It started fairly simply, with a BBC radio news report from Iraq (heard from I don’t know which source; BBC news comes to me from several places, including BBC3 more or less directly): a bulletin from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, which the news reader pronounced as

(1) /ˈnajn@vˌe/

instead of what I expected to be

 (2) /ˈnɪn@və/

(where @ in the middle syllable represents a neutral unaccented vowel, ɪ or ə — usually transcribed ɪ, as in Wikipedia, though I sometimes hear ə).

I was, in fact, so astounded by the /aj/ in the first syllable of (1) that I failed to take notes on its source; I’d never heard anything but /ɪ/ in this syllable, and /aj/ is not even remotely like the vowel in the Assyrian pronunciation of the place name. Where would it come from?

Presumably from what I’ll call BritPron, the inclination of British speakers to pronounce the spelling of a foreign (borrowed) word with the values associated with the pronunciations of the letter-names in English spelling: in particular, the letter I in BritPron is pronounced /aj/, regardless of the pronunciation of the corresponding segment in the language (Latin, Spanish, Italian, a Semitic language, an Indic language, whatever) from which the word is borrowed.

The crucial intervening factor is a spelling system for the borrowed material that’s based on the Latin alphabet (so that letter-names are relevant).

Yes, it’s complicated.

The intermediate step in the case of Nineveh is the transliteration of the Akkadian name into the Latin alphabet: commonly NINEVEH, but sometimes NINEVAH; I’m no expert on the details here, but either transliteration could (in principle) correspond to the English pronunciation in (2), with a final unaccented /ə/. Either of these transliterations could be realized instead in English pronunciation with a primary accent – unaccented – secondary accent pattern, in which case, if vowel qualities are matched as closely as possible,  the expected final vowel could be /e/ for NINEVEH or /a/ for NINEVAH.

So there are two possible routes to /e/ for the vowel in a final secondarily stressed syllable: matching a mid front vowel (ɛ or e) in Semitic (English word-final ɛ is raised to e, except in interjections like FEH and MEH); or BritPhon for the spelling with A (given that the name of the letter A in English is pronounced /e/).

But regardless of the source of the third vowel in English, the first vowel can plausibly get to be /aj/ only via BritPhon, which gives us things like the English pronunciation /ˈkevi/ for Latin CAVE ‘beware!’ (roughly, [ˈkawe] in Latin).

2 Responses to “Nineveh”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    The transformation of anything represented by the letter “i” into /aj/ isn’t strictly a British thing, though, is it? I’m pretty sure its appearance in “Iraq” (and sometimes “Iran”) is mostly a US usage.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      No, not entirely a British thing, though it’s widespread in British usage. “Eye pronunciation” occurs in other contexts of cross-language borrowing into English, especially those in which (partial) fidelity to the pronunciation of other languages might be seen as symbolic accommodation to foreign cultures.

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