Q From Peggy Denker: What’s the proper pronunciation of forte? I used to pronounce it as two syllables: ‘for-tay’. But a friend corrected me. According to Webster’s, ‘for-tay’ was to be used when it was a musical instruction, but the one-syllable ‘fort’ was preferred when the meaning was a strong point or special ability. What say you?
A There are two words of the same spelling, one borrowed from French and the other from Italian. It used to be the case that the one from French that means a person’s strong point was pronounced as one syllable (/fɒːt/ ).
But the influence of the other word, which retained a stronger link to its original Italian pronunciation, is too strong and is winning. It is now thought acceptable in Britain to say the two words the same way (/fɒːtɪ/), and the new edition of Chambers and the New Oxford English Dictionary both say so. This has reached the point where I have seen the word, in the sense of “strong point”, mistakenly spelled forté, presumably in imitation of café. The older pronunciation is still heard, however, and some people would consider the version in two syllables for the word meaning “strong point” to be wrong.
There was a discussion on alt.usage.english about this some time ago, from which I gather American usage is more conservative. But the Random House Webster’s unabridged dictionary says: “A two-syllable pronunciation is increasingly heard, especially from younger educated speakers, perhaps owing to confusion with the musical term forte. Both the one- and two-syllable pronunciations of FORTE are now considered standard”. So though there appears to be a transatlantic distinction on this one, it is slight, and decreasing.