This is either a spelling or a pronunciation anomaly; I'm not sure which. Why is "eye" pronounced as the letter "I"?

  • The Scottish dialect, as far as I know, say "ee" – Thursagen Sep 8 '11 at 1:01
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    @Thursagen: That’s generally true, though some southern varieties of the Scots language have [əi]. I believe that in Early Scots the vowel monophthongized to [e:], which was then raised to [i:] in the part of the Great Vowel Shift that took place in Scots. – Brian M. Scott Sep 8 '11 at 21:35
  • Somewhat related: Spelling of “high” vs “height” – herisson Nov 11 '16 at 8:00

Looking at the Etymonline entry:

c.1200, from O.E. ege (Mercian), eage (W. Saxon), from P.Gmc. *augon

the g in Old English ege would be the voiced velar fricative /ɣ/. This sound does not exist in modern English as it was palatalised to /ʝ/ and later became /j/, which we usually write with y.

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  • I thought palatalization of velars was reconstructed as a pre–, not post–Old English sound change. What I remembar reading is that the reflexes of Proto-Germanic velars in palatalizing contexts were written with g and c in Old English, but pronounced as [j], [tʃ] (or when geminated, written cg or gg and cc and pronounced as [dːʒ], [tːʃ]). – herisson Mar 10 '18 at 5:20

Both spelling and pronunciation are reasonably regular. The word is from Mercian ēge [e:ɣe] (West Saxon ēage). In Middle English the [ɣ] became [j], and the combination [e:j] developed into the diphthong [eɪ]. In later Middle English this diphthong was monophthongized to [i:], which developed into modern [aɪ] in the course of the Great Vowel Shift. The later Middle English pronunciation can be seen in such spellings as igh(e), ihe, and ie; the modern spelling, however, represents the earlier Middle English pronunciation.

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  • +1 for mentioning the "Great Vowel Shift." That was a very instructive link! – John Tobler Sep 8 '11 at 20:07
  • What other words show [e:j] > [eɪ] > [i:] > [aɪ]? Would this be like "fly" from OE fleoge or "die/dice" from French "de"? – herisson Feb 21 '16 at 5:04

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