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Defending the Fort for Forte

David McReynolds today became the third person to call into question our claim that forte meaning “strong point” should be pronounced [fort] rather than [fortay]. He writes:

“Concerning your 100 most mispronounced words: Forte pronounced [for-tay] is a musical term meaning “loud”; it is Italian. Forte meaning strength is pronounced [fort]; it is French.”

“Modern dictionaries allow for both pronunciations of forte meaning “strong”, but the original and more correct remains [fort].”

It is difficult to determine when a language change has taken place definitively. Finding a word in print or even in a dictionary does not mean that it is a part of the language. However, in this case, I think the change has taken place and it is time to admit it. Here is what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), which we consider the best US English dictionary, has to say about the issue:

“The word forte, coming from French fort, should properly be pronounced with one syllable, like the English word fort. Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôr’-ta), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian. In a recent survey a strong majority of the Usage Panel, 74 percent, preferred the two-syllable pronunciation. The result is a delicate situation; speakers who are aware of the origin of the word may wish to continue to pronounce it as one syllable but at an increasing risk of puzzling their listeners.”

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists the pronunciation as “fo:ti, fo:te, formerly fo:t,” omitting, as the Britons are wont to do, the R. The point is, this shift is not limited to the US but has occurred throughout the English-speaking world.

The origin of a word is irrelevant to its pronunciation in English. Those words from French, pronounced in the French way, cannot be convincingly be considered English words: if an word used by English-speakers has the same sound and meaning as a French word, what claim does it have of being English? It is possible to use foreign words in conversations if both coconversationalist are familiar with the language in question.

I would disagree with the inconsistency of AHD in claiming that [fort] is the “proper” usage. If 74% of the educated population and the editors of the OED think that the ENGLISH pronunciation is [fortay], then we would seem constrained to using that pronunciation or run the risk, as the AHD note warns, of puzzling our listeners. (Our Mispronounced Words glossary is aimed at promoting clearer speech.)

In fact, all the dictionaries may be in error in claiming that English forte was borrowed from French fort and not Italian forte: both words have the same meaning (among others) in their respective languages. Where did that final E come from? The OED claims that, “As in many other adoptions of Fr[ench] adj[ective]s used as n[oun]s, the fem[inine] form has been ignorantly substituted for the masc[uline].” My impression is, however, that those who use the term at all are far from ignorant people and, moreover, include knowledgeable speakers of French and Italian.

Hence I see no reason impeding the pronunciation of this word [fortay] and much speaking in its favor.

3 Responses to “Defending the Fort for Forte”

  1. rbeard Says:

    David replies:

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply. English is a dynamic language and the majority of people pronounce forte with two syllables. You have made a strong argument in defense of that pronunciation. However, as modern dictionaries list the one syllable pronunciation first and mid-century dictionaries only list that pronunciation, it is incorrect to say that that pronunciation is incorrect. It may not be any more correct than the two syllable, I can agree with that.

    Language exists for communication. Most people wouldn’t know what I mean when I use the one syllable pronunciation. The only value I can think of using it is to signal that I have an interest in words and have more sophisticated understanding of words than average. There is value though, not in feeling smarter than other people, but in signaling to other people with similar interests, an advertisement and a filter. For that reason I will remain using for-tay when speaking about music only.

    My vocabulary comes largely from reading which lends itself to mispronunciation. I enjoy reading about commonly mispronounced words, because it helps me avoid embarrassment. However, there is an inherent danger in them. I like that we have regional dialects. I don’t want to change that while I eat almonds my friend from Maine eats ah-monds. I have come to accept and enjoy that my mom still “does the warsh”.

    –David McReynolds

  2. The Ridger Says:

    If it were French it would be spelled “fort” and pronounced ‘for’.

  3. Stephen Says:

    I have read and been taught in school since I can remember that the word forte was pronounced “fort” unless used musically. Just because many people prefer “fortay” does not make it the correct way to pronounce the word. Also, David stated that modern dictionaries list “fort” first meaning it is the primary pronunciation and that older dictionaries only had the one pronunciation. That says to me that “fort” is correct no matter how many people want it to be different. David also said “Language exists for communication” – if we keep changing the way words are pronounced or spelled rather than teaching people the proper way, everyone will have his or her own way to talk or write and no one will be able to communicate at all. Or why bother to test school children on spelling and grammar if it’s OK to say things any way that you want to say them?

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