Gary, I never realized that there was any controversy and have always heard it and pronounced it as ‘FOR tay,’ the same way that the musical instruction is pronounced. However, you learn something new every day. At the risk of being accused of promoting a U.S., imperialist, chauvinist pig conspiracy, I’ll quote from “Garner’s Modern American Usage”:
FORTE: (= a person’s strong point) has long thought to be preferably pronounced with one syllable, like ‘fort.’ That’s because the word is originally French (in which ‘fort’ means ‘strong,’ corruptly made with a feminine ‘-e’ suffix) and is so pronounced. But most speakers of American English use the two-syllable version (FOR tay), probably under the influence of the Italian ‘forte,’ a two-syllable word referring to a musical notation to play loudly. Though it might have been nice to keep the two word separate in pronunciation, that hasn’t happened—and the two-syllable version can no longer be condemned. What can be condemned is the pretentious pronunciation ‘for TAY’ and the occasional use of an acute accent on the ‘-e.’
I also like Merriam-Webster’s take, which points out that even the supposedly ‘purer’ French version is not quite right.”
FORTE: In ‘forte’ we have a word derived from French that in its "strong point" sense has no entirely satisfactory pronunciation. Usage writers have denigrated 'for-"tA and 'for-tE because they reflect the influence of the Italian-derived ‘forte’ [2 syllables]. Their recommended pronunciation 'fort, however, does not exactly reflect French either: the French would write the word ‘le fort’ and would rhyme it with English ‘for.’ So you can take your choice, knowing that someone somewhere will dislike whichever variant you choose. All are standard, however. In British English 'fo-"tA and 'fot predominate; 'for-"tA and for-'tA are probably the most frequent pronunciations in American English.
Ken G – November 17, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)