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THE proper use of ei and ie is not the least among the difficulties to be found in the English language. The school boy who is continually writing recieve for receive will be certain that this proposition is true in regard to spelling; and the clergyman who is mentally debating whether he shall say "e-ther" or "I-ther" will be equally ready to assent to its truth, so far as it relates to pronunciation. The general reader needs no better evidence of the existence of the difficulty than the fact that rules for the proper placing of e and i in juxta-position are so frequently seen in the public prints.

Some years since the writer looked over every page of Webster's New Academic Dictionary, and from it made a collection of all common words containing either ei or ie, with the view of ascertaining the analogies of the language, and determining the existence of any general law pertaining to the subject. The result of this investigation was published in the Massachusetts Teacher for September, 1859. Without reprinting the lists of words there given, it may not be out of place here to deduce some general principles from them.

Before proceeding to the consideration of rules for spelling, it will be advisable to consider first the sounds of ei and ie.


When ei is pronounced as a digraph, or improper diphthong, it may take one of the six following sounds, viz.: e long, as in con

ceive and seize; e short, as in foreign and heifer; i long, as in freight and sleight; i short, as in forfeit and sovereign; a long, as in eight and neighbor; the a of care, as in their and heir.

In the dictionary above named there are about twenty primitive words in which ei takes the sound of a long, and nearly as many in which it takes the sound of e long, if we include in the latter class, either, neither, obeisance, and leisure, whose pronunciation is somewhat doubtful. It takes the sound of e short in six words, of i short in four, and of the a of care in only two. Those words in which ei has the sound of i long are almost exclusively scientific terms, coming directly from the Greek or German, and therefore of no use in determining English analogies. There are but four words now in good use,* eider, height, sleight, and gneiss, which can be considered as forming exceptions to this statement. Hight is frequently used for height, and the e of sleight is convenient to distinguish it from another word having the same sound, while eider and gneiss are evidently related to the German.

The sound of ei in their and heir is precisely that which a long takes before r, and these words may therefore be included among those in which ei has the sound of a long. It is then evident that, according to present English usage, ei most frequently has the sound of a long, and that e long stands next in order, while the sound of i long is quite rare in pure English words.

Those who pronounce either and neither with i long can not, therefore, plead that the analogies of modern English are in their favor. Neither can they claim the sanction of good usage, for "out of seventeen lexicographers, only two, and they of little account," give i long the preference. The only plea on which this pronunciation can be justified is that of euphony. To the ears of those who employ it, i-ther doubtless sounds better than e-ther. Should teachers, for this reason, attempt to change the pronunciation of the rising generation, and thus introduce a sound which is contrary to the analogies of modern English?

* A few months since a writer in a Greenfield (Mass.) paper attempted to prove that the sound of i long for ei is more in accordance with English analogies than that of e long; but the only manner in which the claim could be sustained was by the use of obsolete words. Whatever this course may prove as to the past history of our language, it certainly does not fairly exhibit the present tendency of English usage.

The following paragraph, framed for the purpose of showing how far the analogy of the language sustains this pronunciation of either and neither, has been published in several newspapers:


Being disposed to walk, I would feign have visited my neighbor, but on approaching his seigniory I was alarmed by the neighing of his horse; and on lifting my veil, was terrified to find the animal within eighty yards of me, approaching at a speed that seemed freighted with the direst consequences. I was in a streight—caught in a seine. My blood stood still in my veins, as I conceived my life in danger. Turning my head, I was pleased to see an Arabian Sheik near by, and doing him obeisance, I begged that he would deign to come to my rescue. I was not deceived in my hopes. By a skilful feint he succeeded in seizing the reins attached to the fiery steed, and as he was a man of weight he checked him in his impetuous career, and my life was saved. For the favor thus received, may he ever live in a ceiled dwelling!"

It is claimed that in this paragraph "are introduced all the different connections in which the letters e i are met with, except as in the word height;" but it will be found that the number of words omitted is as great as the number inserted, even without reference to those in which e and i are pronounced separately. The word being belongs to this latter class, which includes more than twenty words, such as plebeian, albeit, deity, reissue, reiterate, etc. Such words as heifer, foreign, mullein, counterfeit, and sovereign, in which ei has the sound of e short or i short, are entirely omitted.. So also are the common words leisure, weird, perceive, inveigle, heinous, skein, sleigh, reign, inveigh, heir, their, sleight, eider, gneiss, etc. These omissions, however, do not materially affect the question at issue, the bearing of English analogy upon the pronunciation of either and neither.


