Etymology Pronunciation

Window shopping on FITH Avenue

Q: I have taught languages for almost 40 years and I am befuddled by two usages that seem to be accepted today in American English: (1) The pronunciation of words like “interstate” and “antiterrorist” as “innerstate” and “anniterrorist.” (2) The pronunciation of “fifth” as “fith.” Should I not instruct students in correct usage anymore regarding these examples? Please enlighten me.

A: The short answer is that most dictionaries consider these consonant-dropping pronunciations nonstandard. In other words, mispronunciations. So you’re safe in holding your ground here.

As you note, such pronunciations aren’t unusual. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd. ed.) includes “fifth” and “interesting” in its list of frequently mispronounced words in American English. (They’re spoken as if they were spelled “fith” and “inneresting.”)

Common or not, all the dictionaries we’ve checked agree that the “t” is pronounced in words beginning with an “anti-” or “inter-“ prefix, as well as in “interesting.” (The “t” is often dropped here in unaccented syllables.)

But not all authorities agree about “fifth.” One source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), accepts the pronunciations FITH and FIFT.

In accepting this latter pronunciation, M-W has ancient history on its side. In Old English, “fifth” was pronounced and written differently, as fifta. Similarly, the word had no final “th” sound in the other old Germanic languages.

So where did the “th” sound come from? The Oxford English Dictionary has the answer: “The normal form fift still survives in dialects; the standard form, which first appears in the 14th cent., is due to the analogy of fourth.

So if “fourth” were “fourt” instead, we’d probably still be saying “fift.”

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