Etymology Pronunciation

Bean counting

Q: For years, I’ve wondered about the origin of the American pronunciation of “been” as BIN.  Do you have any historical information on this unique pronunciation of the word that British speakers pronounce as BEAN?

A: Most Americans pronounce “been” as BIN or BEN. Most speakers of British English now say BEAN, but this was not always the case.

In the past, “been” was pronounced as BIN (and probably BEN) in Britain too.

We checked an old edition of John Walker’s A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary and Expositor of the English Language, published in London in 1791, and found that the usual British pronunciation of “been” at that time was BIN.

In his entry for “been,” Walker writes: “It is scarcely ever heard otherwise than as the noun bin, a repository for corn or wine.”

In English Spelling and Spelling Reform (1909), Thomas R. Lounsbury, a professor of English at Yale, writes that British speakers in the 19th century began pronouncing “been” as BEAN primarily because of the word’s spelling.

“There is little question—there is, indeed, no question—that at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and even much later, the digraph ee in this word had in cultivated speech the sound of short i,” Lounsbury says. (The term “digraph” refers to two successive letters with a single sound.)

He adds that  the pronunciation of “been” to rhyme with “seen” was sometimes heard, but “it was then so limited in use that orthoepists hardly thought it worth while to recognize its existence.” (Orthoepy is the study of pronunciation.)

Lounsbury goes on to say that the 18th century’s two leading authorities on orthoepy, John Walker and Thomas Sheridan, “admitted no pronunciation of been save that which made it ryme with sin.”

“Yet,” Lounsbury writes, “with no support from the most prominent lexical authorities, the pronunciation of been to ryme with seen instead of sin, steadily gained ground in England during the last [the 19th] century. There it seems to have become finally the prevalent one.”

The past participle “been” has been spelled many ways over the years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, including beon, ben, beyn, buen, bene, byn, been, and bin.

Historically, the spellings of English words often reflect the pronunciations of the day. From the various spellings of “been” in the OED, it appears that the pronunciations have fluctuated over the centuries, with long e sounds and short i or e sounds often trading places.

The BEN pronunciation apparently first showed up in the 1300s, while BEAN and BIN appeared in the 1500s. However, BIN seems to have been the dominant pronunciation from the 1500s well into the 1800s.

In the case of “been,” Americans preserved two old British pronunciations that were in popular use before the Revolution.

Something similar happened with another word, “creek.”

John S. Kenyon, in his book American Pronunciation (10th ed., 1966), says “creek” has historically had multiple pronunciations in British English, with the ee pronounced as either a long e or a short i.

The British have retained only the long-e version, KREEK, while Americans have preserved both KREEK and KRIK.

Although many Americans frown on KRIK, US dictionaries list the two pronunciations as standard.

As Kenyon says, the prejudice against KRIK “is due to ignorance of actual historical usage and to reverence for the spelling.” 

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