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Was the silent 'e' in "nine" ever pronounced? In Old English, the word for "nine" was "nigon", with no 'e' at the end. But, in Middle English, the word for "nine" was written either as "nine" or "nyne". Was that pronounced /nine/ or /ni:n/?

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    The number nine is pronounced with two syllables even today in aviation, but that's probably not what you're looking for (hence a comment not an answer).
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:25
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    Actually, according to the OED, in Middle English the word was spelled (among other ways) nyȝan, niwon, niȝen, neȝene, neghen, neon, nyen, nine, nie, nye, nyghe, neyghe, neghe, nyne, nene, neyne, neyn. So presumably not everybody pronounced the 'e' on the end in Middle English, but quite possibly some people did. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 12:52
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    What we call "MIddle English" was a congeries of dialects -- dozens or hundreds of them, depending on how finely you distinguish -- spoken mostly by illiterate country people. Among them were many who were literate, but there was literally no standard, and everyone wrote as they spoke, just the way everyone always did before Caxton. Naturally they were all over the place. Commented Apr 24, 2023 at 21:38
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    @psmears I thought that the "niner" pronunciation was relatively recent, the need for it arising largely from the invention of the telegraph (radio) and the spread of aviation. I doubt that that pronunciation would have been adopted before 1849 (i.e., the widespread use of the term "forty-niner"). I certainly may be wrong, though; this would be an interesting question on its own! Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 3:06
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    @MarcInManhattan Yes, I believe that's right, I wasn't trying to suggest it was a historical thing, just pointing out there are contexts where it's pronounced with two syllables today (answering the "was it ever pronounced" bit of the question, though presumably not in the way intended!)
    – psmears
    Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 8:11

2 Answers 2

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Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls may have an example of nyne pronounced as a disyllable:

And after shewed he him the nyne speres,

(Line 59)

(I think "shewed" is a monosyllable here, although I'm not sure.)

On the other hand, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (written in iambic pentameter, so in general, five feet each composed of one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) furnishes an example of nyne pronounced as what looks to be a monosyllable before a word starting with a consonant:

A wonder last but nyne night neuer in toune.

(Book IV, line 588. Other editions give the first word as "Ek".)

I would expect a disyllabic pronunciation to be pronounced /niːne/ (or /niːnə/) rather than /nine/, since I don't see why the vowel in the first syllable would develop a different length based on the presence or absence of a following /ə/. (We know that this is not a word that originally contained /nin/ in Old English).

Since a pronunciation of nine with final /ə/ does not seem to be etymological, I'd speculate that it arose by analogy with the pronunciation of other words, like eighte. Here's an example of that word in Chaucer:

And by his eighte speere in his wirkyng

(The Franklin's Tale, line 572)

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    More evidence for the pronunciation of the final "e" comes from John Gower's poem Confessio Amantis, written in iambic tetrameter, which, in at least one version, has the lines "The golde of nine kinges londes // Ne ſbulde him ſave fro min hondes," which scans properly if you pronounce nine with two syllables. Commented Apr 25, 2023 at 14:13
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As The Middle English Compendium notes, it appears that Middle English had many competing spellings, among them:

nīn, nine, ninne, nien, nie, ni- & nighen, nighien, niʒen, niʒne, nighe, niʒe & nēen, neien, nein, nen & neghen, neʒen, neiʒen, neghe, neighe

Presumably the spelling "nine" ended up succeeding because it best reflects the modern pronunciation, given the rules for how other words ending in "-ine" are pronounced.

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