Ay - aye

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In the past, the two words ay and aye have been spelled interchangeably. Confusion still exists, understandably; but there are two different words, probably having originated completely separately. Try to be clear about them. Although both are archaic, the first is currently part of the northern dialects of British English, and also part of the rituals of the Houses of Parliament; the other is still to be found in Christian hymns and other formal, more or less literary, texts. To the best of AWE's knowledge, its current use in English is limited to informal Scots.

The first, an interjection, means 'yes'. It is always pronounced the same as 'I' and 'eye'. Indeed, in Shakespeare's time, it was often written I. OED says that the spelling with '-e' (aye) is "better on every ground"; AWE can only agree. Parliament, for example, records votes as 'ayes' and 'noes'. If a motion is successful, the tellers (counters of the vote) announce that 'The ayes have it'. (In more modern English, one might say "The majority have voted 'yes'.")

In the Royal Navy, the customary response to a superior officer's order is "Aye aye, Sir."

The second word, ay, is an adverb of time (perhaps 'was an adverb of time'; it is hardly current in modern SE, though it is still part of some dialects). Its root meaning is 'always'. OED alleges that it is always pronounced to rhyme with 'day' and 'say'; but the normal pronunciation in Scotland is just like the interjection aye, 'yes', to rhyme with 'sky'. However, there is no doubt that the orthodox spelling in modern English for this meaning 'always' or 'ever' should be ay; and that the word should be pronounced in RP to sound like the second vowel in 'always', to rhyme with 'say' and 'day'.

Confusion between these words can be shown by the fact that OED notes, first under "ay, aye, adv." that aye is recorded as a variant spelling of AY adv. ever; and second under "aye, ay, int., (adv.)," that "ay is recorded as variant of AYE, yes".)

There is also an animal, a type of lemur, native to Madagascar, known by its name in the native language aye-aye, which is supposed to imitate its call.


You may also like to see AWE's page on this and other homophones at Ay - aye - eye - I.