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This question already has an answer here:

Why doesn't the silent "e" work on the word "infinite"?

What I mean is, why does mate have a long "a", but infinite has a short "i"?

marked as duplicate by Bradd Szonye, Brian Hooper, choster, p.s.w.g, terdon Oct 1 '13 at 5:51

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    @user814064, normally a terminal silent "e" causes the previous vowell to be pronounced long, but here it is pronounced short. For example: Fat vs Fate. Bit vs Bite. That's what he's asking: why not a long "i" here with the silent "e" on the end. – Cyberherbalist Sep 20 '13 at 22:56
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    @ColinFine Stress. – tchrist Sep 20 '13 at 23:11
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    @Nirock It’s because you’re trying to read something into English spelling that isn’t there. English spelling represents the pronunciation of Middle English, not of Modern English. There is no connection between English spelling and pronunciation. You just have to learn them all. – tchrist Sep 20 '13 at 23:17
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    @ColinFine Erudite, impolite, composite, recondite, exquisite, petite, requisite, tripartite, heteroclite, preterite, trite. Yeah, there aren’t many, and they aren’t all the same. – tchrist Sep 20 '13 at 23:22
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    @HowardPautz Don’t blame Caesar, who pronounced his name exactly as it’s spelled. Latin was very simple in that regard. English, not so much. – tchrist Sep 21 '13 at 1:08
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As @tchrist has pointed out with excellent examples, the final e's ability to create a long vowel sound is a 'tendency' and not a 'rule'.

The specific reason why 'infinite' is pronounced as it is has been discussed here: Pronunciation differences between "finite" and "infinite"

It boils down to where stresses occur in English speech. The link above provides far more precise explanation than I'm capable of.

Edit: also see Brian Hooper's answer: "Finite" and "infinite": another example? for more examples of how an additional syllable can completely change pronunciation.

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The apparently irregular pronunciation of infinite (that it is not ɪnˈfaɪnaɪt or ˈɪnfənaɪt) is a confluence of two factors, both historical, I think.

The first is that the negative prefix in- (and its kin, il-, im-, ...) is only rarely stressed in English. In most cases where it is, there has either been semantic drift between the prefixed and unprefixed forms (impotent is not quite the negation of potent; likewise for infamous and famous, and invalid [ˈɪnvəlɪd] and valid); or else the unprefixed form is simply unattested (impudent, indigent, indolent, insolent). Semantically transparent examples like infinite and finite, or indirect and direct, are in the minority. This suggests that the process that drew stress onto the in- prefix was an archaic one, possibly one that operated in the language from which English borrowed the words in question (e.g., Old French).

The second is that pronunciation of -finite as fənət occurs, I think, only in infinite and definite (and derivatives, like indefinite). Again, this contrasts with the pronunciation faɪnaɪt, which occurs in cofinite, subfinite, and transfinite. Given that the latter are all modern innovations, this suggests that the pronunciation fənət, too, may be a relic from earlier phonological processes, possibly active in the source language from which English borrowed these words.

So, the pronunciation of infinite is doubly archaic—which may be the most principled account one can give of this particular oddity of English spelling.


BTW, I know that many people have a higher vowel than schwa in -fənət, but I’m following my own (native) pronunciation here. Also, I’ve deliberately omitted secondary stress. Definite may have come to English straight from Latin (in about the 16th century), but its stress and vowel quality may have analogised with infinite.

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