Learn English – Why are there two pronunciations for “either”


A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with an individual who told me that pronouncing the word "either" is wrong when pronounced like \ˈī-thər\ instead of \ˈē-thər\ , but I didn't argue the point because I'd done no research on it myself. So I looked the word up on Merriam Webster Online and wasn't at all surprised to find that both pronunciations are in fact legitimate.

Which brings me to my question: what is the history of this word? How was it pronounced in old English? Were both pronunciations common hundreds of years ago? I was unable to glean much from Merriam Webster Online apart from some small fact that the word is somehow related to whether.

I dug up some additional information about the origins or either, and I'm hoping that someone can shed some light upon what it means.

O.E. ægðer, contraction of æghwæðer "each of two, both," from a "always" + ge- collective prefix + hwæðer "which of two, whether."
Modern sense of "one or the other of two" is early 14c.

I took this directly from Dictionary.com, but I have no idea what language those words come from.

Best Answer

I've always been told and believed that \ˈī-thər\ (IPA /ˈaɪðər/) is the correct pronunciation, albeit both are indeed common nowadays. From what I am aware, etymologists and linguists believe this was the original pronunciation of the word too. Other contemporary Germanic languages (including the closest modern relatives, Dutch and German), suggest this pronunciation of the first syllable is correct — they have arguably been less altered/bastardised from Old Germanic. Old English (Anglo-Saxon) we know to be an almost purely Germanic language, and thus by simple statistical analysis (as is often employed in historical linguistics) we can be quite confident that this was the historically correct pronunciation.