You Say EEther, I Say AYEther

76019either or neitherSay what you will about it, either deserves a second look. Or a second hearing. And neither too, for that matter.

In a usage book like Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage, you’ll see that in its written form, either presents usage experts with conundrums, having to do with meaning and verb agreement. Even to summarize those discussions would occupy more space than this entire column, so forget about that. What I’m interested in is a simpler yet more mysterious matter: how you say it.

That is, do you pronounce it EEther or AYEther? Why? And which pronunciation is the proper one?

That last question is easily answered. Both pronunciations are widely used and fully valid. But what makes a person choose one form or another?

The Dictionary of American Regional English offers some guidance. American pronunciation, we learn, is usually EE. But also especially in urban areas of the Northeast, especially among well-educated speakers, AYE is to be found, though AYE is “often considered affected.”

DARE quotes from the Linguistic Atlas of New England, published in the 1940s: AYE “is natural to a small number of younger and educated informants; it is regarded as affected or amusing by several others, and as old-fashioned (perhaps rather unfamiliar or unusual) by some others, especially in Maine.” And a 1961 study of pronunciation in the Atlantic states concluded that AYE “is distinctly a sporadic feature of the cultivated speech of Metropolitan New York and Philadelphia. …  It is in all probability a recent adoption from British English.”

So much for the experts. That’s the 20th-century situation. What about now?

I asked students in a class of mine here in the middle of Illinois. Not surprisingly, most said they said EE. But a few said AYE, and they weren’t the ones I might have identified as “affected.”

To my surprise, a couple of students said they used both pronunciations. They couldn’t say what particular situations would call for one or the other.

Even more puzzling was this unheard-of situation that I heard of while at the Virginia Festival of the Book last month. An author from EE territory in Chicago said that her whole family used EE — she and her spouse, her children ages 15 and 9, except not her 4-year-old. That child always says AYEther. But where has she even heard it, let alone determined to use it against family norms?

And are EE and AYE ever in free variation? Or is there any conditioning factor that at least partly determines which pronunciation a person will use?

It’s a mystery. I don’t have the answer. I hope you do.

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