Q: I was born in England and came to the U.S. when I was 10. I pronounced “ate” as “et” in the U.K., but I was told that educated people pronounced it as “eight” here. You may enjoy this story. I later visited England and went for a drive through Richmond Park with my grand aunt in her chauffeur-driven Daimler. I asked her whether she’d say, “I et my breakfast” or “I eight my breakfast.” She repeated the question and quipped: “Neither. I would say, ‘I’ve ‘ad me breakfast.’”
A: Thanks for sharing that story! Americans pronounce “ate” with a long “a,” as in “mate,” but the British pronounce it to rhyme with “yet.” Joseph E. Davis, in his book Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English, has this to say on the subject:
“The pronunciation of ate is a little tricky. Americans pronounce the word exactly like eight. In Britain one is taught to pronounce it as et. This is confusing, but if you wish to have a command of English wherever you are, it is necessary to change the way you pronounce ate.”
This distinction is well established. It’s confirmed in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) as well as Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, 4th ed. (2006). Both give “et” as the standard British pronunciation.
By the way, the verb “eat” is one of the oldest words in the English language, dating back to Anglo-Saxon days. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary is from around 825. In the early days, it was spelled “eotu,” “yte,” “ete,” and other variations on the theme. I have no idea how Alfred the Great would have pronounced them!
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