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These two-letter words ending in -o are pronounced with the vowel /oʊ/: bo, go ho, jo, lo, no, so, and yo whereas do and to are pronounced with the vowel /uː/. Is there an explanation for the discrepancy in pronunciation?

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I doubt anyone can provide any suitable answer to this. It's just one of the countless strange intricacies of the English language. –  Urbycoz Jul 18 '12 at 10:36
    
We don't decide it. It just is. And sometimes it happens to change. –  Colin Fine Jul 18 '12 at 12:26
    
I nearly never pronounce 'to' as 'too'. More often 'tuh'. –  Kaz Dragon Jul 18 '12 at 12:39
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Exec summary: no decision is made. Pronunciation came first, then spelling was made up, they tried to make things consistent, but this wasn't particularly successful in English (no authoritative academy), and pronunciation has changed over the (hundreds of) years. –  Mitch Jul 18 '12 at 12:59
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Yes, I'm hoping he expands on it and makes it a proper answer. –  nohat Jul 18 '12 at 16:10

4 Answers 4

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The question posed

Why is “go” spelled with the same vowel as “do” and “to” since it is pronounced differently?

makes an incorrect presupposition. That's the cause of the problem.
Deny the presupposition and the problem goes away.

That presupposition is that

English spelling represents English pronunciation.

This is False.

The fact is that the spelling of modern English words does not give more than a vague guide to their pronunciation.

Vowels, especially, are terribly inconsistent, because there are fourteen phonemic vowels in American English (see the list here -- there are even more in other dialects), all represented by only five vowel letters, in many traditional ways, all inconsistent. Each way was designed centuries ago by people who knew no phonetics, spoke many languages and dialects (not all of them English), and thought they were writing Latin.

Any dictionary will tell you the spelling of English words. A good dictionary (which American dictionaries are not, alas) will also give the pronunciation in IPA or Kenyon-Knott. Spelling and pronunciation are separate, and should be learned separately, like the singular and plural forms of German nouns.

So the answer is that go is spelled with the same vowel as do and to because that's how they're spelled. There is no other reason. No matter what your English teacher told you. Sorry; it's not their fault, though -- they were taught this lie, too.

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jinx :)⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠⁠ –  tchrist Jul 18 '12 at 16:34
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The problem is that English spelling does represent English pronunciation, for most words, most of the time. It's more than just a vague guide. An educated person can guess the pronunciation of a word based on its spelling and be right the vast majority of the time. The exceptions to this all have explanation; spelling is not random. –  nohat Jul 18 '12 at 17:09
    
Indeed, that's true. Provided one wishes to learn Middle English, historical phonology, English history and dialectology, and Indo-European linguistics. Then you can see the fossils and identify the species; but to everybody else it's just a bunch of rocks, and it's much simpler just to learn the pronunciations separately. –  John Lawler Jul 18 '12 at 17:16
    
Also, many current homonyms, like 'grate' and 'great' used to be pronounced more literally, but sound changes made them converge. Presumably (for some pairs) this can allow prediction. But of course, you can't do this for...what is it...heteronyms(?) where the spelling has diverged but not the pronunciation. –  Mitch Jul 18 '12 at 17:19
    
@JohnLawler I do want to learn all those things. We're supposed to be English language enthusiasts! –  nohat Jul 18 '12 at 18:39

How do we decide pronunciation for english words?

Pronunciation of many (probably all) English words has varied over time and from place to place.

As you have noted, spelling is not a foolproof guide to current pronunciation in any specific place. This is particularly true as spelling currently varies from place to place (e.g. color and colour).

We decide how to pronounce a written word in any of the following ways.

  • By hearing how people around us pronounce the word.
  • By looking in a dictionary that provides a guide to pronunciation.
  • By guessing based on how we most often pronounce other words with a similar spelling.

The result may be judged correct in some places at some times yet be judged incorrect elsewhere or elsewhen.

Why 'go' pronounce as 'go' and not 'goo' [as in 'do']?

The idea of standardised spelling is a relatively modern one. Shakespeare quite happily wrote his name using many different spellings. It was only with the advent of dictionaries that spelling gradually became frozen in whatever choice of letters the dictionary compilers selected. The early compilers do not appear to have been especially concerned about consistency between spelling and pronunciation. Noah Webster was a bit of an exception.

Words that today have similar spellings may have, in the past, had spellings that differed more widely and which reflected different pronunciations. Such words may have originated in different languages and have spellings adopted from those differing languages - which may have had different rules of pronunciation.

So the contradictions you identify might arise from an unfortunate convergence of spelling changes or from a difference in source language or even from an arbitrary change in pronunciation (e.g. in "the great vowel shift").

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Because the English language has co-opted words from many languages, and then corrupted/changed them over time we have a variety of pronunciation and spelling rules...which are not inflexible (compare the pronunciation of words by an Essex native with that of a Geordie, for example)

There are general guidelines which do broadly work - as long as you know or can guess the origin of a word. Did it come from a Latin root, or one of the Germanic languages, or Norse etc.?

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There are many, many more vowel sounds in English than the five traditional Latin vowels. So it is inevitable that the same letter will represent different sounds in different words.

At best, English spelling reflects Middle English pronunciation, not Modern English pronunciation. That means it was locked in before the Great Vowel Shift.

These two simple observations go most of the way towards explaining your mystery.

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