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Pronounce Forte
February 2, 2004 11:24 AM   Subscribe

What is the correct pronunciation of "forte?" [more inside]

Forte – a person’s strong area of ability.
Pronounced fort or for-tay?

I adamantly believe that the word is pronounced fort. The word is borrowed from the French word meaning the strongest part of the sword (fyi- foible is the weakest part of the sword). But the French word forte is pronounced like the way we pronounce a military fort, and it comes from the same Latin root, fortis.

Most people… I’d speculate 95% who actually use the word… pronounce the word for-TAY. That is the Italian pronunciation of the word forte, which in Italian is a musical term.

Now here is my question: I have always argued that it is INCORRECT to pronounce the word for-TAY. But some have argued with me that because it is accepted to pronounce it for-TAY, then it is not correct to call it an INCORRECT pronunciation.

Is for-TAY an incorrect pronunciation when used to describe someone’s strength? If fort is the correct pronunciation, does the fact that everyone pronounces it for-TAY make that the correct pronunciation?

Is there a threshold where a bastardization become the correct usage through common usage?
posted by Seth to Education (42 answers total)
 
According to Dictionary.com, it can be pronounced either way, but since they list for-tay first, I assume that's the preferred pronunciation. It's certainly the way I pronounce it.

Words change all the time. I'm sure there are plenty of originally French words that have changed pronunciation through incorporation into English.. In fact, there are loads of English words with changed pronunciation.

The real question is: is it Ku-pon or Queue-pon?
posted by willnot at 11:36 AM on February 2, 2004


In my experience, the English language and its speakers don't give a flying fart about the "original" pronunciation of foreign words and indeed names ("Cahm-ooh" for Camus still makes me shudder, for example).
posted by signal at 11:36 AM on February 2, 2004


Is there a threshold where a bastardization become the correct usage through common usage?

Seeing as there's no governing body which proscribes "correct" English usage, it seems to me that this is the only way an "incorrect" usage or pronunciation can become correct. Otherwise the language would stagnate.

As for the specific question, m-w.com's entry for forte has a detailed pronunciation note, which addresses some of the issues you raise.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:38 AM on February 2, 2004


The Word Court column in the Atlantic Monthly talked about this a few months back. Here's an archive.
posted by jpoulos at 11:39 AM on February 2, 2004


(lights the Hatsignal)

Personally, I say FOR-tay, but then again I first heard the word in the musical sense... There's no accent mark or anything on the E, so the for-TAY prononciation makes no sense to me.

Besides, as you inadvertently brought up, if we pronounce "forte" French-style, shouldn't we pronounce "foible" /fwah-bluh/?
posted by wanderingmind at 11:42 AM on February 2, 2004


signal: I'm still trying to figure out how native French people pronounce Camus. The few that I've spoken to claimed it WAS pronounced "Camoo". The only person who disputed that was a native Mandarin speaker who taught French in Beijing, who claimed it was pronounced "Camoose". I was inclined to believe the former.

Also, with regard to "forte", the musical term is used to indicate when to play forcefully, with strength, so there is no conflict. I have never in my life heard any English speaker pronounce it "fort" -- that would be pretty confusing considering "fort" already has a pretty well-known meaning. I pronounce it "FOR-tay", as well.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 11:47 AM on February 2, 2004


From dictionary.com:

Common usage, however, prefers the two-syllable pronunciation, (fôrt), which has been influenced possibly by the music term forte borrowed from Italian.

If it's from the Italian, and not from the French, the pronounciation as "fortay" seems fine to me.

And it's "coopon", not "cue-pon". Comes from the French word "couper", to cut.
posted by interrobang at 11:48 AM on February 2, 2004


FOR-tay from the Italian. Even outside of musical contexts, I've never heard the FORT pronounciation from anyone--except in French class so many years ago.

I don't see how either pronounciation could be "incorrect" if they stem from acceptable pronounciations in two different languages. But if you're adhering to common usage, the Italian version is overwhelmingly more popular in my experience.
posted by DaShiv at 11:54 AM on February 2, 2004


And who knew M-W has a sense of humor: "So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose." I personally pronounce it for-TAY, knowing that most people would look at me funny if I didn't.

I have similar problems with "niche." I sense that "neesh" is a more accurate representation, but many people say "nitch" (and indeed, neither is wrong). Picking the wrong pronunciation, depending on the listener, can cast one as either pretentious or pedestrian.
posted by werty at 11:58 AM on February 2, 2004


Well, I had this discussion Saturday with Brian Garner (author of the Dictionary of American Usage and editor of Black's Law Dictionary and all kinds of language books), and he agreed with me that the etymology of the word in English is from the French word pronounced fort.

