The sound of the word ‘eight’ in English is one of those that fools and annoys. In its usual way, English pronunciation gives a sound ‘ait’–aeet. So, we know how to pronounce freight and weight, which is the same as straight, but not the same as fright and wight and blight. That e is so important in changing the sound.
I was quite comfortable until one day, watching the annual Thames Boat Race, I heard the BBC commentator mention the ‘Chissick aeet’. The what? The Oxford and Cambridge crews each had eight men rowing in their boats, so who were the other eight that I couldn’t see? Well, first, you must know that ‘Chissick’ is actually the place in west London named Chiswick, which was a neighbourhood a few turns round the River Thames from where I was living in Hammersmith. The ‘aeet’ was actually eyot, or ait, a small island in a river. It took me a while to catch on. But, once I did, I was ready to eat all the eyots you could throw to me. It was a short walk to the river, so I had to go to see the eyot with my own eyes, then impress my friends by telling them that it wasn’t just an island, but…
Which touches another quirk. The past tense of eat is ate; yes, pronounced ‘aeet’.
These are just some of several English homophones, but among the few that involve numbers. One and won and wan, are another set; as are two, to, and too; abs four, for, for, and fore.
We habitually drop the h sound. So, words like hate become ‘ate’. A Jamaican could ‘ate eight’, meaning he or she dislikes the number, not consumed a said number. He could also say ‘ate eight’, meaning seven dumplings weren’t enough, so go for one more.
Such is the joy of this quirky language, where you can stand in a row to row your boat, then get in a row about the roe in the fish you caught.