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The infinitive form shows a diphthong /seɪ/, while the typical pronunciation of the third-person singular "simple present" form has /ɛ/ as the nucleus /sɛz/. Wiktionary suggests that the pronunciation /seɪz/ of "he says" is "dialectal". Does this occurrence happen with other verbs ending in -/eɪ/ (to my knowledge, "she plays" would be /pleɪz/; "it stays" would be /steɪz/)? If yes, then why did /sɛz/ become the usual form but not /plɛz/? If not, then can we account for the difference in a regular phonological way?

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    Esperanto more than English would be the place to ask for intelligent design. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 17:08
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    It's an irregular verb, even though it's spelled like a regular one. The only other verb in English I can think of that behaves similarly is I do, he does, which also changes the vowel in the 3rd person. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 17:25
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    As Peter says, it's an irregular verb, and it's only one example, so, no, there would appear not to be a regular explanation for it. Say is a very common verb and features in many idioms ("He says, she says"), where it could get reduced easily. Like the situation with do, which is already an auxiliary and usually bleached of any sense at all. Once a word gets caught up in the machinery of idiom creation and grammar, it doesn't pay much attention to the rules it used to. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 17:44
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    @Araucaria: Alexander Pope (1688–1744) consistently rhymes says with days, ways, and praise. So the phoneme of says changed from /eɪ/ to /ɛ/. However, the pronunciation of say was prevented from changing to /ɛ/ by the fact that it cannot occur in an open syllable. Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 20:55
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    @Araucaria-Nothereanymore. You should definitely follow the OED's suggestion that one consult the discussion in E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500–1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §26. You can find that here if you look hard enough. See also again, wainscot.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 4:47

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"Say" is an irregular verb, and also very common. As Peter Shor mentioned, "says" used to be pronounced /seɪz/ and is still pronounced that way in a few dialects, however mainly it is pronounced /sɛz/. Perhaps the best explanation is that mentioned by John Lawler, namely that as a result of being included in many idioms and being a very frequent word, the pronunciation has become "naturally compressed", although the written form remains as-is, for the time being at least.

I would add that this seems to be an example of how English pronunciation is evolving. The British Library has an ongoing project to track these too: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-11640951

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