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Why is "elite" pronounced /ɪˈliːt/ (rhyming with beet) and not /ɪˈlaɪt/ (rhyming with bite)? Most words that end in ite are pronounced with /aɪ/ — lite, trite, site, etc. — but elite is quite different. Why?

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    Do not expect consistency in the pronunciation of any words in English. You can only look up words to find their provenance as a clue to pronunciation. – Ronald Sole Oct 26 at 8:12
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    Both the answers are excellent, but I think there are two main pronunciations for words that end in ‹CiCe› (C means a consonant, i is the letter i, and e is the silent e): /aɪ/ (97% words) as in site, rite, trite, lite, bike, time etc., and /i:/ (3% words, mostly French loanwords) as in elite, marguerite, petite, automobile, imbecile, chlorine, marine, cuisine, routine etc. /// There's also a third pronunciation /ɪ/, though it's rare; as in live, active, passive etc. – Void Oct 26 at 15:20
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    I think you have the question backwards. You should be asking why the word is pronounced the way it is (by mainstream speakers). English spelling is only approximately phonetic, which is really a good thing because different dialects often pronounce words quite differently. E.g. US "about" vs Canadian "aboot", US "clerk" vs UK "clark"... – jamesqf Oct 26 at 16:55
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    Why is word X pronounced weirdly? Because English is a botched job made from old German, French, and some other languages. The English speakers of old (and even now) would have just grab something nice from another language and declare it their own. That's what you get when you try to bake a cake by throwing in chocolate, perfume, glitter, and everything you like - a mess. – John Zhau Oct 27 at 3:22
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    @JohnZhau English isn't really made from old German or those other languages. In fact Old English seems to have started a few hundred years before Old German. Of course they share Germanic ancestory. – bdsl Oct 27 at 11:20
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This has everything to do with the following:

  1. The language of origin of the word and
  2. The point at which the word entered the English language.

The reason that the words "light" and "might" and "site" have a diphthong is because they were present in spoken English during the Great Vowel Shift, which started in the 1400s and continued for a few hundred years. So words that had already entered the English language underwent that change in pronunciation. Those words could be of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, or Latin origin. We see it across the board.

However, the word elite entered English towards the end of the period of the Great Vowel shift. The first attestation is in the mid 1700s (1738 in the OED). This is probably further complicated by the fact that French has long been the language of nobility, so there are certain pressures to maintain the pronunciation patterns of the origin language.

"Elite" joined the party a little bit late, so its pronunciation remained rather stable.

As Rjpond points out, elite is a modern borrowing. Words like crime, sublime, mime, etc. are older borrowings.

To note: There are early occurrences of the word "elite" in around 1400, with the meaning of a "bishop elect". This sense of the word died out and is now marked as archaic. So when "elite" was re-introduced (directly from French) in the 1700s, there was no existing pronunciation.


Small addendum: Already existing in English is another word that already occupies the same lexical space that elite would occupy, if the pronunciation were analogized to bite: alight, which dates back to Old English. (It's a lovely word.)

You might say that there is some linguistic pressure to avoid creating homophones: elite vs. alight.

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    Thank you Ted for the magnificent answer! I'm looking forward to seeing more answers from you! – Sphinx Oct 27 at 8:59
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    Very welcome! Added a small additional thought, too. – Ted Pal Oct 27 at 9:08
  • Also depends on your accent. A heavy Birmingham accent will rhyme elite with bite. e.g. "Why is it lucky that Albert Einstine wasn't from Birmingham? Because no one would have taken the Theor-EYE of Relativit-EYE very seriousl-EYE." as the old joke goes. – Binary Worrier Oct 27 at 17:25
  • I'm curious now: is it the same with "finite" and "infinite", i.e. "infinite" arrived later? I never understood why the "i" changed since it's essentially the same word :-). – JonasVautherin Oct 28 at 14:20
  • @JonasVautherin: Unfortunately, no! They both appear to have entered English at about the same time. The difference in pronunciation has more to do with stress. The word infinite has word-initial stress, without real secondary stress. (Whereas you see primary and secondary stress on both syllables of finite.) Vowels in unstressed positions generally get reduced. Though, I do see a note in the OED that infinite is occasionally made to rhyme with words ending in /-aɪt/. – Ted Pal Oct 28 at 14:32
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"Elite" is a French borrow-word (élite). The 'i' is pronounced as in the French words égalité and fraternité.

English is a Germanic language but with many words derived from Latin. This is mainly credited to the Norman conquest of England which created two classes of people, one speaking a Germanic language and another speaking a Latin language. It is often noted that many of our words which are of Latin origin were historically used by upper classes - for example, the names of our livestock animals are all derived from Germanic (eg pig, cow) because lower classes farmed them, but the meat from these animals have names derived from Latin (pork, beef) because they were eaten by the upper classes. Words from this era tend to have been anglicised in pronunciation.

However, it still isn't surprising then that we have a French borrow-word to describe the upper class themselves - the elite. Although this is a more modern borrow-word, quite a lot of English words and expressions to describe classes are borrowed from classical languages, for example, aristocrat (French) and hoi polloi (Greek).

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    Yes - although "elite" is a modern borrowing, not an inheritance from Norman French. Indeed, words that we borrowed from French back then generally have anglicised pronunciations, like "crime", because they underwent the Great Vowel Shift along with native words. – rjpond Oct 26 at 8:39

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