Et Tu? – An Irishman’s Diary about the all-consuming question of correct pronunciation

There may even now be a few traditionalist hold-outs in Ireland where “meat” is still rhymed with “mate”

There may even now be a few traditionalist hold-outs in Ireland where “meat” is still rhymed with “mate”

 

It’s not quite as divisive as the great “scone” pronunciation controversy, which we were discussing here recently. But on foot of that, Tony O’Doherty from Dublin 11 wrote to me with a related question, concerning food in general. When using the past participle of the verb “to eat”, he asks, should you pronounce it “ate”, to sound like the number, or “et”, to rhyme with “get”.

Tony was brought up to prefer the latter, and to consider the former “vulgar”.  

He thinks “et” is probably an older usage and that “ate” is more common in Dublin than the rest of Ireland. But he has also noticed both forms used on the BBC, suggesting the confusion is not confined to this country.

Cards on the table here – I’m an “ate” man myself, perhaps because I’ve been in the city too long. As readers may know, I even live in Dublin Ate now.  

There is, however, one exception to my preference for the long-vowel version, and it relates to that popular sub-genre of Hiberno-English, cannibalism as metaphor.

When complaining about the attentions of biting insects, for example, I will often say, “these midges have me et alive”. Given a lecture by an angry pedestrian when I (accidentally) mount the footpath on a bike, I may claim afterwards: “She et the face off me”. On these occasions, I am consciously harking back to what I believe was the old-fashioned pronunciation.

That seems to be the official position too, insofar as there is anything official in English.  

The short “et” used to be the polite form and was recommended as such by 20th-century dictionaries.

Now, maybe because of American influence, “ate” is gradually taking over on this side of the Atlantic too. One recent poll in Britain found the rival pronunciations almost in a tie.

But back in 1904, when Leopold Bloom “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls” for breakfast, I presume he did so with a short vowel, although maybe Joyceans can tell me otherwise.  

In the US, meanwhile, the long version must already have been standard by then.

This would explain why Mark Twain, a master of dialects, sometimes went to the trouble of spelling the word as “et”, presumably to make a point.  

Here he has his narrator describing another breakfast (in 1896) with someone recovering from a shock: “. . . and then his colour came back, though at first his face had turned pretty white. So we got to talking together while he et . . .”

And here’s a character from an O Henry story (1907), giving a bad review to a restaurant: “I et a steak in [there] once. If you’re real hungry, I advise you to try the saddle-shops first.”

Speaking of steak, the ate/et argument has echoes of the Great English Vowel Shift of the Middle Ages, the legacy of which was long contested. There may even now be a few traditionalist hold-outs in Ireland where “meat” is still rhymed with “mate”, as it was in England before the shift.  

Certainly I know of many who still pronounce tea in the old manner. During my rural Monaghan childhood, it generally rhymed with “hay” (during the making of which it always tasted better too). To this day, I remain unconvinced that rhyming “tea” with “pee” isn’t vulgar in more ways than one.

There was a belief on our neighbouring island once that even the word “great” should have followed the vowel shift, and therefore sound like “greet”. At least one Irish MP is said to have argued against this in the House of Commons, to good effect.

The madness was averted eventually, keeping the “great” (as we know it) in “Great Britain”, at least until they voted for Brexit.

Getting back to Leopold Bloom, but on a more sombre note, I’ve been asked to clarify a detail in a column from earlier this week on the subject of his possible real-life prototype, Albert Altman.  

I mentioned then that Altman’s father had “taken his own life with poison, just as the fictional Bloom’s did”. And this was strictly factual, I believe, but the implication that Altman Snr’s death was therefore suicide, like Bloom Snr’s, was not.  Yvonne Altman O’Connor, a direct descendant, has asked me to point out that an inquest of the time found that Moritz Altman had accidentally ingested poison, having mistaken it for something else due to bad eyesight.

“My great-great-grandfather was a strict Orthodox Jew,” she writes, “and as such would have believed in the tenet to ‘Choose Life’.”