Sortie.

Time for another Languagehat Reader Survey! On the radio news this morning they mentioned a sortie (‘combat mission’) and pronounced it sor-TEE (stress on the last syllable). I had been aware of that pronunciation, since it is given as the second option in dictionaries, but I have always pronounced it SOR-tee (stress on the first syllable), which felt more natural, and that seems to be the only UK pronunciation. Is this sor-TEE version an authentic straight-from-French thing, like herb with no /h/, or a post-hoc Frenchification? Is it used primarily by military folk? What’s the story? Tell me your thoughts (and of course your own usage).

Comments

  1. Oh, I say sorTEE. I think of it as a term like enfilade or redoubt, military terms taken from the days when French was to armies as English is to software. Though when I come to think of it, I imagine it’s much older in English than that.

  2. Nope, the oldest citation in the OED in the current sense is from 1778 (H. Walpole Let. 8 Oct. “Before their last sortie, one heard nothing but What news of the fleets?“); the entry is from 1913, but I doubt it’s antedatable by centuries. And if it were borrowed with final stress that recently, you’d think there would be some trace of it in the UK, but Brits apparently say only SOR-tee.

  3. I hear it now and again with second syllable stress. It tends to strike me as a fracophilic affectation, I’m afraid.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    I only say SORtie; indeed if I heard a fellow-Brit say sorTIE I would think they were taking the micKEY.

  5. I pronounce it sor-TEE, but that may be because I primarily encountered the word when speaking to Air Force personnel. But putting the French influence to one side, rhyming it with with “shorty” detracts from the word’s, gravitas a tad, I think. It reminds me of words like bootie, cootie, cutie, Barbie, hottie, ciggie, etc. I assume the French origin of the word is the main reason for the pronunciation, but it may have been helped along by the desire to sound dignified.

  6. I just realised that I also often pronounce it with roughly equal stress on both syllables. So sor-tee or sor-TEE, but never SOR-tie.

  7. I pronounce it sor-TEE, but that may be because I primarily encountered the word when speaking to Air Force personnel.

    Aha, so it seems like it is a military thing.

  8. My main experience with “redoubt” is from going to Yorktown battlefield a lot as a kid, and I recall it as being pronounced with first-syllable stress, but I can’t find any dictionaries that agree, so maybe that was just my own invention.

  9. I give it final stress.

  10. “Storm fort or redoubt / You have only to shout / For Abdul Abulbul Amir.”

  11. I suspect I have used either stress on occasion.

    SORTie should match SALLy if collocated.

  12. I say SOR-tie, if I say it at all.

    I always think that there are scads of French or French-derived words which the UK pronounces with stress on the penultimate syllable and the US pronounces with stress on the last syllable, like ballet, croquet, Poincare, … (In the case of “sortie” I seem to follow the British.)

    My impression is that some US speakers take this as evidence that the stubborn insular Brits don’t give a damn how the rest of the world does things, as in Nick-a-rag-you-a, or “Nazzy” for Nazi. But I sometimes wonder if it’s just that UK speakers and US speakers somehow hear French pronunciation in different ways — round it off differently to something that they can say.

    The rest of that thought is my hunch that if we asked a native French speaker they would say “You’re both wrong. Neither syllable is stressed more than the other. The only difference is in pitch.”

  13. Speaker of “Northern Cities” dialect here. It never occurred to me to place the stress anywhere but the first syllable, but I honestly can’t recall if I’ve ever heard it spoken aloud.

  14. The problem with sortie is that, if it were American English with the accent on the first syllable, it would have to be “sordy.” Which seems wrong. And to have an unvoiced, aspirated ‘t’ in SORT-y just isn’t the way we say ‘t.’ To make the t come out right we have to say “sor-TEE.”

    That’s not a problem for the Brits – they have unvoiced t’s at the end of stressed syllables as a matter of course.

  15. The problem with sortie is that, if it were American English with the accent on the first syllable, it would have to be “sordy.” Which seems wrong.

    Does “fordy” for 40 seem wrong? If not, what’s the difference?