Of the words containing ie, about one hundred are nouns and adjectives derived from words ending in y, such as multiplier, sundries, salaried, twentieth, etc. Without including these, or any of the numerous gramatical forms arising from the inflection of different parts of speech ending in y, the words of our language containing ie are still about twice as numerous as those containing ei.

When ie is pronounced as a digraph, it may take the sound of e long, i long, i short, e short, etc.; but never the sound of a long,

which is the most common sound of ei.

When it ends a syllable, ie takes the sound of i or y in the same situation, the final e being silent. The monosyllables die, fie, hie, kie, lie, pie, pied, tie, vie, and their compounds, are the only words in which ie has the sound of i long, unless we except piebald. This follows directly from the rule just stated.

If the syllable containing it is accented,* ie is usually pronounced like e long, as in chief, believe, wield, and brigadier. There are between fifty and sixty primitive words belonging to this class, about one-third of which have been taken from the French, and end in ier, as brigadier, financier, and brevier. Of course die, fie, etc., before mentioned, are exceptions to this rule. Sieve and friend are the only other prominent exceptions, although tierce is sometimes pronounced like terse.

If the syllable containing ie is unaccented, its vowel sound is generally short or obscure, as in prairie, mischief, and alien; and it frequently modifies the sound of the preceding consonant, as in transient, soldier, and patient. Frontier, however, and perhaps one or two other words of the class before named, now have the accent thrown on the first syllable without changing the sound of że.

Of the sixty or seventy primitive words belonging to this class, about one-fifth end in ie, and correspond in pronunciation with words ending in y. One or two of those from the French still retain the final accent and sound of e long, that is, the French sound of i, in accordance with the principle stated above in reference to syllables ending in ie; but the others end in the sound of i short. It is an interesting fact that this termination ie, which was once so common in our language, has so fully disappeared that not much more than a dozen words of that class are left, and they are mostly of French or Scotch origin.

About one-fourth of the words of this class, also, end in ier, and about two-fifths contain the combination ien. In such words as clothier, collier, and convenient, i takes the consonant sound of y, while e takes its short vowel sound. In one sense, then, they are separately pronounced, but i never assumes such a character unless it is followed by e or some other vowel in the same syllable. Nearly onethird of the whole number of words in which ie is found in an unaccented syllable contain ien preceded by c, s, or t, as in conscience,

*Monosyllables are regarded as accented.

transient, and sentient. Here the i, being followed by a vowel in the same syllable, first takes the consonant sound of y, and then combines with the preceding consonant, producing the sound of sh; thus ancient becomes ans-yent, and then an-shent; transient becomes trans-yent, and then tran-shent. These two pronunciations (8-y and sh) closely resemble each other, and can hardly be distinguished in ordinary conversation. The regular transition from sent-yent would be to senchent; but, in all cases where t is followed by ien, it loses its own sound, and assumes that of 8.* Seven words ending in ier preceded by 8 or z undergo a similar change, except that the sound is softened into that of zh, as in hosier and glazier. Vizier is the only such word which is marked with the sound of z-y, and this can hardly be spoken hurriedly without producing vizher. In soldier the sounds of d and i (or y) combine and produce the sound of j, thus, sold-yer, sol-jer.

In the case of some words ending in ier the i and e are separately pronounced, as in barrier, terrier, etc., besides derivatives of English words ending in y. The whole number of primitive words in which i and e each receive a distinct vowel sound is about seventy-five, including such word diet, experience, variety, etc.


As the sound of e long is commonly represented by both ie and ei, it is frequently difficult to dertermine which letter shall be placed first, in cases where that sound is given to the combination. Hence one naturally seeks in the adjacent letters or sounds for some law to control the orthography.

The impossibility of framing any general rule based upon the letters which precede ie and ei is readily seen by comparing such words as financier and preconceive, shield and sheik, liege and leisure, lie and sleight, priest and reigle, siege and seize, tier and teil, wield and weird, and the like, where ie and ei have the same sound and are preceded by the same letters. There seems, also, to be no ground for any distinction based upon the letters following these digraphs, for in such words as field and ceil, mien and seine, shriek and sheik, frieze and seize, achieve and deceive, ie and ei have the same sound

*The word courtier retains the true sound of t.

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