Nowadays, we pronounce the word legend as "LEDGE-end" (IPA: /ˈlɛdʒənd/). But it looks like at least some people used to pronounce "legend" as "LEE-gend." In A General Dictionary of the English Language, Volume 1, by Thomas Sheridan (1780), the word is transcribed as "le³′‑dzhe¹nd," with the same first syllable as legion "le³′‑dzhu¹n," and in contrast to leger which is transcribed as "le¹dzh′-u¹r".

This pronunciation is also described in Principles of English Etymology: The foreign element, by Walter William Skeat (1891), which lists it among other words from French with "long e":

Le-gend-e, legend; le-gi-oun, legion; re-gi-oun, region.

I checked some modern online dictionaries, but I was not able to find any that mention this pronunciation. However, the Oxford English Dictionary did provide some indirect evidence, as it mentions that one obsolete meaning of the word, "A vast host or multitude," arose due to confusion with the word legion.

I'd like to know when the modern pronunciation first appeared, and when the pronunciation with a long vowel died out.

  • Could the linguistic site be a more proper place where to ask this? (just a hint) – user66974 Mar 31 '16 at 11:54
  • I think it is an intresting and on-topic question, I was just suggesting an alternative possibility for an answer.:) – user66974 Mar 31 '16 at 12:05

I still haven't found a definitive answer, but I continued my research and came across the following information that may serve as a partial answer.

John Walker discusses the pronunciation of this word in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (1791). He prescribes the long vowel, but mentions the pronunciation with the short vowel:

This word is sometimes pronounced with the vowel in the first syllable short, as if written lĕd-jend. This has the feeble plea of the Latin Lego to produce ; but with what propriety can we make this plea for a short vowel in English, when we pronounce that very vowel long in the Latin word we derive it from ? The genuine and ancient analogy of our language, as Dr. Wallis observes, is, when a word of two syllables has the accent on the first, and the vowel is followed by a single consonant, to pronounce the vowel long. It is thus we pronounce all Latin words of this kind ; and in this manner we should certainly have pronounced all our English words, if an affectation of following Latin quantity had not disturbed the natural progress of pronunciation.—See Drama. But, besides this analogy, the word in question has the authority of Mr. Sheridan, Mr. Scott, W. Johnson, Bailey, Entick, Perry, and Buchanan, on its side. Dr. Kenrick and Dr. Ash are the only abettors of the short sound.

Interestingly, he recommends the short vowel for legendary:

As the preceding word has, by the clearest analogy, the vowel in the first syllable long, so this word, by having the accent higher than the antepenultimate, has as clear an analogy for having the same vowel short, 530, 535. This analogy, however, is contradicted by Dr. Ash, W. Johnson, Mr. Scott, Entick, Buchanan, and Perry, who make the vowel e long, as in Legend. As Dr. Johnson's accentuation does not determine the quantity of the vowel, his not inserting this word is, in this case, no loss ; but Mr. Sheridan's omission of it deprives us of a valuable opinion.

So this establishes that the modern pronunciation existed at least as early as 1791. I still don't know how late the pronunciation with a long vowel was used (although the citation from Skeat in my question gives a lower bound of 1891).

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