Words with Multiple Pronunciations: “The”, “Either”, and “Scone”

Updated: Mar 23


As we’ve already discussed on this website, the system of English spelling is frustratingly inconsistent in regard to pronunciations thanks to chiefly The Great Vowel Shift. This event in English language history has resulted in many confusing spellings, such as “night” and “knight” and so many more.


Indeed, this has, in part, led to the extensive develop of dialects in the UK, creating general phonological variations such as pronouncing "grass" with a long vowel sound or with a short vowel sound.


However, what about words which we change our pronunciation of regularly within our own dialects. Why can we never stick to one pronunciation of the word "the"?


Furthermore, what about the words that we use constantly and find ourselves in pointless debates about the “correct” way to pronounce them. What about “scone”? Is "scone" pronounced in a certain way due to our different dialects, or is it something else? Is it pronounced with a long vowel sound or with a short vowel sound? Is there even a correct way to say it?


Anyway, these are the types of words we are going to be looking at in today’s article. So, let’s get into it.


Why are there two ways to pronounce the article “the”?


There are two ways to pronounce “the”. You may not have noticed it, but English speakers consistently pronounce “the” in two ways. Now, this word isn’t as divisive as words like “scone”, as it’s not like we pick a side and only pronounce it in that way and to do anything else would be criminal; instead, we seem to subconsciously alter our pronunciation of this article depending on a few factors.


The first way of pronouncing “the” is to sound it like /ðə/ - this is representing sound with the IPA symbol. All /ðə/ means is that the pronunciation of “the” is made up of two phonemes and rhymes with “duh”. So, transliterated, the sound is “thuh”.


The second way we pronounce “the” is to sound it like /ði/, meaning it rhymes with “free”. So, transliterated, the sound is “thee”.


Okay, before we get into why, I would just like to point out that this article discusses the pronunciation within the context of British Standard English; fortunately, however, the BSE pronunciation is often followed in many dialects across the British dialects and other World Englishes.


The general use for each type of pronunciation seems to follow a typical pattern. When the word directly comes after the definite article is a consonant sound, the sound /ðə/ is used. However, when the word directly after the definite article is a vowel sound, the sound /ði/ is usually employed.


So, for example, consider the sentences below with a transliteration underneath.


The book is with the indecisive girl.

“Thuh” --> “Thee”


The end of the book was better than the film.

“Thee” --> “Thuh”.


For the most part, this description of general use seems to be ok. Nonetheless, we don’t necessarily employ this generalisation of phonology with much consistency. For example, in conversational speech, we are more inclined to use the sound /ðə/, and use the sound /ði/ as a sort of “secondary” or “back-up” sound.


Sound out the phrase “the only way”. In my head, I pronounce “the” like /ðə/, despite “only” beginning with a vowel sound. This could perhaps be to suggest that the word “the” is changed in pronunciation depending on how we would like to be perceived. Perhaps because “thee” is less common than “thuh”, it is perceived with more prestige. This is speculated to be because of how the word “the” is emphasised in English. When we want to emphasise the definite article, we always emphasise it with the sound /ði/. When emphasising, the generalisation about vowels or consonants flies out the window – we only use /ði/ for emphasis.


Consider the sentence “I saw the mouse today”. If you pronounce “the” as /ðə/, it will simply mean you saw a specific mouse. However, now try pronouncing it with the sound /ði/ - the meaning of mouse is enhanced. Using “the” in this way may suggest that the speaker and the listener saw that spider earlier and they have a story about it.


By this same token, the sentence “I saw the Queen” can have two meanings depending on the pronunciation of “the”. /ðə/ would suggest you saw the Queen, but /ði/ would suggest you saw the actual Queen – it adds an extra sprinkle of emotion.


However, all in all, the generalisation I gave above about “thuh” before a consonant sound and “thee” before a vowel sound is not a rule. There could be many factors influencing which pronunciation we use in different contexts: social status, the flow of speech, dialects, etc. So, we have two (generally) ways to pronounce “the” and, although a general pattern can be found, there will of course be some anomalies.


Why are there two pronunciations of “either” and “neither”?


How do you pronounce “either”? I pronounce it like “eye-ther” and surprise myself if I find myself pronouncing it any other way, although this inconsistency in pronunciation in my own idiolect is indeed salient. For me at least, this pronunciation seems are little more like a conscious choice than with the pronunciations of “the”.