The original word is the Latin fortis which meant strong. The French adopted the spelling forte to refer to the strongest part of the sword (the part right above the hilt). It is from the French word meaning the strongest part of the sword that we borrowed the word to mean the strongest part of the person.

Garner argues that the Italian word forte ("for-TAY") was borrowed from the French and applied it to music meaning a stronger part of the music. I don't know if this part is correct, but it seems reasonable.

But Garner went on this rant about descriptivists and proscriptivists when he was talking about incorrect words becoming correct through usuage

The thing that I am asking about is when can a wrong pronunciation become the right pronunciation through usuage?

The question that bugs me, and maybe Mr. L-hat can offer me his opinion, is it wrong to say that for-TAY is an incorrect pronunciation because of its common usuage?
posted by Seth at 12:00 PM on February 2, 2004


I find it difficult to believe that the Italian forte comes from French and not Latin. I mean, the Latin version means strong/brave so why can't both languages stem from one? Esp. when Latin was in Italy.

I also learned the musical term first, as well, and having taken Latin, I have two reasons to pronounce it for-tay. Fort would just be wrong to my brain, whether correct or not.

And, frankly, in my opinion all three versions have the same meaning in spirit and so can be used interchangeably, so to speak. But then, that's just my unprofessional opinion.
posted by evening at 12:15 PM on February 2, 2004


Depending on how you look at these problems, there is no "correct" way to pronounce anything. If you want to have a discussion about which is more correct, however, you have to admit that some pronunciations, however well-established they may have become subsequently, originally came into being as the result of a misconception. In this case, the corrupting influence of the Italian musical term.

It's hard to find much of anyone these days who will put a flag in the ground and say "this is correct, that's incorrect." Try a copy editor if that's what you want, not a linguist. But for me, knowing the story of the word's history is enough. At that point, you can label it as you wish. As MW points out, there is no final authority on these matters.
posted by scarabic at 12:15 PM on February 2, 2004


There is no final authority, and etymology is only one factor among several used by lexicographers to determine such things. Popular usage almost always wins, even when the popular pronunciation could not possibly be the original one. Consider "Wednesday," which Mirriam Webster gives two pronunciations for, neither containing three syllables, as the original word must have had. Or any of those quaint old English words whose k's and gh's are now silent, like "knight." My edition of the Canterbury Tales gives this word as "kuh-NICHT." But none of us would dream of pronouncing the word in this way.

One thing to consider is that your language usage choices say plenty about you, and you communicate not just with the content, but the form of your language. So, if you go around saying that, for instance, that math isn't your FORT, some people will find you to be a pretentious snob, while others will simply wonder how someone could make a fort out of mathematics. One optoin would be to avoid the word altogether and just use "strength," which is an exact synonym on whose pronunciation there seems to be a consensus, and it also sounds strong, unlike "forte" which is a wussy word no matter how it's pronounced.
posted by vraxoin at 1:02 PM on February 2, 2004


Or any of those quaint old English words

Middle English, actually. Because being an annoying pedant is my for-tay.
posted by jalexei at 1:29 PM on February 2, 2004


vraxoin,
You make a good point, and I agree with you about just avoiding the word all together. I just don't say, because I don't want to say it incorrectly, and I don't want anyone to think I am a weirdo.

I also just ignore it if people say it for-TAY.

I just posed the question to see what some of you brilliant people have to say about it. Garner and I went back and forth for a bit on Saturday, so I was wondering aloud here.


Goods stuff, everyone. Thanks.
posted by Seth at 2:55 PM on February 2, 2004


Because I never use the word for anything other than sarcasm, I pronounce it "fort-taaay" (you have to imagine the trilling sound I make extending that last syllable). It's always struck me a one of those fake upper class adoptions of a french word just so we could abuse it and the people we perceive as inclined to use it. See also "haut" and "gauche".
posted by wobh at 3:10 PM on February 2, 2004


let me get this straight , we just answered your question and your'e not going to say it anyway ?

four-tay anyway in rp.
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:12 PM on February 2, 2004


Honesty sounds like you didn't understand Mr Garner, then came here needing a deeper explanation.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:52 PM on February 2, 2004


dude, Signal, do you really shudder when someone mispronounces Camus?
posted by xmutex at 4:23 PM on February 2, 2004


What's interesting in the French pronunciation of this word is that, if you listen carefully, there is a certain audible something left hanging in the air after the 't'. It's not so much a pronunciation of the 'e' so much as it is part of the 't'. I annoyed my wife (French born) and asked her to say the word one too many times. I would not know how to write this as a pronunciation but it is certainly different from the way I say 'fort'. For my part, I've always said forté, for no reason save the one mentioned by many here -- it was in music where I was introduced to the word and that is how my band director said it, while screaming and waving his arms wildly: Forté! Forté!