  16. @Keith Ivey: I think I’ve heard “redoubt” with initial stress, and I am quite certain that I once read a poem where the stress pattern demanded initial stress. However, it sounds quite wrong to me—too much like “read out.” (Depending on the vowel in the first syllable of “redoubt,” it could be either the present or past tense “read.”)

  17. The problem with sortie is that, if it were American English with the accent on the first syllable, it would have to be “sordy.” Which seems wrong.

    Does “fordy” for 40 seem wrong? If not, what’s the difference?

    As a speaker of Australian English, which does similar things to intervocalic /t/, I’m pretty sure I say “SORdy” and it’s never struck me as odd. (Until this thread I never even knew that the “sorTEE” pronunciation existed.)

  18. I definitely say sor-TEE, and to my ears SOR-tee sounds very strange. I’m a Canadian English speaker living in Australia, but my pronunciation may be influenced by French-immersion education starting age 5…

  19. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I always stress the first syllable, and I don’t remember hearing any other pronunciation in English. French is different, of course, and it’s a very common word in French.

  20. Rodger C says:

    I believe no one has addressed “enfilade.” I pronounce it with the contours of “lemonade.”

  21. As a speaker of Australian English, which does similar things to intervocalic /t/, I’m pretty sure I say “SORdy” and it’s never struck me as odd.

    Which makes perfect sense, and I’m quite sure that the reason it seems wrong to Bloix is that Bloix simply isn’t used to it.

  22. I believe no one has addressed “enfilade.” I pronounce it with the contours of “lemonade.”

    I find I don’t have a pronunciation for it; I may never have said it out loud. Every form of it sounds a little odd to me.

  23. the stubborn insular Brits don’t give a damn how the rest of the world does things, as in Nick-a-rag-you-a, or “Nazzy” for Nazi.

    Nick-a-rag-you-are (and indeed Jag-you-are) I grant you, but I don’t think many Brits since Churchill have said “Narzy” rather than “Nah-tsi”.

  24. American here, and I agree with Bloix. Rhyming “sortie” and “forty” would be wrong. I suspect why I feel this way is that “sortie” is a specialized word and clearly a borrowing from French. I apparently have internalized some American prejudice that “sortie” is not quite a native word.

  25. Ajay, what is the difference between “ar” and “ah” in your transcriptions? I’ve thought a lot of confusion (including the name “Myanmar” and how to pronounce the name of the singer Sade) could have been avoided if nonrhotic speakers would write “ah” instead of “ar” in their ad hoc indications of pronunciation.

  26. siggian says:

    SORtee when it is being used as a verb and sorTEE when it is being used as a noun for this Canadian.

  27. I’ve thought a lot of confusion (including the name “Myanmar” and how to pronounce the name of the singer Sade) could have been avoided if nonrhotic speakers would write “ah” instead of “ar” in their ad hoc indications of pronunciation.

    I have ranted about this many times, on this blog and off. How I hate “Pronounced Shar-day”!

  28. Incidentally, the -r- in Burma is just as misleading as the one in Myanmar; the pronunciation it’s supposed to represent is ba-MA.

  29. Bathrobe says:

    SOR-tee here, and I would never say SOR-dee. I think I tend to use the word in a non-military sense. For instance, “One of LH’s infrequent sorties into political terrain (or issues)”.

  30. I would never say SOR-dee.

    Well, of course not, you’re not American. We Yanks have no other way to say it.

  31. “But putting the French influence to one side, rhyming it with with “shorty” detracts from the word’s, gravitas a tad, I think. ”

    But the reality of a SORtee restores that gravitas immediately. Exploding buildings and incinerating flesh will fix that right up for you.

    “The problem with sortie is that, if it were American English with the accent on the first syllable, it would have to be “sordy.” Which seems wrong.”

    Only if you can’t here the difference between a flap “r” and a “d.”

    “Aha, so it seems like it is a military thing.”

    No. I don’t recall ever hearing the number of air sorties briefed as “sorTEEs” at all, and I sat through a lot of briefings. Wait – did he specify which Air Force he was referring to?

    “Rhyming “sortie” and “forty” would be wrong. I suspect why I feel this way is that “sortie” is a specialized word and clearly a borrowing from French. I apparently have internalized some American prejudice that “sortie” is not quite a native word”

    Vanya, do you have the same prejudice against pronouncing the “l” in “battalion” or the “ment” in “revetment” as “ment”? How about the “h” in “hangar”?

