This week's episode is inspired by a question we received from Aaron, a listener in Tucson, Arizona. Aaron writes:
"I have often used the word forte meaning someone's strong point or strongest suit, and I have always pronounced it 'for-tay' (like the direction to play music louder). However, recently someone told me that that's wrong and it should be pronounced 'fort' and went off on a history of French etymology. Can you tell me what is correct, and if 'fort' is correct, how come I have never once in my life heard it pronounced that way?"
Fowler's Modern English Usage says that the pronunciation of fortemeaning a thing for which someone has a particular talenthas "been unstable for most of the 20th century: some still pronounce it as one syllable."
This suggests both pronunciations are open for debate. That notwithstanding, the Oxford Dictionary of Current English lists the approved pronunciation of this word as FOR-tay, not FORT.
Linguist and author Michael Quinion points out that what happened in English with respect to this word is a rivalry between the Italian and French pronunciations. Both the French word forte and Italian word forte come from the Latin word fortis, which means strength. In English, the Italian word has a musical application and the French word has the broader use described above, but according to Quinion, the Italian pronunciation FOR-tay seems to have won over time as the pronunciation for both senses.
It appears when it comes to the pronunciation of forte, there's a striking similarity to what happened last summer during Euro 2008 when Italy met France in the quarter final: two excellent sides took the pitch and it could have gone either way; in the end, Italy won.
Seriously, though, what's incomplete about making a case for the French pronunciation of forte based on French etymology is that, strictly speaking, the French noun for "strength" or "one's strong point" is a masculine noun, fort, which is pronounced (roughly) FOR, not FORT. So if English had adhered strictly and completely to French rules from the very beginning, the noun we use today in this sense would be fort. Instead, and not without reason in French, it was the feminine adjective, forte, that made its way into the English language in the sense of one's strong point. But we don't use the word as an adjective in English; we use it as a noun. Language is a funny and unpredictable thing.
Ultimately, if Aaron pronounces the word FOR-tay, he isn't wrong as that person told him. Meanwhile, that other person isn't necessarily wrong to say FORT, but he/she might just be a tad out of fashion ... and that doesn't sit well in Italy or France.
Sources: Fowler's Modern English Usage, Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Larousse's French-English English-French Dictionary; and Michael Quinion's World Wide Words.
Music from this episode: "Il Forte" by Ennio Morricone and "What a Confusion" by Dave Barker.