Edmund Griffiths  

E d m u n d   G r i f f i t h s

The sound that people expect the letter i to make

One interesting development over roughly the last hundred years has been a change in English speakers’ intuitions about how to pronounce the vowels in foreign words and names. Broadly speaking, we are now much less inclined to use the traditional (post-Great Vowel Shift) English values and much more inclined to use a version of the ‘continental’ values as heard in Italian or Spanish. One result is that established pronunciations of, say, Latin tags or Biblical names now have to be learnt as exceptions—even though they originated as natural pronunciations based on the spellings.

A good example is provided by the letter i in open syllables, which on an ‘English’ reading would often represent /aɪ/ as in icy, while the ‘continental’ value would be closer to /i:/ as in machine.

In 1927, people typically read it the English way. Sir Alan Gardiner, debating with himself in that year how best to make Egyptian names like Ḥrms palatable to the English-speaking reader, plumped for Ḥarmosĕ (with vowels borrowed from the Sahidic dialect of Coptic) over the more Bohairic-flavoured Ḥarmosi precisely because ‘–mosi is less desirable through the danger that –i might be pronounced as in ‘bite’ ’ (Egyptian Grammar, 3rd ed. 1957, p. 436). I do not think anyone would be very tempted to pronounce it that way now.

Indeed, we need to be positively taught to adopt an English reading in words where that is the convention: we would not guess that amicus, in the unreformed Latin of the law, rhymes with ‘strike us.’ And the traditional pronunciation of ‘Sinai,’ based purely on established English patterns—si as in ‘silence,’ na as in ‘navy,’ i as in ‘I’—now has to be learnt as a special exception to what people feel is the rule (witness the way it is commonly rendered as /'saɪniaɪ/). This pronunciation itself is palpably losing ground to the compromise form /'saɪnaɪ/: will a day come when Sinai is naturally pronounced /'si:naɪ/?

The extent to which the continental reading of i has become familiar to us is anyway demonstrated by its use in writing personal names that are not felt to be foreign, such as Toni. I am less certain why the change has happened—but radio and television have probably played a major role, by promulgating standard pronunciations of words and names that people might otherwise have been inclined to read in English fashion. Mussolini may look as though you should pronounce it */mʌsə'laɪnaɪ/: but if you are used to hearing BBC newsreaders say it then you will probably follow their example. (I did however once hear someone—not terribly young, but hardly old enough to have grown up without broadcast media—pronounce Chairman Mao exactly like County Mayo, so this may not be the whole explanation.)