  32. I think I first encountered the word sortie in The Mouse That Roared:

    There was only one conflict worthy of note in the victorious war of the duchy of Grand Fenwick against the United States of America. And that was so small, both in point of view of the numbers engaged and the area fought over, that it is difficult to find a word to describe it which would satisfy the military student or inform the layman. “Battle” certainly would not do. “Engagement” is too vague. “Affray at arms” has too large a ring to it. “Sortie” perhaps would best serve, for it was undoubtedly a sortie, a breaking out of one force to thrust through another and win its way to freedom.

  33. …the -r- in Burma…
    An unsourced claim on this Wikipedia page suggests that the English orthography is not simply a result of non-rhoticism:

    This name most likely comes from Portuguese Birmania and was adopted by English in the 18th century. The Portuguese name itself came from the Indian name Barma which was borrowed by the Portuguese from any of the Indian languages in the 16th or 17th century. This Indian name Barma may derive from colloquial Burmese Bama, but it may also derive from the Indian name Brahma-desh.

    However, Portuguese Wikipedia claims that Portuguese Birmania comes from English via French. Who to believe?

  34. Huh. Everything is so complicated!

  35. Don’t Burmese dictionaries and encyclopedias traditionally derive both ဗမာ and မြန်မာ from ဗြဟ္မာ?

  36. sor-TEE for me, S. African English living in US.. which is odd, since usually would be more like UK English. I learned French starting age 12 and went into the army at 21, where we spoke Afrikaans and did not have sorties.

  37. Only if you can’t hear the difference between a flap “r” and a “d.”

    I can hear it fine: the point is that both /t/ and /d/ become flap r in certain circumstances in AmE.

  38. La Horde Listener says:

    S(w)or-Tee, and mostly I don’t say it. It sounds like something the cowardly lion from The Wizard of Oz would use, or some prissy old fussbudget babbling on about “pantaloons” and “fisticuffs”. Lowrider and scooter culture slang terms cover conflict situations better.

  39. Wait, can we get an explanation of the “(w)” there?

  40. Getting back to the contours of “lemonade”, um, for me (US) both LEMonade and lemonADE are correct.

  41. Wait, can we get an explanation of the “(w)” there?

    I assume it indicates a degree of preliminary lip-rounding, but I’m totally unclear about which syllable La Horde Listener stresses.

  42. Eli Nelson says:

    Regarding -ar vs. -ah: though I can’t remember where, I think I remember seeing some Brit using “ar” to represent /ɑː/ and “ah” to represent /æ/. I’m not sure of this though.

    In my opinion, the most annoying misleading spelling regarding rhotic vowels goes the other way, “Goethe” being pronounced “GER-tuh,” (indistinguishable for me from the name “Gerda) in American English. It just sounds stupid — there are plenty of other options for anglicizing the German sound, as shown by the usual pronunciations of “Schroedinger’s Equation” or “John Boehner.” While [ɜː] works fine in British English, “oe” = rhotic [ɜ˞] is just a terrible spelling-to-sound correspondence.

  43. La Horde Listener says:

    Preliminary lip-rounding, equal stress on both syllables, pseudo-francophilic affectation: in other words, I probably mispronounce it. From now on I want to emulate Siggian by saying SORtee when it is being used as a verb and sorTEE when it is being used as a noun. I have yet to read The Mouse That Roared and when I finally do I’ll embark on the adventure with this settled and in place.

  44. Sor-TEE, although I’m not sure i’ve ever heard it and fairly sure i’ve never said it.

    Eli Nelson, Goethe Street near my house is pronounced GO-thee (th as in thin), would you prefer that anglicization?
    When I was in high school, someone much older than me asked how to pronounce the name (he was reading the questions at a quiz bowl contest, I was a spare contestant) I gave him the correct pronunciation, he looked puzzled and asked me to repeat it until finally told him it was Gerta, then he asked where the R came from and went off to get a second opinion.

  45. “Ajay, what is the difference between “ar” and “ah” in your transcriptions?”

