I’ve always wondered what the correct or considered correct pronunciation of the old Saxon word hele is. The Oxford English Dictionary states it should be pronounced as /hiːl/ and that’s what I’ve always used –

hele

Pronunciation: /hiːl/

To hide, conceal; to keep secret.

I’ve also heard it pronounced as /heɪl/ and whenever I’ve questioned that pronunciation, I’ve always been told that it is correct or that is the preferred way of pronunciation.

So which is it /hiːl/ or /heɪl/?

  • 1
    The Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary gives it as /hele/, and that's how I would have read it. – Robusto Dec 27 '12 at 17:10
  • @Robusto Is the pronunciation changing depending on the implied meaning? – spiceyokooko Dec 27 '12 at 17:11
  • Honestly, I couldn't say. The definition given ("a covering ?") appears to be only a conjecture, as often happens in dead languages. – Robusto Dec 27 '12 at 17:16
  • @Robusto I've never heard of the word being used as a covering hence my query. Obviously some word pronunciations do change depending on meaning, August meaning month and August meaning venerable are obvious examples, I'm just wondering if this word is similar. – spiceyokooko Dec 27 '12 at 17:20
  • 2
    It's an Old Saxon word. Nobody speaks Old Saxon any more. The only information we have about how it was pronounced is its spelling (which at that time was used to indicate pronunciation, unlike Modern English spelling). So @Robusto has it exactly right. If you're not dealing with a modern English word, you usually can pronounce it as if it were IPA, i.e, [hele]. – John Lawler Dec 27 '12 at 17:29
up vote 4 down vote accepted

It depends really on whether you're using it as a Modern English word or as an Old English word.

OE pronunciation would have been /helə/, which would probably be realized in casual use by modern students of OE as /heɪlə/; so if one of these gets snotty with you you may correct his pronunciation to one with a short e and a schwa ending.

And then you may explain that you are not employing the OE verb helan (make sure you include the infinitive ending to put your interlocutor more firmly in his place) but the ModE dialect verb hele, which has undergone the ME Great Vowel Shift and loss of ending and is accordingly pronounced, as the OED tells us, /hiːl/.

  • As it's being used in modern English /hiːl/ should be the correct pronunciation. Ta very much me old mucker! Very much appreciated. – spiceyokooko Dec 27 '12 at 17:36
  • @spiceyokooko But please don't go out of your way to provoke correction until after the Christmas Truce! – StoneyB Dec 27 '12 at 17:37
  • Would I do such a thing? It's been a long running bone of contention with me, I shall raise it with the guilty parties in due course. Many thanks. – spiceyokooko Dec 27 '12 at 17:40

It isn't always possible to determine a single "correct" pronunciation for a word, especially not for a word like this that is obscure and mostly archaic. People may even develop preferences for odd pronunciations that have no obvious basis in anything (e.g. "dais" is commonly pronounced as a disyllable, and apparently has been for a while--see this book from 1869--although it comes from a French monosyllable, and there is no general rule of pronouncing "ai" in two syllables in English).

You referenced the Oxford English Dictionary in the question, but I think it actually has a good discussion of this in its entry for heel, v.1:

Modern spelling.

The spelling of the word continues to vary considerably in modern use, probably reflecting its limited currency. The spelling heel is very common only in sense 2c, where some folk-etymological association with heel v.3 seems likely.

Specific forms.

In form hool perhaps showing an alteration by analogy with whole v. beside heal v.1

The origin of the forms hail and hale, attested in Masonic usage (compare sense 1) from the 18th cent., is unclear. The forms may either originate in regional pronunciations (compare Forms 1 β.), or be due to the influence of Older Scots graphic forms with -ei-, where the postvocalic -i- indicates vowel length (compare reveil v.).

The "long vowel" in modern English that usually corresponds to Old English "e" is /iː/, but as mentioned in the quoted passage, regional variation has existed.

In Freemason rituals, the word "hele" is used to mean "conceal" and is generally pronounced as "hail" (and often confused with the word hail by the uninformed members who only hear the word in an oral interchange, rarely in print.)

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