By Anatoly Liberman
This post is an answer to a letter I received from our correspondent Jonathan Davis. Not too long ago, I mentioned the differences in the pronunciation of niche: in the speech of most Americans it rhymes with pitch, but the rhyme niche/leash can also be heard, and it seems to be prevalent in Britain. Mr. Davis is an Englishman living in Texas and, not unexpectedly, favors the vowel of ee and sh in niche, while those around him prefer short i and ch. This difference made him raise the general question about the norm governing such words. He cited valet and ballet as examples. My inconclusive answer follows.
The fear of sounding snobbish is familiar to many people who use the French pronunciation of niche, valet, and their likes. As a radio host I am regularly asked whether forte “a strong point” should have one syllable or two. Some listeners castigate those who do not know the “correct” pronunciation; others are confused and unhappy. In my capacity as a public figure I am supposed to increase the amount of happiness in the world, but all I can say is that the “norm” does not exist in this area. Sounding more educated than one’s neighbors is awkward because neighbors never forgive those who (they think) put on airs. On the other hand, sounding under-educated to gratify the “lowbrows” is also a torture. You are damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Dictionaries sit on the fence (assuming that dictionaries can sit): they register the existing variants and, by ordering them, indicate which are more common.
In the process of assimilating French words English has always been torn between two tendencies: it either retained their foreign shape or Anglicized them. Equally important has been the tyranny of writing: spelling pronunciation tips the scale more than once. Not only borrowed words succumb to spelling. Consider the sad fate of often and forehead. Nowadays, everybody I hear says often (of-ten) and fore-head. Yet both are Germanic words. Forehead used to rhyme with horrid—except in “vulgar speech,” as old sources inform us; now the “vulgar” have won (as always: that is why language changes). Often is puzzling. Listen, glisten, whistle, and thistle stayed with mute (silent) t. So why often? Hypercorrection, the fear of the timid and the insecure to appear illiterate? It should be added that American English arose as a colonial language and is therefore in some respects more conservative than the language left behind in the metropolis. In the former colonies we regularly find variants that were current in Shakespeare’s days but are no longer admitted into the British Standard (dialects, to be sure, go their own way). This also holds for grammar and usage.
With regard to French, American English may be advanced or ultraconservative. Herb has initial h only if it is the shorter form of Herbert. Herb “plant” is erb, while heir, honest, and hour are pronounced alike all over the English speaking world. As always, the norm is capricious and partly unpredictable. Delight, fruit, and habit, were borrowed when final t was still sounded in Old French. Naturally, the consonant stayed in English even after the lending language dropped it. Later borrowings also followed the French norm, but now they retained t only in spelling. However, English never came to terms with valet and ballet, which were taken over in the eighteenth century. Stress fluctuates in them. In ballet, no one pronounces final t; yet in the United States classical bally will probably inspire a mocking smile: the second syllable seems to be always lay, whether stressed or not. With valet the situation is somewhat different. As Mr. Davis notes, in professional language, one can occasionally hear t. Not only among professional employers, it can be added. In the relatively recent past, valet rhyming with shall it was apparently the norm. Kenyon and Knott, the authors of an American pronouncing dictionary published in the nineteen-forties called the t-less valet pseudo-French. Three hundred years ago, French valet de chambre was sometimes spelled valley-de-sham.
Jonathan Swift knew the pronunciation of verdict as verdi and vardi. We dutifully mimic the French in dealing with éclat, croquet, crochet, chalet, and bouquet (in all its senses), except that, since a word of Modern English cannot end in a short vowel unless it is schwa (as in sofa) or i (as in icky), the final vowel becomes long (éclat rhymes with spa) or turns into a diphthong (chalet rhymes with lay). Trait has fared even worse. It stuck to its heritage in England (that is, it has become a homophone of tray) but not in America, where it is indistinguishable from the root of the noun traitor. Extra care is needed in dealing with buffet: being buffeted is not the same as enjoying buffet dinner, regardless of the length of the food line. I remember reading about the rich and generous Mr. Buffet and wondering how to pronounce his family name.
French has lost not only final t but also s. Fracas and tapis (as in the phrase on the tapis) are words with a checkered history. Robert Burns rhymed fracas with Bacchus, and for a long time both British and American dictionaries registered final s in the word. It seems that Americans now know only the spelling pronunciation (with -s), while British English does without s. On the tapis occurs rarely, but most people probably understand it. American lexicographers, including Webster (the first edition of his dictionary appeared in 1828), and the authors of pronouncing dictionaries used to recommend tapis rhyming with lapis; at present this does not seem to be the case. One never hears the phrase, so it is hard to judge.
Niche is spelled with ch. At one time, the group (digraph) ch designated in French the same affricate it does in Modern English. When chamber, chance, charge, charity, chief, to cite a few, were borrowed from Old French, ch sounded similarly in them. When French ch yielded to sh (compare chief and its doublet chef), the pronunciation, but not the spelling, of borrowings began to reflect the change as evidenced by chagrin, champagne, charlatan, chemise, moustache, and so forth. If a word of Modern English is spelled with tch, it follows that the preceding vowel has always been short (catch, itch, wretch), while ch indicates length (each, reach, coach). Touch also had a long vowel (that is why we spell it with ou), but which, much, and such are real exceptions. According to this rule, the vowel in the etymon of niche was long. Consequently, nitch is a spelling pronunciation. May those say nitch who feel like it! May every speaker go his or her own way (it is their language they mold or trample underfoot): our withers are unwrung. German also appropriated this word, but Nische has a short vowel after the French consonant.
The French for the lowest playing court card (“jack” or “knave”) is valet. The character on this card usually bears demeaning names ranging between “servant” and “rogue.” Since valet is a cognate, almost a doublet, of varlet, who would be surprised that the knave of hearts stole some tarts? Let us hope that the dealings of this lady killer with tarts did not go much further.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”
Image credits: (1) Convallaria majalis, Rusaceae, Lily of the Valley, inflorescence; Karlsruhe, Germany. Photo by H. Zell, Creative Commons License, via Wikimedia Commons. (2) The knave of hearts, he stole those tarts. From R. Caldecott’s picture book (no.1) . NYPL Digital Gallery.