    In my dialect of British English there is a difference between them – but in the upper-class English which Churchill spoke, there tends not to be.
    The main difference was between pronouncing z as ts, as in German, or as z…

  46. the most annoying misleading spelling regarding rhotic vowels goes the other way, “Goethe” being pronounced “GER-tuh,” (indistinguishable for me from the name “Gerda) in American English

    But that means you can’t appreciate the joke about the Irish builder’s apprentice being asked whether he knew the difference between a joist and a girder, and replying “of course I do, one of them wrote Faust and the other one wrote Ulysses”.

  47. When I was in high school, someone much older than me asked how to pronounce the name (he was reading the questions at a quiz bowl contest, I was a spare contestant) I gave him the correct pronunciation, he looked puzzled and asked me to repeat it until finally told him it was Gerta, then he asked where the R came from and went off to get a second opinion.

    Classic! And yes, there is no good Americanized form of Goethe. (I just say it the German way and hope it doesn’t sound too pretentious.)

  48. I am English and pronounce sortie with its normal BrE initial stress. I have never heard it pronounced otherwise. I last heard the words enfilade and defilade spoken when I was in the cadet force (CCF) at school. They were stressed on the first syllable, possibly because they were often used contrastingly in the same sentence.

  49. SORtee when it is being used as a verb and sorTEE when it is being used as a noun

    Shouldn’t it be the other way around, like convert, import, decrease, …?

  50. I pronounce Goethe in the Grman way, to the best of my ability, but once had someone, in all seriousness, correct me and tell me I should be saying [gɹtə].

  51. Dictionary.com and m-w.com do attest the r-pronunciation as a possible form, though I agree it sounds silly. If it were a German-American surname, I guess it could be /ˈgeɪti/ or /ˈgeɪθi/ or maybe /ˈgɛθi/.

  52. OK , I admit error. I was reading a novel this evening – The Singapore Grip, by J.G. Farrell – and I read a sentence with the phrase “on desperate sorties into the jungle.” Immediately, without any conscious thought, I found my self rereading it while internally voicing it (not actually reading aloud, but imagining that I was doing so.) And I found that i put the stress on the first syllable but used an unvoiced, aspirated T: SOR-teas, with the same emphasis and T sound as if I were saying, ‘that’s two HOT teas and three ICE teas.”

  53. Two Irish navvies in London were taking a smoke break when the foreman came up and started berating them. “Paddy! Mick! You’ve made a bollocks of the morning’s work! Don’t you know the difference between a joist and a girder?”
    Paddy draws on his fag and says, “Well now, Joist, he wrote Ulysses.” And Mick says, “Now Girder, sure, he wrote Faust.”

  54. @Lazar: I have a German colleague whose surname is Goethe. His sons, who are native German speakers but who moved to America before they were five, seem to pronounce their surname /’go̞tɘ/ when speaking English.

  55. La Horde Listener says:

    Well, I just now looked searchingly in the full length mirror and could find no evidence of my having made a major change in my life. My left eyebrow tilted urbanely; a curiously rueful smile played on my lips. “Silly woman,” I purred demurely, “what have you done?”

  56. Just ran across this, from a London writer: “It’s called an ‘indaba’ (pronounced IN-DAR-BAH).”

    So “AR” and “AH” are being used for presumably the same sound in the same word. Why not just stick with “AH” and avoid confusing the rhotics?

  57. Did you see my “parmejarn” story? I think this will never stop causing confusion: non-rhotics just don’t get what’s wrong with those spellings from a rhotic perspective, and rhotics just don’t get what’s right with them from a non-rhotic perspective.

  58. non-rhotics just don’t get what’s wrong with those spellings from a rhotic perspective

    But how can they not? This is what I don’t understand. There can’t be many non-rhotics who literally have no idea that there are rhotic people in the world, and if you know that, how can you not realize that it’s a bad idea to stick r’s in where they shouldn’t be pronounced?

  59. David Marjanović says:

    It’s because they already expect so much disconnect between spelling and pronunciation that it doesn’t occur to them that anyone might have less of it than they do.

  60. RP is well-known (even by British-trained dialectologists) to be the non-localized pronunciation of English, which no doubt means that it is spoken all over the world. People who use it make no concessions to bahbrous dahlects.