As aforementioned, the first way to pronounce “either” or “neither” is with a short vowel in the first syllable (/ī-ðər/). “Either” is pronounced as if you are wanting to say “the eye” but forgot the syntactic rules of English, placing the article after the noun.


The second pronunciation is with a longer vowel sound in the first syllable (/ē-ðər/). Therefore, “either” would sound like “ee-the” and “neither” like “knee-the”.


In Canada and Britain, the choice of the two pronunciations seems to be mixed. In the USA, speakers tend to favour the pronunciation with the sound /i:/ - but there still isn’t just one correct usage, though.


Similarly to the articulation of “the”, the sound /i:/ tends to be used for emphasising, as it’s the longer vowel version.


According to reports from etymologyonline.com, the word “either” comes from the Old English word ǣgther, pronounced like “ay-g-ther” (/ǽgðer /). Then, there’s also the example of the, although contested, spelling from Middle English “eather”, where it would have been most likely to have been pronounced with a sound like “eye”.


So, when did another pronunciation occur?


According to many sources, the two pronunciations seemed to just be a consequence of seemingly random change, as with many things in language. Before the 18th Century, the only pronunciation (in what was considered the standard variation) was with the sound /i:/. However, in 1727, King George II ascended to the throne. George II’s father, George I, couldn’t really speak English. George I was taught it from a young age in Hanover, but never dropped his German accent.


Therefore, after his ascension to the throne, he pronounced “either” as /'aɪ.ðə/. Because he was the King, people tended to copy him in the hope of bettering their social standing at the time. However, equally, there were people who didn’t converge because they lived in rural areas of England and would have heard the King’s voice rarely, if at all. And so were two pronunciations born.


How do you pronounce “scone”?


The next multiple-pronunciation word I would like to look at is the word “scone”. Before this, however, I would like to point out that this article will not be disclosing any preferences for either pronunciation, as I am fully aware such a reveal could end in protest.


The word “scone” can either be rhymed with “gone” or “cone”. The first group contend that their way of pronunciation is the only correct way, as they’re only following the logical extension that the grouping of the letters “-one” make a “on” sound, as in “gone”. Nonetheless, the second group see their articulation as more logical still. They are simply employing the logical extension of the pronunciation of the noun “cone” by adding the prefix “-s”.


The way to say “scone” is indeed a fiery topic.


According to research conducted by researchers for the University of Cambridge, there is a trend as to where which pronunciation is heard more frequently. In Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Northern England, those who rhyme “scone” with “gone” reign dominant; however, in the areas in and around Sheffield, the rhyming of “scone” with “cone” is much more popular; elsewhere in the country, there is a lot more variation.


In terms of statistics, a survey by YouGov revealed that 51% of those who responded pronounce “scone” to rhyme with “gone”, and 42% of them rhymed it with “cone”.

To add an extra bit of complications to this heated debate, there is also a third way to pronounce “scone”. In Scotland, another variation is to rhyme it with “loon”, making it sound like “skoon”.


So, why are there lots of ways to pronounce “scone”?


The research led by the University of Cambridge demonstrate how the variation is very much a geographical factor. In this way, the reason for variation could be influenced in part by regional dialects. Having said this, in their conclusion, the researchers noted how the extent of the variations could be a result of various examples of social conditioning.


The Oxford English Dictionary reports that the first use of the word appeared in 1513 in a Scottish translation by the poet Gavin Douglas and was used to mean “thin, flat soft cake”. Douglas was translating Virgil’s Aeneid and uses the word “scone” is in his translation. In turn “scone” was derived from the Middle Dutch word “schoonbroot”, translating to roughly “bright/beautiful bread”.


From the Middle Dutch word, we can see how the word “schoon” was pronounced with the double-vowel “oo”, meaning it had a long vowel sound. There are remnants of this pronunciation in Scotland today with the pronunciation of “scone” like “skoon”, sometimes used in Scotland.


The reason for the variation of the pronunciation of “scone” could perhaps be traced to the Great Vowel Shift, which was occurring during the 16th century. In certain areas of Britain, the letter “o” was beginning to be pronounced as in the “o” in “pod”. This would nicely align with the pronunciation of “scone” as in “gone”.


However, at a later stage, the “o” went through another sound change. “O” was now beginning to be sounded like the “o” in “hope”, which aligns with the “scone-cone” pronuniation.

 

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