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According to Wikipedia as well as my own experiences interacting with people of different nationalities, the pronunciation of 'Z' seems to have maintained some variation of the hard t- sound from the original Greek/Latin "zeta" in most Latin and Germanic languages. The only exceptions I can find are Portugese and American English. In the US, the "zee" pronunciation is so much the unanimous choice, I only recently became aware of this particularly slight against Her Majesty's alphabet.

According to Wikipedia, the 'zee' pronunciation comes "from a late 17th-century English dialectal form," citing a book by Thomas Lye from that period. So, is it fair to assume that this style was popular in England at the time and that American colonists, wanting to keep in vogue with the latest fashions out of the old country took it up?

The Canadian Encyclopedia offers the opposite explanation--that it was popularized in the spirit of the American Revolution to inspire rebellion against tyrannical taxation and spelling mandates. Another possibility is that it comes from the Alphabet Song, itself an American variation on a long-standing European tradition. (Zee rhymes with me but zed only rhymes with...Ted?) I think this was around the same time we invented football.

Personally, I think the ABC song was probably the most important contributor since it helped so many children learn to read and literacy was considered a valuable skill at that time. Would be interested to hear what others think. Any other possibilities that should be explored?

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    What does "so ubiquitous" mean? Either something is everywhere or it is not. You can't have some things being more everywhere than other things. Omnipresence admits no exceptions.
    – tchrist
    Aug 17 '21 at 1:17
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    Can you give IPA examples of the sounds you mean. Italian, for example, has two different sounds for an initial Z.
    – DjinTonic
    Aug 17 '21 at 1:21
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    What does "so unanimous" mean? Either something is of one mind or it is not. You can't have some things being of more than one mind than another. Unity is unique.
    – tchrist
    Aug 17 '21 at 1:22
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    What does "the hard consonant sound" mean? What would it mean not to have "the hard consonant sound"? What does a hard consonant sound like?
    – tchrist
    Aug 17 '21 at 1:24
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    Where might I read about these “tyrannical spelling mandates” from the then-King of Great Britain that the American Founding Fathers rose up in violent revolution against? Have you spell-checked the Declaration of Independence lately? He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States..For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences..For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province..and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages....
    – tchrist
    Aug 17 '21 at 1:35
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Like most things in English at the time of the split between the United States and Great Britain, there was little formalization in the language. Unlike other languages, there is no English language academy to stabilize and standardize pronunciations, spellings, grammar, definitions, etc. And in the 17th and 18th Centuries, there were multiple names given to Z in English: zed, zee, izzard, and uzzard. All of these forms traveled to the Americas in various dialectics. It is likely that many people from regions of Britain that used Zee came to the United States (though few records exist for this spoken phenomenon) and this became a popularized way of saying the letter, reinforced by its parallelism with Bee, Cee, Dee, Gee, Pee, Tee, and Vee.

There are numerous other examples of words being retained in American English from older English that have been lost in modern British English. I don't think the Zee example needs any particular special explanation. More important is to realize that other English speaking nations tended to be colonized later and under more direct British influence for longer, thus favoring the "official" British pronunciation of Zed (making this one of the easiest ways to identify the difference between a Canadian and an American besides the pronunciation of about).

If you just think it is odd that so many European languages retain a more direct link to the Greek zeta, you can also marvel over how little Wye has to do with either upsilon or the Latin I Graeca.

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    +1 for Like most things in English at the time of the split between the United States and Great Britain, there was little formalization in the language. Truer words were never spoken. One has only to compare the late-16th century Geneva Bible with the Authorized Version of 1611 to see some major developments in spelling that happened in a very short time.
    – RobJarvis
    Aug 17 '21 at 14:09
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    Good commentary. I definitely went into this from the perspective that American English is a mutation of some idealized form. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of the two as isolated subspecies simultaneously adapting to different environments. Aug 17 '21 at 14:46
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    @AffableAmbler It's divergent evolution, where each branch tended to retain some aspects of the older tongue that were lost in the other, and each came up with new innovations that may or may not be adopted in the other. Most British accents were rhotic at the time of the colonizing of America and that's something that was lost pretty recently in (most) British English accents but preserved in (most) of North America. Aug 17 '21 at 15:56

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