Is it just because "ninth" has only one syllable? That wouldn't make sense, though, because saying "NINE-ith" wouldn't be worse than saying "NINE-e-tee". If we were used to "nineth", we would have no more trouble pronouncing it than "ninety" or "nineteen". Where did the "e" go, and why didn't it disappear from the other words with "nine" in them?

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    Google Ngrams shows the usage of nineth in the 17th c. But ninth was already more popular then, so these might just be incorrect spelling. – JoseK Aug 4 '11 at 12:35
  • As a child, I read the title of the book "The Eagle of the Ninth" as nɪnθ :) – Benjol Aug 4 '11 at 13:29
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    Don't you wish we had "ninty", too? – Daniel Aug 4 '11 at 14:28
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    ... and what about fourteen and forty, not fourty? – GEdgar Aug 4 '11 at 19:06
  • I thought of that, but someone already asked it. – Daniel Aug 4 '11 at 19:07

Old English

The Old English spellings for the number nine were nigon or nigen or nigan (see Dutch negen) - actually written "niᵹ[oea]n" with the old Irish "g".

For instance in "The coronation of Edgar [the peaceful]" (a poem from the Anglo Saxon chronicles, composed at the end of the... 9th century) one can read:

OE:     Ond him Eadmundes eafora hæfde nigon ond XX
PDE:  And Edmund's offspring had 9 and 20 [years]

Derived from nigon, you would find typically

  • nigonhund ==> nine hundred :
  • nigontig ==> ninety


  • nigonðe ==> ninth

It is probably fair to assume that the "-gon" part was unstressed and this explains why there are at least three variants nigon, nigen and nigan. The vowel of the second syllable was not pronounced distinctly and gradually faded away.

Middle English

Actually the Middle English spelling shows that it disappeared pretty quickly. Here are a few spellings from Middle English.

1225 Ancr. R. 328
   Þe nieðe reisun is þis.
   The ninth reason is this.

c 1357 Lay Folks Catech. 232   
     The neynd is, that we noght yerne our neghtebur house.
     The ninth [commandment] is that we not covet our neighbour's house

In nine you need the final "e" to suggest a pronunciation of /naɪn/ as opposed to /nin/ (nin).
Just as in wine /waɪn/ vs win /win/.
So that the final "e" could not disappear.

Modern English

As for ninth, however, it looks like the spellings nineth and ninth competed for a while and that ninth eventually prevailed. I don't think there's any rhyme in /-inθ/ in English that would justify the expense of an extra "e", the role of which would be to avoid the confusion between nineth /nainθ/ and ninth /ninθ/.

Here is an example of nineth in Modern English.

1688 R. Holme Armoury iii. 190/1
   The Knights of St. Stephen instituted in honor of Pope Stephen the nineth.

Also note: The same thing happened to transform eahtoþa into eighth: the unstressed "o" gradually became less heard and the spelling adapted.

Sources: OED and Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology 1992.

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  • I guess there is no further explanation than that. The word ninth should be written with an e but it isn't. This case is an exception that proves the rule. – user28513 Oct 15 '12 at 18:57
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    The ninth plinth? – bof Jan 4 '16 at 7:41

The only thing I can find that sort of covers this is in the wiki for ordinal indicator, it explains how to write them, but not why they are pronounced that way.

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I think this will solve your question. I found it in the book "Vocabulary for the High School Student" by Harold Levine:

Attaching Suffixes to Words Ending in Silent E

When you add a suffix to a word ending in silent e, what happens to the e? Is it kept or dropped? Here are the rules:

Rule 1

Drop silent e if the suffix begins with a vowel,

EXAMPLES: blame + able= blamable; secure + ity= security; innovate + or= innovator

Exception A> If the word ends in ce or ge, and the suffix begins with a or o, keep the e.

EXAMPLES: service + able= serviceable; courage + ous= courageous

Exception B> acreage, mileage, singeing, canoeing, hoeing, shoeing

Rule 2

Keep silent e if the suffix begins with a consonant.

EXAMPLES: hope + ful= hopeful; profuse + ly= profusely; postpone + ment=postponement

Exceptions argument, awful, duly, truly, wholly, ninth

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    But here, ninth is an exception, with no explanation of why. This answer only serves to deepen any questions about it. – Daniel Oct 11 '12 at 13:11
  • That list of exceptions to Rule 2 is not complete: there's also once and only (from one) and words like judgment (from judge, although spellings like judgement are also used). The class of words like invisibly (from invisible) could also be considered to qualify, I guess. – herisson Jan 4 '16 at 7:09

Its a good question. One of the rules in English, is every syllable must have a vowel. Using that rule, if we spell the word as nineth, the letter E would be creating a new syllable - and we don't want that. In the word ninety, there are 2 syllables and, therefore, 2 vowels: the I and the Y. The E then becomes a letter with a function (i.e. it changes the previous vowel to its long sound) rather than a sound. Is that helpful?

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  • "Every syllable must have a vowel letter" isn't the same thing as "every vowel letter must have a syllable." The latter is obviously not true, as shown by your own example ninety. (The former is also not quite right, though: there are words like chasm and rhythm.) I don't understand why you say E can be a "letter with a function" in ninety but not in nineth. – herisson Jun 29 '16 at 4:15

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