Signal: what is exactly is your objection to the pronunciation of Camus? French names are notorious for breaking the rules of pronunciation but in this case, like most French words, the 's' is silent and there is only one way to pronounce a single 'u' in French, and that is, roughly, 'oo'. (It really takes a certain mouth shape to get it right.)
posted by Dick Paris at 4:36 PM on February 2, 2004


Re: "Camus." If I remember my high school French classes right, Dick Paris above is correct that it's "Camoo" - final "s" in French is silent. However, you would pronounce the "s" if the next word starts with a vowel - except it would sound more like a "z." So "Camus est" would sound like "Camooz-ay."
posted by dnash at 4:53 PM on February 2, 2004


I used to go with the "fort" pronuciation until I realized you have far fewer conversations about the word's pronuciation if you say it the other way. Let Alex Trebek act smug about it; the point of language is to communicate, not to have something to feel superior about. 'Sides which, if the "e" is silent due to French origins, shouldn't the "t" be as well?
posted by yerfatma at 5:00 PM on February 2, 2004


A french speaking friend of mine always introduced herself as A-road-ee in the states, although when I visited her in switzerland everyone called her Arode (A-road).

I think you'd be better off pronouncing it as "for-tay" because more people would understand you, and heck, sometimes it might be better to be understood than to be right.

anyways, interesting discussion you generated here.
posted by fishfucker at 5:07 PM on February 2, 2004


For what it's worth, I've never ever ever heard the word pronounced "fort" in my presence. That may be no indication of correctness, but it's a datapoint about common usage.
posted by majick at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2004


Sorry it took me so long to get here -- the Hatmobile was in the shop. But there were lots of good responses; I'm proud of you all. One necessary point that hasn't been raised: it's not from French forte, it's from French fort (masculine) -- the French say "ce n'est pas mon fort" (my strong point). Which means the French pronunciation is "for" (no t), which means there is no "correct" pronunciation in English if you go by original-language rules, which is why this is one of my favorite demonstration words for the principle I constantly try to drum into people: you don't need to know any other language to speak English correctly. Most English speakers (including me) say FOR-tay, which means that's the English pronunciation, regardless of historical considerations.
posted by languagehat at 8:00 PM on February 2, 2004 [1 favorite]


Why does anyone other than languagehat even need to exist?
posted by grrarrgh00 at 9:23 PM on February 2, 2004 [1 favorite]


You don't need to know any other language to speak English correctly.

Thanks! That's a saying I can keep in mind for dealing with Correctness Mavens.
posted by DaShiv at 10:07 PM on February 2, 2004


languagehat, I've never heard anyone say "Ce n'est pas mon fort". I would have said "ce n'est pas mon point fort", "that's not my strong point". (are we allowed to disagree with languaghat?)

What's interesting in the French pronunciation of this word is that, if you listen carefully, there is a certain audible something left hanging in the air after the 't'. It's not so much a pronunciation of the 'e' so much as it is part of the 't'.


Some of that is that way that the French pronounce the 't', which is very clearly articulated with a puff of air off the very tip of the tongue behind the front teeth. People in the UK sometimes pronounce their t's that way; it's very different from the American 't' which is sometimes indistinguishable from a 'd'.

But the final 'e' actually does get pronounced in a lot of situations. It depends on the speaker and what sound follows. It can vary from an "audible something left hanging in the air" (nice phrase!) to an entire syllable, like "fort-euuuu".

Back to Camus, it is "Cah-mu". The 'a' is like in "car" only a lot shorter and sharper, not at all like the 'a' in "hat". The 'u' sound in French is completely distinct from the "oo". Best way for an English speaker to try it is to shape your lips and tongue like you're going to say "ee", then firmly press the corners of your lips together on each side, and try to say "oo" without moving your lips and tongue from that position. It took me two years of practice before people would reliably understand what I was saying.

You would never pronounce the 's', even if there's a vowel starting the next word. Proper names generally never get liasons, since you don't want to change the pronunciation of someone's name.

the point of language is to communicate, not to have something to feel superior about


My nominee for the best of many great comments here.
posted by fuzz at 1:26 AM on February 3, 2004


Thanks Fuzz for describing the 'oo', I now am flashing back to my wife teaching me that sound.

And for L-hat, thanks for bringing in the noun.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:24 AM on February 3, 2004


"the French say "ce n'est pas mon fort"

and Italian of course say "non è il mio forte".

