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There's a common pattern in English spelling where "short" vowels are pronounced as "long" vowels with the addition of a silent "e" at the end of the word.

E.g.

  • bit → bite
  • mat → mate
  • pet → pete

Is there a historical reason for this? Does it relate to The Great Vowel Shift?

Reference: Wikipedia — Vowel Length#Traditional Long and Short Vowels in English Orthography

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1  
Quite frankly I do not think the relationship is causal. 'bit' and 'bite' are two completely different words. One is pronounced with a short 'I' and one with a long. And it may be observed that the words with a long vowel sound end in 'e'. and it is because that happens to be true that we can have this 'rule of thumb' rather than because we have a rule the words must be pronounced that way. –  Jim Aug 17 '12 at 22:06

1 Answer 1

up vote 4 down vote accepted

It's not causal at all. Spelling does not cause pronunciation. The reverse can occasionally occur, but not often, and certainly not regularly.

Some facts:

  • English spelling has very little to do with Modern English pronunciation. Don't expect it to.

  • Modern English doesn't have distinct long and short vowels.

  • Middle English had distinct long and short vowels.

  • The Great Vowel Shift occured between Middle and Modern English.

  • The Great Vowel Shift applied only to Middle English long vowels.

  • The Great Vowel Shift changed Middle English long vowels to other vowels in Modern English.

  • English spelling was fixed before the Great Vowel Shift, and before final E's went silent.

The result is that the pronunciation of an English word cannot be determined from its spelling.

Sorry about that, but if you invest in a copy of Kenyon and Knott, you can look it up.

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3  
I have to take issue with your last point: it may be true in general, but the vast majority of words spelled CVC and CVCe have a perfectly predictable pronunciation that can be expressed in a tiny number of simple rules which are based on an explainable sequence of changes in English's history. I feel like when your answers to questions about the relationship of spelling to pronunciation are met with a blanket "there is no relationship between spelling and pronunciation" we do our readers a disservice. –  nohat Aug 17 '12 at 23:54
    
Link to that "tiny number of simple rules", then, instead of arguing about it here. –  John Lawler Aug 18 '12 at 2:11
    
@nohat- I think the point is that, as you've said, it's predictable. I.e., the "rules" were derived from observation of pronunciation rather that the rule prescribing pronunciation. –  Jim Aug 18 '12 at 6:02
2  
@JohnLawler no link is necessary. Each consonant letter has a default pronunciation. Each vowel letter has two default pronounciations, one "short", one "long". Words spelled "CVC" are pronounced using the default "short" vowel and the default consonant sounds, and words spelled "CVCe" are pronounced using the default "long" vowel and the default consonant sounds. It's so simple, they teach it to 5 year olds, and it works in reverse too. –  nohat Aug 18 '12 at 21:08
    
Except that it doesn't work very well for about half the words in the language that were borrowed with spellings already established. The long vowels are tense or diphthongs, and the short vowels are lax. That's cool. But that only works for high and mid vowels, and doesn't work at all for central vowels, like shwa, the most common. And the corresponding vowels aren't all that corresponding -- long E /i/ is high tense, but short E /ɛ/ is mid lax, for instance; however high tense /i/ actually contrasts most with high lax /ɪ/, and mid tense /e/ actually contrasts most with mid lax /ɛ/. –  John Lawler Aug 19 '12 at 4:16

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