Of all the things that bug me, there is one that rests near the top of the list. No, it’s not government, or politics, or religion, or any of the other socially acceptable irritations that are the topic of gatherings around the country whether picnics, clubs, cocktail parties, or business meetings. It is something that causes me to grit my teeth in annoyance every time I hear it. I struggle to contain my comments for I want badly to correct the speaker. It is those who insist on pronouncing the word “either” with a long “i” sound. They also insist on further gouging me with their insensibilities by using that same pronunciation with the word “neither”.
I wouldn’t mind so much if they followed through by pronouncing the following words in the same way: Receive, conceit, seizure, perceive, caffeine, and others spelled in the same way, but then they might run the risk of sounding like an Australian.
It has long been my understanding that “either” and “neither” were pronounced with a long “i” sound by the British. Maybe the British “invasion” in the early sixties was how this particular pronunciation anomaly found its way into our language. If so, and I strongly suspect so, I have another reason for not liking the Beatles ( although I have to admit developing a mild fondness for a couple of their songs after forty odd years even though hearing them reminds me of a teenage girl with a boxy transistor radio pressed firmly against the side of her head, bouncing to an unheard beat).
When I was a kid in school, we were taught to pronounce those two words with the long “e” sound. I favor that. I did then, and I still do. Admittedly, all the dictionaries I have consulted offer both pronunciation versions, but I can’t help but note that the long “e” sound is always presented first and thus is the preferred pronunciation but some reference sources like certain internet pronunciation websites mitigate that by simply stating “or” between both pronunciations although, once again, they both offer the long “e” pronunciation first.
So, why is this so irritating? Well, I have a couple theories. First and foremost, “either” and “neither” are supposed to be pronounced with a long “e” sound. That’s the way it has been taught for many years, maybe even since the Pilgrims first landed in this country (and they came from England but I suspect they still refused to pronounce “either” and “neither” like the British just out of pure orneriness) and I see no valid reason to have changed it after all this time. I think all the current dictionaries add the second pronunciation just to keep up good relations with our British cousins. The second reason this is such a major ‘bug’ is because the long “i” sound is a very hard sound. It grates on the nerves just as the single word “I” does. It speaks of self-centeredness, of a certain determination to put forth oneself in the company of others. It’s like starting every sentence with the word “I”. If we all did that, it wouldn’t be long before we had no audience at all, and a lot of us don’t.
The long “e” sound, by contrast, is soft, mitigating, mellow, almost comforting. It is fun to listen to. It makes the choice we are presented with a little easier to bear whether it is coarse, unpleasant, tasteless, or fun, a tasty treat, a pleasant sensation, something to look forward to.
So, once again, society presses me to conform. Why can’t they change for once? I think this adequately expresses what we all know subconsciously. Society is not trying very hard to get along. It wants all of us to conform to its vagaries and relentlessly presses forward with its illogical, unreasonable demands. Either (with a long “e”) we conform to its importunate posturing or find ourselves crushed and alone, pleading with an empty silence to hear our pitiable petitions. Neither (with a long “e”) prospect is very engaging.