How should the y in [Hornby][1] be pronounced,
as the I in I'm, or as the ee in honey-bee?

What is the English rule that governs the above?


Neither: it's like the final "y" in "Bobby".

The name "Hornby" is a place name which ends with the element "-by", which originally meant "farmstead" [1]. This element is generally pronounced as described above.

[1] http://www.viking.no/e/england/danelaw/epl-danelaw.htm


This is a canonical example of a subjective, normative question that is off topic here. You can pick any of these pronunciations, and there is no linguistic principle that says that it is wrong to select any particular one of those pronunciations. It might be on topic for one of the English SEs. There is no factual basis for saying that [baɪ] is right and [bi] is wrong, or the opposite. I will say that [baɪ] is factually incorrect for my dialect, but you may not speak (or be aiming to speak) my dialect.

A possible linguistic question on the topic would be a socio-numeric question – "which pronunciation is more common?", although that can also be a pure opinion question, if not paired with actual research. My opinion is that [baɪ] is rare and [bi] is common, but given the nearly billion speakers of English, I don't really know who would win the vote, were there a vote.

The proposal that "by" in Bobby is pronounced different from "bee" in honey-bee is not without merit, but introduces a false supposition (that they are always pronounced different). Some people do, and some people don't (I don't). If you identify a particular dialect that the question is about, it may be that in that dialect it's pronounced e.g. [bɪ] and not [bi].

A potential quasi-linguistic question would be what the English orthographic rules are for pronouncing the letter "y", which could lead to some probability that the word is pronounced one way vs. the other. The problem is that English spelling is so messed up that linguists don't usually mess with such rules. The (historical) morpheme in question is pronounced [baɪ] in "by-law, by-election", but as [bi] in most if not all Germanic-derived compound place names.

  • I'm not sure I'm reading it correctly, but you seem to suggest that the letter sequence <by> in by-law is the same morpheme as the letter sequence <by> in Hornby, or the letter sequence <by> in Bobby. But their semantic values and their histories are very different. So maybe it would be possible to establish a diachronic reason for their different pronunciations is your dialect. – OmarL Nov 30 '18 at 9:34
  • By in Hornby and by-laws is from the same Norwegian root, meaning town. Whether or not the 'rules of pronunciation' care about etymology, folk-etymology, or same-morpheme status remains to be worked out -- assuming the question is really about the synchronic "rules" for pronouncing letter sequences. – user6726 Nov 30 '18 at 15:55

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