22

There is a very productive suffix in English coming from Latin: '-or': doctor, actor, aviator, etc. meaning 'the person that does the thing'.

It is spelled '-or' but is pronounced to rhyme with the English Native spelling of the similar meaning '-er' or in IPA for American English as from the NURSE lexical set: /ər/ or /ɚ/ and in non-rhotic BrE /əː/.

Pretty much all words ending in '-tor' are pronounced this way.

  • /'dɑk təɹ/
  • /'æk təɹ/
  • /in 'ven təɹ/

Except for 'mentor'.

  • /'men ɔɹ/

It is pronounced with the 'NORTH' vowel: AmE /ɔɹ/ and BrE /oː/.

There doesn't seem to be any logical (similar history) or phonetic (rule based) reason for this. From an automated search of words, only 'guarantor', 'or', 'nor', and 'tor' had the same final syllable pronunciation, but none sharing the same stress pattern with 'mentor' (and the last three are not the suffix anyway). And 'inventor', which is very close except for the first syllable, does not share the last syllable.

Can anyone throw any light on this? Was 'mentor' imported or created special? Is it a 'spelling' or 'faux-highbrow' pronunciation like sometimes 'actor' or 'realtor' might be pronounced? Or is it just an anomaly as they happen sometimes?


Note: for pronunciation reference I used the CMU Pronouncing dictionary for automating the pronunciation search and facilitating making general categorical statements like 'There are no other words like...' . It has only one pronunciation for each word (i.e. no variants), and only AmE (so I'm unsure about some of the BrE versions).

  • 3
    How would you pronounce condor? The CMU Pronouncing dictionary you linked to shows it using the same sound as doctor, but howjsay.com and I both pronounce it like we would guarantor, not doctor (condor, doctor). – terdon Feb 22 '18 at 16:47
  • 2
    Hmm ... I definitely pronounce it to rhyme with "doctor" in at least unstressed contexts. – Azor Ahai Feb 22 '18 at 16:52
  • 2
    @terdon in fact condor, to my ears, is a much better contrast -- mentor (despite the dictionary) often ends the same as the others – Chris H Feb 22 '18 at 16:54
  • 5
    @ChrisH yes, I feel I would never rhyme condor with doctor, while I might not always stress the final -or in mentor. – terdon Feb 22 '18 at 16:55
  • 2
    @ChrisH I feel there's free variation for 'mentor' between the two pronunciations, with (informal guess) the '-tore' more common. But none of the others (or very rare) are pronounced like that (even though the spelling is suggestive of '-tore'). – Mitch Feb 22 '18 at 17:34
5

The "Pronouncing Shakespeare's Words: A Guide from A to Zounds" appears to suggest that the pronunciation has something to do with on-stage usage during Shakespeare times:

  • Mentor, orator and other words of this class that are not commonly used in day-to-day life (including "Shakespearean" words like servitor, proditor, paritor) are often pronounced on- and off-stage with /-or/, but the traditional pronunciation is /-ur/, as found in most of our common words ending in -or (actor, instructor, doctor).

Garner's Modern English Usage refers to the pronunciation of mentor as "ˈmɛntər" and adds that:

  • the overpronounced "mɛnˌtɔr" is probably dominant in AmE today.
19

Most likely, Mentor is pronounced differently from actor etc because it was derived from a name.

"wise adviser," 1750, from Greek Mentor, friend of Odysseus and adviser of Telemachus (but often actually Athene in disguise) in the "Odyssey," perhaps ultimately meaning "adviser," because the name appears to be an agent noun of mentos "intent, purpose, spirit, passion" from PIE *mon-eyo- (source also of Sanskrit man-tar- "one who thinks," Latin mon-i-tor "one who admonishes"), causative form of root *men- (1) "to think." The general use of the word probably is via later popular romances, in which Mentor played a larger part than he does in Homer. - etymonline

Here are a couple other Greek names that follow this pronunciation (links are to wikipedia):

  • Agenor - /əˈdʒiːnɔːr/; Greek: Ἀγήνωρ, Agēnor
  • Hector - Ἕκτωρ Hektōr, pronounced [héktɔːr]
  • 1
    Possibly, but the same could be said...well, does a doctor 'doct'? I did not know the provenance of the term, and I suspect most people don't especially on first seeing the term. And in a similar vein most people don't know classical Greek pronunciation. – Mitch Feb 22 '18 at 15:03
  • 2
    @Mitch True, though I don't know that Doctor was ever a Greek name :) . I've added a couple of other Greek names with similar trailing 'or' pronunciation (to Mentor). I picked ones that included IPA to help with pronunciation. – Lawrence Feb 22 '18 at 15:13
  • 5
    The doct root comes from the word for "to lead"/"to teach." But as you said in your original post, that's from Latin. I'm wondering if the reason for the pronunciation of mentor isn't that it's a proper name, but that it's from Greek. – spoko Feb 22 '18 at 15:13
  • 8
    @Lawrence Good find on 'Hector'. But in English, the name Hector, as well as the verb meaning to badger someone, is usually pronounced /'hek tər/. – Mitch Feb 22 '18 at 16:23
  • 2
    @Mitch The suffix is actually (historically speaking) -ter/-tor, not -or. Greek has maintained the original distribution of stressed -ter vs unstressed -tor; Latin has essentially generalised -tor everywhere. It’s a verbal suffix, added straight on to the root, so yes, a doctor originally doc’ed (the verb is doceō). The reason we have so many forms with no t in English is that the largest classes of verbs in Latin had a root in -ā-, giving -ātor with an intervocalic /t/; and single intervocalic consonants were usually lost in Old French, so roughly -ātor > -aor > -or. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '18 at 8:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.