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. – Adam 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 30 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 etymologically 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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    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. – Adam 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. – Adam 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 26 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

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 supplementary material that I think is useful.

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).

So, the pronunciation with a "long i" dipthong /aɪ/ is more recent, but both pronunciations exist in modern speech. All I would add is that, evidently, some Americans also rhyme the word with "timer" for all senses.

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.”

Side note: as far as I know, the spelling in this example is consistent with either pronunciation; that is, the Middle English spelling "prymer" is ambiguous about vowel length. A single vowel letter before a single intervocalic consonant could in general correspond to either a "short" or "long" vowel in Middle English pronunciation—for example, a common spelling of "ridden" in manuscripts of Chaucer is "riden"—and I believe "y" could in general correspond to either the long or short pronunciation of "i" (for example, "living" is spelled "lyuyng"). Apparently the use of "y" for "i" in Middle English was especially common next to the letter "m" or "n" (as in "hym" for "him") and here the letter comes before "m" (Complete Works Of Geoffrey Chaucer, W.W. Skeat).

The spelling does suggest a long vowel to a modern English speaker's eye, but does no more than suggest it: many words like body, camel, lemon and model have short vowels before single intervocalic consonant letters. 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).

Etymological considerations don't tell us how to pronounce the word

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?

If the word came through French, the vowel would probably be expected to be short

On the one hand, some French words spelled with I were imported, at some time before the Great Vowel Shift, with long /iː/: for example, tiger and cider. However, I think this was mainly a thing for I that occurred before a final syllable containing the vowel schwa (for example, the antecedent French forms of these two words are tigre and sidre/cidre, ending in "e muet" which was originally pronounced as a schwa in French).

In the Anglo-Norman form that the OED mentions, primer, the syllable with the I would have come before a syllable pronounced with an unreduced vowel in French (English speakers tend to hear such syllables in French as "stressed" when they occur at the end of a prosodic phrase). The vowel would therefore be expected to be short; for comparison, we see a "short" vowel in the first syllables of chisel (which the OED says is from "Old Northern French chisel (= central Old French cisel, in modern French ciseau"), vigil (from French vigile), and river (which the OED says is from "Anglo-Norman rivere, river, riveir, rivier, rivre, revere, rievere"). You can see other similar examples in Jespersen's Modern English Grammar, §3.112.

If the word came through Latin, the vowel wouldn't necessarily have been long

The OED says that the Latin etymon is primarius. Although (as Janus Bahs Jacquet said in a comment below) this word had a "long" /iː/ in Classical Latin, contrastive vowel length was lost in the traditions of pronouncing Latin that had the most influence on English pronunciation. A system of non-contrastive vowel length based on the position of the stress came to be used instead.

The word primarius has stress on the second syllable. Because the first syllable is unstressed, I think English speakers of the relevant time periods might have pronounced the I as short, although I'm far from certain of this (Jespersen (§4.66) actually suggests that at one point, it was regular for vowels in pre-tonic syllables to be lengthened in the "schoolboy" English pronunciation of Latin; however, I don't know to what extent this would have been applied to words that passed into common use).

In any case, the modern English pronunciations of words from Latin sometimes have "unexpected" short vowels, e.g. syrinx has /ɪ/ instead of /aɪ/ in the first syllable. I don't think the Latin etymology of primer clearly points to any one particular pronunciation of the I in the first syllable (particularly because, as Janus Bahs Jacquet notes, the English form shows other divergences from the Latin one, such as the use of E instead of A in the second syllable).

If the word did originally have a long vowel, it might possibly have been shortened by English sound changes

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.

Bibliography

Jespersen, Otto. A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, Part I: Sounds and Spellings. 1961.

  • If primer was taken directly from Latin, then you’d expect it to have a long vowel, since the Latin word was prīmārius /priːˈmaːɾius/. Etymonline suggests it was taken from Mediaeval Latin (i.e., Classical Latin read by Mediaeval people), which may make a difference—many Classically long vowels were shortened in Mediaeval Latin. I would question the supposition that it didn’t go through French, though. Its form certainly suggests that at least the tell-tale French raising of /ar/ to /εr/ was applied, which makes it at least as likely that they took it from the Anglo-Normal word. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 12:56
  • Going purely by the OED citations (which may or may not be representative—I don’t know), trisyllabic laxing from the plural form seems unlikely, since every single early citation is singular. The only plurals cited are much later, when the plural morpheme had no vowel. At any rate, by the late 14th century, final-syllable schwa would have been lost pretty much everywhere in English, and the plural ending -es almost certainly represented just /s/; that makes trisyllabic laxing even more unlikely to affect a word like primer(es). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 13:39
  • 1378 would be quite late for open-syllable lengthening to be considered an active, productive process, I think, though it is of course very hard to tell exactly when a sound change like that ceases to operate. Overall, though, I’d say it’s unlikely that a short /i/ would have been lengthened in the latter part of the 14th century. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 13:39
  • If the word were taken from Anglo-Norman instead of Latin, there’d be little to explain: as early as Old French, and thus also with great certainty in Ango-Norman, primer definitely had a short vowel (as evidenced by its frequent confusion with ⟨e⟩ already in OF, cf. Fr. premier with /ə/). The two-syllable form with short /i/ would then be original. I’m not sure exactly why OED and everywhere else says that the English word is straight from Latin and only bring up the AN form as a comparandum—to me, that just unnecessarily makes matters much more difficult to explain. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 6 at 13:42

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

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

I used to hang out with a lot of smart old guys who read a lot of books.

I promise you, all of them pronounced it "primmer" and if you said "prymer" you would have seemed like a redneck.

Trust the smart old guys, they used to hang out with smarter older guys and that is recursive.

For an intellectual there is no "po-tay-to and poe-tah-to", there is only "primmer".

There are not too many hard and fast rules in English spelling. If one meets the word in print before one hears it and one is not aware of the appropriate spelling rule or the root of the word (i.e. prime meaning first) one could easily say primer with the short i rather than the long i. Brought up in English I pronounce primer with the long i but don't mind the alternate way of saying it since it is quite common in North America.

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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