When I began to study English in my high school (Moscow Institute of Applied Physics) I could not believe our teacher (or tutor?) that the English pronounce it as /aɪ/. I was all of shocked. In school I studied French and I always thought that all normal nations (at least European) pronounce it as /ɪ/. What is the origin of such crazy behavior of Englishmen?

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    Saying that people pronounce "I" as "I" is not incredibly helpful. Perhaps find a less ambiguous way to state the pronunciation, or see IPA: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:IPA/Introduction – MattJ Jun 13 '12 at 23:39
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    > The name of a letter is not how it is pronounced. – When they pronounce "tide" as "taid" – trg787 Jun 13 '12 at 23:52
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    @JohnLawler Actually, the Spanish letter you’re referring to is actually known as i griega because all letters are feminine in Spanish. You may be thinking of Portuguese, where that same letter really is i griego. I wish I knew why the names of the letters are masculine in Portuguese yet are feminine in Spanish. – tchrist Jun 14 '12 at 0:00
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    Foreign languages always look "crazy". You need to remember that comparison (crazy, normal) is always relative. What looks crazy to you is perfectly normal to other people. – Alex B. Jun 14 '12 at 0:32
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    Sorry, not crucial to the original question, but just to make sure people are aware: "i" is "i latina" in Spanish, and "y" is "i griega". You can just say "i" for "i latina" if the context is clear, though. But the general point stands: it's all arbitrary. – Neil Coffey Jun 14 '12 at 2:46

The names of the English vowel letters used to be the same as all European languages:

  • A, E, I, O, U /a:, e:, i:, o:, u:/.

That was before the Great Vowel Shift, as choster has explained.

Now they have different names, respectively

  • A, E, I, O, U /ey, iy, ai, ow, yu/.

That's because the writing system didn't change, but the pronunciation of the language did.


English underwent a major and very rapid change in pronunciation around the 15th century known as the Great Vowel Shift, which explains in part why its spelling, pronunciation, and even names for letters of the alphabet vary from those of other European languages.

An English professor has posted a site including an audio demonstration of the shift at http://eweb.furman.edu/~mmenzer/gvs/ . According to Wikipedia the reason for the shift is unknown, but may be related to changes in society, such as English displacing French as the language of the aristocracy.

  • That's the answer but.... > According to Wikipedia the reason for the shift is unknown – trg787 Jun 14 '12 at 0:07
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    @trg787 Not everything about everything is known yet – simchona Jun 14 '12 at 0:10
  • @simchona, try to think logically: the answer is the answer/reason is unknown – trg787 Jun 14 '12 at 0:17
  • @trg787 Because people aren't perfect? Don't patronize me. – simchona Jun 14 '12 at 0:18
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    It is hardly ever possible to point to an extrinsic cause for language change. It happens, and we can observe the course of a particular historical change, and deduce some general laws about change (eg that some kinds of change are more likely than others). But we can never (or almost never) confidently say "This change will happen", or "This change started because of ...". – Colin Fine Jun 14 '12 at 16:28

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