  61. Thanks, Lazar. I thought the topic had come up more recently than this thread, but this was the most recent one I found.

    Aside from the obliviousness to rhotics, there’s the obliviousness to consistency that I don’t get. “IN-DAH-BAH” would be great, of course, but even “IN-DAR-BAR” would at least be understandable. “IN-DAR-BAH” is just infuriating.

  62. But those won’t be the same sound for a London speaker: the second one is a schwa. AH is a funny way of representing one, I grant you, and some indication of where the stress goes would have been helpful, but the writer is capturing an actual distinction.

  63. But how can they not? This is what I don’t understand. There can’t be many non-rhotics who literally have no idea that there are rhotic people in the world, and if you know that, how can you not realize that it’s a bad idea to stick r’s in where they shouldn’t be pronounced?

    Firstly, I’m not sure the distinction is necessarily so obvious unless you’ve actively thought about it. My parents have pretty much the same accent, except my father’s is rhotic and my mother’s non. Until I pointed this out to them, they had no awareness of this difference, and it took actually a lot of persuading (about twenty minutes of “you say ‘start’… okay, now you… Now let’s try ‘core'” etc.) before they accepted it.

    Another problem is that non-rhotic speakers do not tend to see themselves as “not pronouncing” the R, because they do pronounce the R, if the R was unpronounced then ‘start’ would be the same as ‘stat’, ‘burn’ would be the same as ‘bun’, and so on, which is not the case. When I have heard non-rhotic speakers discussing, e.g., the differences between British and American English, it’s usually along the lines of “they pronounce the R stronger/differently/over-emphasisedly” not “they pronounce the R and we don’t”. It’s not a silent letter like the B is ‘subtle’ or ‘doubt’ which is superfluous for everyone and no one would use in a pronunciation guide, when non-rhotic people write the R in such contexts they do it deliberately to make you pronounce the R – just without the conscious awareness of how that will actually sound from a rhotic speaker.

  64. Thanks, that makes a lot of sense. I still hate the phenomenon, but at least I understand it better. And English could really use a good, consistent way for non-linguists to write the schwa.

  65. Thanks for that useful reminder about how people generally have no clue about their pronunciation in general (as opposed to the stressed syllables of some particular words).

    I can’t resist quoting Henry James in extenso (is there any other way to quote him?) on the evils of rhoticity. James, of course, was born in (then completely) non-rhotic New York, lived his early life there and in non-rhotic Boston and (then) non-rhotic Newport, Rhode Island, and spent most of his life in non-rhotic England. And after all that, he went in 1905 to Bryn Mawr College, a (then) Quaker institution situated in the heart of the heart of the fully rhotic part of the Eastern Seaboard, to deliver a commencement address shortly thereafter published (Google Books link) as “The Question Of Our Speech”. He begins by denouncing Americans (oh so kindly and sweetly, with the poison-pen terms that follow buried in a lengthy discourse of paternalistic kindliness) for their “uncivilized”, “crude and tasteless”, “vulgar”, “ugly, flat, thin, mean, helpless, ignoble” “grunting, squealing, barking, or roaring”, a “mere helpless slobber of disconnected vowel noises”. He gives as an example the pronunciation of yes as “yeh-eh” (as he spells it).

    But when it comes to /r/, that commonest of all English phonemes (amounting to some 7% of all phonemes in rhotic speech)? Oh, then we hear a very different tune:

