "hearsay" answer, so I just make a comment) was that Prince Albert, being of German origin, used the pronunciation suggested by German, and then it subsequently became popular among the English.

It seems unlikely to me, but worth mentioning.

It might also be valuable to compare this word's pronunciation with that of aye.

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 1 '12 at 15:16

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.