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The first “e” in methane is pronounced like the “e” in metal in the US but it is pronounced like the “e” in me in the UK.

I asked a friend how this difference in pronunciation came about. She immediately replied that the gas was discovered by an Italian in the year 1776. Coincidentally this was the same year that the US declared its independence from the UK and that the difference in pronunciation was a deliberate act of colonial defiance.

Is there any truth in her statement or was she attempting to be humorous?

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    According to etymonline, the word methane was coined in 1867. Likely the difference is due to the difference between the pronunciations of methyl in the U.S. and the U.K., as the word methane was derived from the word methyl. – Peter Shor Nov 18 '14 at 17:49
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    Etymologically, ethane should be pronounced like me, since it is derived (through several intermediaries) from the word ether. And methane should be pronounced like metal since it is derived (with several intermediaries) from the French word méthylène. However, I would be surprised if there are people who don't rhyme methane and ethane. – Peter Shor Nov 18 '14 at 17:54
  • @PeterShor If the OED’s pronunciation variants are anything to go by, there are: ethane has BrE variants with both long and short e, but methane only with long e. So presumably there are some Brits out there who have unetymological vowel lengths in both those words. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 18 '14 at 18:18
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    I find this defiance theory highly implausible. – Michael Hardy Nov 18 '14 at 18:56
  • Might it be generally true that the British use long vowels more often than Americans do? – Michael Hardy Nov 18 '14 at 18:57
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Since the actual question here is very easy to answer (the answer is no, there is no truth whatsoever in her statement), I will instead comment a bit on why it really is that methane has two varying pronunciations.

Note that this is not merely a BrE vs. AmE thing—while AmE generally only has the pronunciation with the short e, BrE has both.

Methane is derived from methyl + -ane (used in chemical compounds). Methyl itself is back-formed (originally in Swedish) from methylene. This is ultimately based on the Ancient Greek word μεθύ [meˈθy] ‘sweet wine’ (cognate with English mead and Sanskrit madhú-, all from a root that just means ‘sweet’). Note that Greek ε is a short e.

The back-formation of methyl from methylene was based on the very similar-sounding pair of ethyl and ethylene, which was just a few years old itself when methyl was back-formed. Ethyl was formed in German, from the base of (a)ether + -yl (used in names of chemical groups).

Ether itself is from the Ancient Greek αἰθήρ [aiˈθɛːɾ] ‘upper layer of the stratosphere’, which has a diphthong /ai/. This diphthong regularly (through Latin ae and Old French é) yields a long e in English.

In other words, etymology means that we should have:

Meth- [mɛθ-] with a short e
Eth- [iːθ-] with a long e

But there are so many pairs between the two—(m)ethyl, (m)ethylene, (m)ethane, etc.—so it’s not that strange, really, that people started getting their long and short e’s mixed up a bit, particularly when you remember that the long e in eth- is automatically shortened in words where it loses its stress, like ethereal.

In AmE, this confusion has mostly meant that the long e of eth- has been shortened except in ether itself: ethane, ethanol, ethyl, and ethylene all tend to have a short e, unetymologically. The short e in meth- has been retained.

In BrE, the confusion is more random: eth- tends to have both long and short variants in many derivations, but not all (ethanol, for instance, always has a short e, and ether itself always has its etymological long e); while meth- has taken over the long e in some derivations, but not all (e.g., methane always has a long e, while methanol always has a short e).

Pure transatlantic chaos, in other words.

  • I am confused. Are you saying that these never was a common pronunciation? – Gary's Student Nov 18 '14 at 18:31
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    There probably was, in the very beginning, for a short while. Back when the words were only used by a tiny group of people who were writing articles back and forth in scientific journals, they probably knew which ones had short and long vowels. The words were all formed within a decade or so, in the 1830s and 1840s. I doubt any such consensus lasted very long, though, and I’d imagine the smaller amount of variation found in AmE today is the result of a later simplification of an otherwise quite random system. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Nov 18 '14 at 18:36

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