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I've just heard Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, at 10:13 here (about a quarter of the way through Prime Minister's Questions, UK Parliament, Thurs 27 Oct) saying...

Amnesty International SAYS, and I quote, [blah blah, wot they sed]

Apologies to anyone who can't access the video (it's a BBC link, which I suppose gets tricky if you're not a license payer), but obviously the point is he clearly says SAYS (/seɪz/), not SEZ (/sɛz/).

As it happens, while saying those words Corbyn is constantly looking down on what are presumably pre-written notes/quotes, so I'm inclined to suppose it's actually just a one-off enunciation error (because sometimes reading and talking is like walking and chewing gum! :)

But seriously, does anyone talk like that today if they're not distracted by orthography?


I don't want to get bogged down in how non-native speakers affect things. I'm only really asking if there might perhaps be a surviving "dialectal pocket" of some kind (assuming the orthography represents an original pronunciation). Or could it be an "emergent usage", reflecting the general tendency to "regularise" irregular verbs?

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    Can't access that video, but I have heard "says" pronounced a number of different ways, by people who don't have a Midwestern US accent (the only "proper" accent there is). Some Brits seem to pronounce it oddly, as do some Eurasians.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 28, 2016 at 0:27
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    I certainly hear it, and not only from people reading aloud. But my inclination is to say it is northern - and Jeremy Corbyn certainly isn't a northerner. It is not something I would expect to hear from a sophisticated speaker - more from a child or young person reading aloud - but not only from such as them.
    – WS2
    Oct 28, 2016 at 0:28
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    How about "says" – does it sound like "sez" or "sayes"? It appears to be an open issue: theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/28/…
    – user66974
    Oct 28, 2016 at 6:01
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    ...and note the past tense is not (or at least not any longer) spelled sayed but said. So in that case, the spelling change followed the pronunciation change.
    – GEdgar
    Oct 28, 2016 at 14:42
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    I've heard the unusual pronunciation used for emphasis (in England)
    – Chris H
    Oct 28, 2016 at 17:13

4 Answers 4

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The following extract from Grammarphobia (2008) seems to suggest that "says" pronounced /seiz/ can still be heard:

  • Q: I hear BBC correspondents pronounce “says” with a long “a” to rhyme with “prays.” Why do Americans pronounce it like “sez” instead of like “pays,” “lays,” and other “ays” word that come to mind. Is it just a quirk of English?

  • A: The third-person singular of the verb “say” should be pronounced “sez” on both sides of the Atlantic, according to American and British dictionaries. But pompous broadcasting twits, especially across the pond, have never let standard pronunciations get in the way of on-air affectations.

According to the following extract from Wise Words, /seiz/ used to be the standard pronunciation of "says" which was gradually replaced by the shorter /sɛz/. The former appears to have survived as a non-standard dialectal form:

  • As the linguist Fidelholtz wrote back in 1975 — ‘Frequent words can do exceptional things’. The verb to 'say' is a good example of a mundane verb that is used a lot and that does exceptional things. ‘I say, you say, we say, they say’. There’s nothing peculiar here. It’s the so-called third person form that is the problem — this is where the verb falls out of kilter. In Standard English this is pronounced as ‘he/she/it sez’, and not ‘he/she/it says’. So it’s the shortened version ‘sez’ that is standard; the full form ‘says’ is now considered non-standard, dialectal.

  • The pronunciation shift from ‘says’ to ‘sez’ must have occurred some time ago — writers were already commenting on it as far back as the mid 1600s. Frequency has to be the trigger for the change here. I can think of no other explanation. The ‘he/she/it’ forms of verbs are used more often than other forms. And so the repetition of ‘says’ will have the effect of streamlining the way we articulate it. In other words, we know what we’re doing; we’ve done it so often, so we make short-cuts.

  • As in anything we do automatically, we get more efficient, faster and we decrease the size of whatever gestures are involved. In the case of speech, the transition between the sounds becomes more fluent — longer ‘says’ reduces to ‘sez’. You can see this also in the pronunciation of the form said, pronounced, in Standard English at least, with the same short vowel and not as you’d expect from the spelling (and as it was once pronounced) — ‘said’. Again you can imagine the regularity with which we produce phrases like ‘he said’/‘she said’/’it said’. Because we say it so often, we opt for a shorter route.

(www.abc.net)

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    Wow I can't believe that when I first read this question I thought to myself, long says is just too hard to say, of course no one says it. But then prays, pays, lays...
    – Unrelated
    Oct 28, 2016 at 13:47
  • @Unrelated one of the preachers at speakers corner, that uses the pseudonym "bob the builder" on youtube, says it long, and others do too (perhaps mirroring him).
    – barlop
    Mar 22, 2018 at 13:41
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  • It seems that Jeremy Corbyn regularly pronounces “says” as /seɪz/, as witnessed by this other video (he repeats the word a number of times, e.g., at 1′31″ in the video clip, where it is unclear whether he is reading his notes at this point); as a matter of fact, I stumbled on this question because I thought it was unusual so I googled “says seɪz sɛz”, which led me here. Note that Corbyn pronounces “said” as /sɛd/ just a few seconds earlier, so I think we can rule out confusion due to the written form of the word.

  • This doesn't seem to have been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, but the entry for “say” in the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary by J. C. Wells gives the result of a poll they conducted in 1998 among British English speakers concerning various words, with the result that “says” is pronounced /sɛz/ by 84% of respondents and /seɪz/ by 16% [the dictionary uses the transcription /e/ for the DRESS vowel, so they write “sez”, but I'm normalizing for consistency's sake]. They mark the pronunciation /seɪz/ with a ‘§’ symbol, meaning “BrE non-RP”.

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was Googling this as I was watching a BBC documentary about Anne Boleyn and the presenter , TRacy Borman, consistently used SAYS (like prays) not SEZ. Perhaps it's a regional thing?

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It’s been my experience that many Canadians pronounce “says” as ”sāys”, especially in Windsor and Toronto. As an American I can say that in my 70 years, I’ve never heard an American do so. However, I often do listen to BBC radio, where it seems “sāys” is trending upward.

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  • I do understand the ‘special’ characters needed are hard to type, but I'm afraid your sāys isn’t meaningful to the vast majority of our readers. Instead, the ꜱᴛᴀɴᴅᴀʀᴅɪᴢᴇᴅ way we spell those using the International Phonetic Alphabet is /seɪ/ for the base form say versus /seɪz/ where you just add a /z/ sound for the singular says but retain the close and often diphthongized vowel from FACE /feɪs/ — or else the /sɛz/ pronunciation with a totally different vowel, the more open vowel of DRESS /dɹɛs/.
    – tchrist
    Jun 26, 2022 at 17:50

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