    Vast numbers of people, indeed, even among those who speak very badly [defined earlier as “speaking the way most people speak”], appear to grope instinctively for some restoration of the missing value even at the cost of inserting it between words that begin and end with vowels. You will perfectly hear persons supposedly “cultivated”, the very instructors of youth sometimes themselves, talk of vanilla-r-ice cream, of California-r-oranges, of Cuba-r-and-Porto Rico, of Atalanta-r-in-Calydon, and (very resentfully) of “the idea-r of” any intimation that their performance and example in these respects may not be immaculate. You will perfectly hear the sons and daughters of the most respectable families disfigure in this interest, and for this purpose, the pleasant old names of Papa and Mamma. “Is Popper-up stairs?” and “Is Mommer-in the parlor?” pass for excellent speech in millions of honest homes4. If the English say throughout, and not only sometimes, Papa and Mamma, and the French say Papa and Mamman, they say them consistently — and Popper, with an “r”, but illustrates our loss, much to be regretted, alas, of the power to emulate the clearness of the vowel-cutting, an art as delicate in its way as gem-cutting, in the French word. It is not always a question of an r, however — though the letter, I grant, gets terribly little rest among those great masses of our population who strike us, in the boundless West perhaps especially, as, under some strange impulse received toward consonantal recovery of balance, making it present even in words from which it is absent, bringing it in everywhere as with the small vulgar effect of a sort of morose grinding of the back teeth. There are, you see, sounds of a mysterious intrinsic meanness, and there are sounds of a mysterious intrinsic frankness and sweetness; and I rather think the recurrent note I have indicated — fatherr and motherr and otherr, waterr and matterr and scatterr, harrd and barrd, parrt, startt, and (dreadful to say) arrt (the repetition it is that drives home the ugliness), are signal specimens of what becomes of a custom of utterance out of which the principle of taste has dropped. [This is followed by a denunciation of final /z/ in somewheres, anywheres, a good ways, though of course always, which is strictly parallel, is not mentioned.]

    Now what all this reveals, in addition to James’s absolute want of tact despite his appearance of politeness (I sincerely hope that the young ladies of Bryn Mawr applauded courteously and ignored him completely), is that he himself had no least clue that he had been swimming since his earliest years in a sea of linking /r/s, and himself saying things like /kjubərən(d)pɔtərikoʊ/, the very habit he denounces in the first half of his rant. The Papa-r-up and Mamma-r-in issues might be disposed of on the grounds that non-rhotic Americans, like other Americans, use initial stress here (to which James is himself an unconscious witness) whereas the English used final stress in these words, thus suppressing linking /r/, and of course it is very Jamesian to consider /ɑrt/ the worst of all American corruptions (though indeed all these rhotic words are examples of American conservatism, not corruption). But the heart of the matter is that James simply did not know what he was attacking, and still less what he was defending. In this respect he was far, far behind the enemies of singular they, who may be ignorant of their language and its history, but at least know what they want and what they don’t want.

  66. Henry James, Prolix Peever.

  67. Until I pointed this out to them, they had no awareness of this difference, and it took actually a lot of persuading (about twenty minutes of “you say ‘start’… okay, now you… Now let’s try ‘core’” etc.) before they accepted it.

    I’m aware that there’s a lot about their pronunciation people usually don’t pay much attention to, but, as an ESL speaker, I was still a bit shocked to read this.

  68. Some Spanish speakers refuse to accept that they pronounce b and v exactly the same.

  69. David Marjanović says:

    I’m aware that there’s a lot about their pronunciation people usually don’t pay much attention to, but, as an ESL speaker, I was still a bit shocked to read this.

    Me too; after all, this isn’t about not noticing features of their own pronunciation, but about each other’s!

    Speaking non-rhotic German myself, I find rhoticity to be the most salient feature of an Alemannic accent, and partial rhoticity* the most salient, if not the only feature of a “Rhineland” accent that distinguishes it from neighboring accents within Standard German. I’m certainly not the only one; all attempts to imitate an Alemannic accent, rare as those are, include full rhoticity.

    * /r/ remains unchanged behind short vowels – even those that aren’t indicated by the spelling at all, incidentally, as in either hart or zart, I forgot which one.

  70. David Marjanović says:

    Some Spanish speakers refuse to accept that they pronounce b and v exactly the same.

    And some Japanese speakers, I’ve read, refuse to accept that they pronounce the hiragana spellings ou and oo exactly the same, ditto for ei and ee. And so on throughout the world. Myself, I only found out last year or so that I really have a [k] in Angst and langsam*; after all, both /k/ and /g/ are voiceless and unaspirated but still not identical for me, and (in the dialect) I distinguish them both from the cluster /gh/!

    But that’s different from not noticing that someone else, who you talk with every day, doesn’t share your pronunciation.

    * More northerly speakers of course have no plosive at all in that word. That’s probably connected to having [z] in their sound inventory.

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