Hello Dr. Cummings,
Can you tell me why the word vineyard can be spelled as vineyard or vinyard?
This is probably going to be an uncomfortably long answer to a very short question. I can find no dictionary that lists <vinyard> as an accepted spelling of vineyard. I suspect that any <vinyard> spellings you might encounter are cases of pronunciation-spelling: The pronunciation with short <i> suggests that the first syllable should be spelled <vin>, so people begin to spell it that way, but dictionaries and teachers have not caught up with the change and quite likely never will, the effect of dictionaries and the mission of teachers being in such matters to slow down or completely halt the rate of change.
Please note: In the lists that follow, <Y> represents an Old English letter called yogh that looked a little like a curvy <z> and was an earlier form of our letter <g> and which, just to keep things from getting too simple, was pronounced in these words like our <y>. The numbers refer to centuries. OE and ME refer to Old English (English as it was from roughly the 5th to the early 12th century) and Middle English (from roughly the 12th through the 16th centuries). The capitals <:I, O, U> indicate long vowels.
Our vineyard descends from OE wInYeard or wIngeard which meant wine yard or vine yard and had a long first vowel sound. There is an obsolete form winyard , which apparently hasnt been used since the 15th century. It had the following earlier forms: OEME wingeard , ME winird , ME winYeard, winyard, winyherde, wynyarde, ME wine-y(h)erd, wineierd, wineyerd, wynYard, wynYord.
Our vineyard also had a lot of earlier forms: OE winyard, ME vinYerd , 15 -yard(e, vinard, -yearde , 15 vyny(e)arde, wynyard, 16 viniard ; ME vyneYerd(e, ME -Yorde, -ye(e)rd, 15 -yearde ; ME vineYard , ME -yerd , 15 -y(e)arde , ME vineyard ; Sc.ME wyne-, 15 wineYarde, wyneYard, -yaird.
The point in listing all those odd and now-obsolete spellings is to show that most of the time, like the obsolete winyard, our vineyard had at least three syllables, not the modern two. And in English there is a pretty good rule that says that if the third or fourth syllable back from the end of the word is stressed, its vowel will be short. Thus, although the source of our vineyard and of the obsolete winyard had long <i>s, over the centuries the long <i> tended to shorten to the short <i> in vineyard , in spite of that pesky letter <e> that is there for etymological reasons and makes it look as if the <i> should be long.
This 3rd syllable rule explains the short vowels in quite a few words, including holiday, knowlege, breakfast, husband, all of which in OE and often in ME had three or more syllables and long first vowels. (Compare their component words holy, know, break with long vowels. Our husband comes from OE hUsbOnda householder, with a long first vowel hUs being the OE source of our house.)
Basically, the pronunciation pulls the spelling one way, the etymology pulls another and in the case of vineyard the etymology won. You could say that just the opposite happened in the modern spelling of the place-name Vinland, which up until Websters 2nd International Unabridged in 1934 could be Vinland or Vineland or Wineland. And that, as I say, is a long answer to a short question most of which will not be on the test.