"forte", "strong", is used all the time in the Italian language, it's far from being a musical term only. it's semantically very interesting -- "un calciatore forte", a good soccer player (not necessarily physically strong, forte in this case means highly skilled even if not very, ahem, strong), "sei forte" means "you're cool" (cool literally would be translated "fresco", and nobody would say "tu sei fresco", unless one is coming from a highly refrigerated environment.

and anyway languagehat, as always, is a maestro

we could say he's molto forte.
;)
posted by matteo at 3:25 AM on February 3, 2004


Sbagli matteo; languagehat è fortissimo ;-P
posted by romakimmy at 5:46 AM on February 3, 2004


Viva el sombrero de lenguaje!
posted by oissubke at 5:55 AM on February 3, 2004


since they list for-tay first, I assume that's the preferred pronunciation.

This is not a wise assumption, as you can see if you click on the Dictionary.com link above and read the American Heritage 4e usage note.

Garner went on this rant about descriptivists and proscriptivists

You mean prescriptivists, right?

use "strength," which is an exact synonym on whose pronunciation there seems to be a consensus

Umm, not really there isn't. American Heritage 4e lists three pronunciations, the New Oxford American Dictionary and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate 11th list two, though the OED lists just one.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:49 AM on February 3, 2004


I love Ask Metafilter.
posted by ColdChef at 8:04 AM on February 3, 2004


Why does anyone other than languagehat even need to exist?

I sometimes ask myself that question. But then I think: MetaFilter would be so boring...

matteo, romakimmy: Grazie!
y oissubke: Gracias!

Seth: You know Garner? Cool! Do you happen to know what he thinks of David Foster Wallace's pseudo-review of his usage guide? (Me, I didn't like it.)
posted by languagehat at 8:08 AM on February 3, 2004


languagehat, I do wish you'd let me keep thinking of wallace as a demigod.
posted by callmejay at 8:51 AM on February 3, 2004


Think of him as a demigod who's wandered off his section of Olympus. He can write like a sonofabitch, but that doesn't qualify him to pontificate about language, any more than a great javelin-thrower can lecture on physics.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on February 3, 2004


languagehat, I know Garner on a professional level. Took a class of his in law school, gone to his seminars, had lunch with him.... etc. We know each other, but I wouldn't call us friends.

He is a remarkably intelligent guy, very interesting, self-aware and has an unsatiable desire to spread his love of language around. Even recently had a meeting with Justice Breyer to try to teach him his thoughts on how to write better.


If I didn't know any better, I'd say YOU are Garner.

I don't know when I'll run into Garner next, but if I see him any time in the next month or so, I might remember to ask him about that review. I'm sure he has read it, and I am sure it didn't bother him. He is terribly used to criticisim.


Thanks for you input. You made a good point vis-a-vis masculine/feminine. One thing I'd like to ask you, are you are prescriptivist or descriptivist? I think I have a guess.
posted by Seth at 12:10 PM on February 3, 2004


I'm a split personality: as a linguist and general commentator, I'm descriptivist; in my professional capacity as an editor I'm prescriptivist. While this leads me to have arguments with myself, it's very useful because it means I understand both sides and can usually make my point clear to anyone I'm talking with (which doesn't mean I can convince them of anything; people are very attached to their ideas about language). As for the review, I'm sure it didn't bother him in that sense, because it was extremely favorable insofar as it dealt with his book (which wasn't very far—Garner's book served as an excuse for Wallace to expound on language and usage); what might have bothered him was the mix of arrogance and insufficient knowledge that bothered me.
posted by languagehat at 12:49 PM on February 3, 2004


as for the couple of questions about bastardization of language through common usage, it seems like the majority rules.

it has driven me nuts, and i have insisted for years, that you are not "nauseous", you are nauseated. "nauseous" is not a state of being, it is something that creates nausea.

it seems, however, that consistent incorrect usage over time trumps the true meaning of a word. i would assume the same applies to pronunciation.
posted by centrs at 3:07 PM on February 4, 2004


He can write like a sonofabitch,



if wallace is half as cool as I'd like him to be, he'll use this quote as a blurb for his next book
posted by matteo at 9:03 AM on February 6, 2004


centrs, that's something that my (formerly an editor) mother drummed into me at the dinner table. Whenever someone says "I'm nauseous", I have to momentarily stifle the impulse to agree with them.

Along the same lines as fort/for-tay, how about sorbet? Is it "sor-bet" or "sor-bay"? Neither Merriam-Webster nor American Heritage don't seem to pick one pronunciation...but "sor-bet" seems to make sense because the etymology is Middle French ("sor-bay", presumably) by way of Italian ("sorbetto") by way of Turkish ("serbet"). And, as it turns out, the Turkish "serbet" comes from the Persian "sharbat", which itself comes from the Arabic "sharbah." (This is why I love questions of usage and pronunciation.)
posted by Vidiot at 9:30 PM on February 8, 2004


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