Why do we pronounce the last E in recipe but not in the word recite?
Only one letter is different in the two words, so they should sound the same. But that’s not always how English works.
Unlike other languages, spelling and pronunciation in English are sometimes not the best of friends. Think of words like tough and dough or book, food, and blood.
But with the word recipe, the pronunciation has some (possible) logic.
The mysterious E
The final E in most words in English is not usually pronounced.
Think of words such as bake, cake, spite, irate, innate, agitate or decorate.
It is the most common form, and the pronunciation is relatively consistent, with the vowel before the last consonant taking the longer form.
Without the final E, the last vowel takes the short pronunciation.
Word pairs like rat and rate, bit and bite, and tot and tote are examples.
But we pronounce many words that end in E, so they must be from French.
Yes, we use many French words like cliche, resume, cafe, touche, protege, souffle, coupe, and saute.
In French, these words use an accent (café) to indicate the pronunciation of /ai/ or /ay/.
But the sound of the last E in these words is not the same as recipe, which is /ee/.
And anyway, the French word for recipe is recette, so it must be something else. And it is.
The answer is syllable stress patterns
Syllable stress is a real bucket of worms because there are so many formulas.
Stressed syllables can depend on many factors, including the number of syllables, spelling, and if a word is a noun or verb.
The noun record and the verb to record is a good example.
The stress is on the first syllable as a noun but on the second as a verb.
Also, why does giant stress the first syllable but today the last?
Multi-syllable words like encyclopedia and photographer stress middle syllables.
But recipe falls into one small category of stress patterns, where the stress is on the last syllable.
So the stress is not on the E but on the last syllable PE, /pee/.
Other words that follow the same stress pattern include catastrophe, epitome, sesame, posse, anemone, vigilante, simile, apostrophe, and acne.
The stress is similar to some words that end in Y, like okay, comply, delay, convey, and display.
As you can see, there is no real connection between words coming from French or Latin.
It’s simply English pronunciation.
The reason why we pronounce the last E in recipe but not in recite is because of syllable stress.
Pronunciation can drive you up the wall
As an English teacher, I can honestly say that pronunciation is always one of the biggest challenges.
The impossibility is beautifully captured in the poem, The Choas, by Gerard Nolst Trenité.
You can watch (and read) it in this video if it’s new to you.
It notes the word recipe in the sixth verse.
It’s one of my favorite videos about English pronunciation, but not so popular with my students. Most of them call it a nightmare.
The influence of the Great Vowel Shift
Major changes in pronunciation in English occurred between 1300 and 1700.
This period is often called the Great Vowel Shift, and although it now more or less governs modern pronunciation, spelling didn’t follow suit.
That’s why we still have words with a silent K, like knight, knee, and knit.
But it also helps explain why recipe had a problem with pronunciation.
It is derived from the Latin word recipere, meaning to receive. Then it was used in French as récipé for some time around the 15th century before being replaced by recette.
English adopted the word récipé, but without the accents to indicate the correct pronunciation.
But why did pronunciation change, but not the spelling of words?
The most common reason to explain this is the invention of the printing press in 1476.
By the time the vowel shift had more or less concluded around 1700, there were simply too many books already published using the original spellings.
Therefore, the spelling forms remained, but pronunciation continued to change.
As for the word recipe, I found a terrific explanation on Quora by Erik Thomas that pulls all the pieces together.
“Recipe, however, is unusual. It was borrowed during the early Modern English period. We borrowed it from French, but, unlike words such as recite and decide, the French had borrowed it at a late date from Latin instead of inheriting it. It was taken from the imperative form in Latin, in which the final e was pronounced, and it came out in French as récipé. Hence, the final e was pronounced as an actual e vowel, not as a schwa, in French. Then the English borrowed it from French and kept the full vowel that the last syllable had, but they applied the Great Vowel Shift to it to give it the vowel sound it has today in English.”
The disconnection between pronunciation and spelling in English is always an issue, particularly for second-language speakers.
For first-language English speakers, we rarely give it much thought.
But for writers, we occasionally look at a word or phrase and wonder, why is it like that?
That’s why I wrote this short article. I became curious about how and why we pronounce the last E in recipe.
But I didn’t anticipate that it would take me more than three days of research to find a possible answer.
Related Reading: When To Use Mistook And Mistaken