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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 112

gradually prevailed, though deef remains familiar in the common speech. Joseph E. Worcester and other rival lexicographers stood against many of his pronunciations, and he took the field against them in the prefaces to the successive editions of his spelling-books. Thus, in that to “The Elementary Spelling Book,” dated 1829, he denounced the “affectation” of inserting a y-sound before the u in such words as gradual and nature, with its compensatory change of d into dj and of t into ch. The English lexicographer, John Walker, had argued for this “affectation” in 1791, but Webster’s prestige, while he lived, remained so high in some quarters that he carried the day, and the older professors at Yale, it is said, continued to use natur down to 1839. He favored the pronunciation of either and neither as ee-ther and nee-ther, and so did most of the English authorities of his time. The original pronunciation of the first syllable, in England, probably made it rhyme with bay, but the ee-sound was firmly established by the end of the eighteenth century. Toward the middle of the following century, however, there arose a fashion of an ai-sound, and this affectation was borrowed by certain Americans. Gould, in the 50’s, put the question, “Why do you say i-ther and ni-ther?” to various Americans. The reply he got was: “The words are so pronounced by the best-educated people in England.” This imitation still prevails in the cities of the East. “All of us,” says Lounsbury, “are priviledged in these latter days frequently to witness painful struggles put forth to give to the first syllable of these words the sound of i by those who who have been brought up to give it the sound of e. There is apparently an impression on the part of some that such a pronunciation establishes on a firm foundation an otherwise doubtful social standing.” 51 But the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to say ee-ther and not eye-ther. White and Vizetelly, like Lounsbury, argue that they are quite correct in so doing. The use of eye-ther, says White, is no more than “a copy of a second-rate British affectation.”