The Curious Case of The Word ‘Iron’

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Many new learners of English eventually come across the curious word ‘iron’. At the beginning, they will intuitively pronounce the word /ˈʌɪrən/. However, they will soon be corrected by the teacher and asked to use the ‘right’ pronunciation, which is /ˈʌɪə(r)n/.

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This would lead many a learner to feel confused at best or simply (and dangerously) beginning to feel the budding reluctance to continue learning the language. They might be thinking to themselves, “Why?” and proceed to ask their teacher this question. Here, we can have two scenarios — either, the teacher will say “This is just the way it is.”, or if they have the knowledge of English phonology, its history and/or the willingness to explain, they will then proceed to do so, potentially confusing everyone in the room.

So what is the reason for this curious case of the word ‘iron’? Let us try to explain in a clear way.

Well, the answer lies in what linguists call ‘metathesis’ (/mɪˈtæθɪsɪs/) which is a phenomenon in many languages where sounds or syllables in a word, or words in a sentence, are swapped. In this article, we will focus on the first case.

In English, many words underwent metathesis, not only ‘iron’. An example here can be the word ‘ask’ which, before metathesis, used to be pronounced ‘ax’. Before Black Death arrived in England in the 14th century, both pronunciations were in use at the same time in different regions and dialects.

In English, many words underwent metathesis, not only ‘iron’.

However, when Black Death started decimating the population, huge numbers of people from the North started migrating towards the South of modern-day England, bringing their own version with them and causing their pronunciation to mix with that of the locals. And so the current pronunciation won.

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It was not only a historical process though, nor was it limited to English, as it still occurs in some modern languages like Hebrew, where it is part of its grammar. Interestingly, even children of today produce metathesis errors when, for example, learning the word ‘spaghetti’ they accidentally pronounce it ‘pasketti’ without realisation.

Going back to our word ‘iron’ — when learners mistakenly pronounce the word as /ˈʌɪrən/, they would actually have been correct hundreds of years ago, when this was in use. Learners can therefore ‘blame’ metathesis, so to speak, for their struggle with the pronunciation of this word. Say it to your teacher — they will be impressed!

So what was the process of change for this confusing word? Well, this is the order that has been proposed by linguists, starting with the oldest form in Old English, and ending with the English-of-today form:

/iːrən/ > /aɪn/ > /aɪərən/ > /aɪər(ə)n/ > /aɪə(r)n/ > /aɪən/

As you can see from the highlighted sounds in the second and third pronunciation, this is where metathesis occurred.

If you are a learner of English who was corrected on this word before, I hope that having read this article you will feel better knowing that you are, or were, not entirely wrong when you said /ˈʌɪrən/.

Written by Joanna Bartosz-Donohoe, owner of Anglica Language School

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