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The English language is peppered with wonderfully weird spelling/pronunciation combinations. For example

  • colonel, pronounced kur-nl, probably my favorite, there isn't even an r in the word!
  • Gloucester, pronounced glos-ter
  • Worcestershire, pronounced woos-ter-sheer

And the list goes on, wikipedia has an extensive list of strangely pronounced names here. No one unfamiliar with these words would be able to guess how to pronounce them, their pronunciation is usually the product of their particular history. Colonel, for example comes from the French colonel and has kept its original spelling but not its pronunciation.

So, is there a word to describe words whose pronunciation cannot be inferred from their spelling?

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They're not strangely pronounced. They're strangely spelled. And every English word is strangely spelled, since English spelling was developed for a different language, and doesn't work very well on modern English. At all. Spelling English words correctly is such a rare phenomenon, in fact, that the National Spelling Bee is front-page news in the United States. Speakers of languages with reasonable orthographies like Finnish or German are always amazed at this. –  John Lawler Jun 2 '13 at 16:24
It's been knocking around for about 150 years as a a constructed word used to illustrate irregularities in English spelling, so I expect quite a lot of people would now be able to read ghoti as a "variant" spelling of fish. The smartasses might even say it spells a "silent" word - gh as in though (/ðoʊ/); o as in people (/'piːpl/); t as in ballet (/'bæleɪ/); i as in business (/'bɪznəs/). –  FumbleFingers Jun 2 '13 at 17:21
@FumbleFingers thanks for the silent ghoti! I knew fish hadn't considered the silent version, nice. –  terdon Jun 2 '13 at 18:21
French is much better than English. The rules are quite precise and if you know them you can pronounce French perfectly from the spelled version (assuming you can pronounce it perfectly in the first place), whether you're familiar with the words or not. It doesn't work the other way -- you can't predict the spelling from the sound. But it does work spelling-to-pronunciation. Finnish and German work both ways. English doesn't work either way. –  John Lawler Jun 2 '13 at 19:39
@JohnLawler I disagree that in French the spelling uniquely determines the sound. The word plus, for example, is pronounced with or without the s depending on context. Likewise fils (son) and fils (threads). Thirty miles north of Paris (silent final s in French) is the historic town of Senlis (hard final s). –  Lachlan Dominic Apr 21 at 14:13

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The Wikipedia article on the topic simply refers to these as irregularities, though one might also call them idiosyncrasies or anomalies - though none of those terms refer specifically to words with unusual spelling / pronunciation.

I think the best word to describe such irregularities is aphonetic, though that word seems relatively rare. I didn't find it listed in any dictionary, but here's an example from one of the documents in that Ngram search:

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Doesn't aphonetic mean not pronounced? It should based on the word's etymology. –  terdon Jun 2 '13 at 18:19
@terdon aphonic means unpronounced -- Like I said, I wasn't able to find it in any dictionary, but a look through some of the documents where it's used, it seems to contrasted with phonetic (i.e. phonetic spelling v.s. aphonetic spelling). –  p.s.w.g Jun 2 '13 at 18:48

Someone has suggested that "lef-tenant" originated in a euphemism for toilet: loo (hence, lef instead of loo). See, and peterhewett (his explanation). His explanation may be fanciful, but if accurate it would not be the first time pronunciation has been changed because of a potentially embarrassing way to pronounce a word.

Bestiality might be one such word. The favored pronunciation may be bes chee al' ih tea, but people still pronounce it beast chee al' ih tea (and some dictionaries include that alternative pronunciation; e.g., Go figure!

In answer to your question, I can't think of a single word for the phenomenon. For a humorous (British, humourous) "take" on spelling and pronunciation (why isn't it spelled pronounciation?) inconsistencies, see By the way, I credit an EL&U contributor for this cite; I just can't recall his/her moniker.

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I'm fairly certain the word is syncope:

the loss of one or more sounds or letters in the interior of a word (as in fo'c'sle for forecastle) - MW

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Hi and welcome to the site! We expect answers to be more thorough here, one-word answers should always be accompanied by a definition. That said, while one of the meanings of syncope does apply to a small subset of words that are not pronounced as they are spelled, those are only a very small part of the phenomenon. None of the ones mentioned in my question qualify, for example. They have not only lost sounds, they have also gained sounds not present in the spelling at all. –  terdon Apr 7 at 21:56

"Peppered"? English isn't lightly seasoned with these irregularities; someone removed the top from the pepper shaker and poured it all in!

I agree with p.s.w.g. The best name I can give is just "irregularity", or any other synonym for an outlier.

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protected by Mitch Apr 21 at 13:24

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