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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
If you're actually wondering how these came about, consult David Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Every word has its own unique history, consisting of all its billions of uses in the mouths and conversations and lives of all the speakers of the language. And then there's the historie ov theyre spelings... –  John Lawler Jun 2 '13 at 16:32
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

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 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 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:

enter image description here

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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 http://forum.thefreedictionary.com/postst7986_Why-do-the-British-say--leftenant--when-they-mean-lieutenant-.aspx, 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., http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/bestiality?db=dictionary). 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 http://www.wordsmith.org/awad/english.html. By the way, I credit an EL&U contributor for this cite; I just can't recall his/her moniker.

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"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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