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Why is sew (/səʊ/ or /sō/) pronounced similar to so rather than to few or sue?

Looking at its etymology,

Old English siwian "to stitch," earlier siowian, from Proto-Germanic *siwjanan (cf. Old Norse syja, Swedish sy, Old High German siuwan, Gothic siujan "to sew"), from PIE root *syu- "to bind, sew" (cf. Sanskrit sivyati "sews," sutram "thread, string;" Greek hymen "thin skin, membrane," hymnos "song;" Latin suere "to sew, sew together;" Old Church Slavonic sijo "to sew," sivu "seam;" Lettish siuviu, siuti "to sew," siuvikis "tailor;" Russian svec "tailor"). Related: Sewed; sewing. Sewing machine is attested from 1847.

siowian appears to be the only word which could have been pronounced with a /səʊ/. But the later spelling of siwian sounds unlikely to have been pronounced so.

Also, are there other similarly spelt words which have the same irregularity in pronunciation?

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  • 1
    You missed one. So, sew, and also sow are all perfect homophones of one another, all being pronounced [soʊ]. But sewer does not sound like sower.
    – tchrist
    Mar 17, 2013 at 16:31
  • 1
    @tchrist While they can be near-perfect homophones, the female pig rhymes with how. Mar 17, 2013 at 16:44
  • 1
    Er, so what? I wasn’t talking about female pigs. One sows seeds; one does not sew them. Seeds are sown; threads are sewn.
    – tchrist
    Mar 17, 2013 at 16:50
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    But sew itself has multiple pronunciations, since a cow that’s gone sew (=dry) is pronounced [sjuː].
    – tchrist
    Mar 17, 2013 at 17:00
  • 3
    @tchrist: A sewer with thread and a sower with seeds are certainly homophones to me. Mar 17, 2013 at 18:33

2 Answers 2

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The OED’s etymology entry notes that it is abnormal, but does not say how this came to be.

Etymology: Com. Teut. and Indogermanic: OE. siwan, siowan (usually, with change of conjugation, siwian, siowian, seowian) = OFris. sîa (mod.Fris. dial. siije), OHG. siuwen, ONor. sýja (Sw. sy, Da. sye), Goth. siujan :— OTeut. *siwjan, cogn. w. the synonymous L. su-ĕre, Gr. (κασ-)σύειν, Lett. schuju, OSl. šiti (Russ. shitp., shivatp.), Skr. siv (3 sing. pres. sīvyati, pa. pple. syūtá; derivatives are syū fem., needle or thread, syūman suture).

The root (for which Hirt suggests a primary form *seyewa-) appears in the words above quoted as *syū- : *sīw. Another ablaut-grade, *syou-, is found in OTeut. *saumo- seam sb. The pronunciation [səʊ] is abnormal (cf. strow, var. of strew, repr. OE. streowian); the written forms show that it goes back at least to the 14th c. In the 17th c. sew sometimes rhymes with clue, new; the mod.Sc. pronunciation is [ʃu].

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  • Thank you. Any idea what mod.Sc. stands for? Scottish? Mar 17, 2013 at 16:49
  • 2
    @coleopterist Aye.
    – tchrist
    Mar 17, 2013 at 16:50
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    The word show also used to be pronounced shew, and has an archaic spelling "shew". So both of these words underwent the same change in pronunciation, but only "shew" changed its spelling. Mar 17, 2013 at 17:26
  • @Peter: My English teacher (a long time ago!) always pronounced it shew. None of us pupils were ever tempted to copy him, though. Mar 17, 2013 at 18:50
  • 1
    @PeterShor- Is that where Ed Sullivan got it?
    – Jim
    Mar 17, 2013 at 18:57
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Although I can't explain why the shift occurred, I found an interesting item in an 1839 Vermont newspaper that suggests that at that time and in that place some cultivated (or would-be cultivated) English speakers may have viewed the "so" pronunciation of sew as a vulgarism.

From "Vulgarisms" in the [Brattleboro] Vermont Phoenix (January 18, 1839):

The following list of unpardonable vulgarisms, were published in a New Hampshire paper, half a century ago. It was prepared for the use of a school, and it is said, proved highly beneficial.

These inaccuracies of pronunciation are not confined to New Hampshire, but exist now, as well as formerly, in different parts of New England. Many might be added to the list—and it should be the one of the most important duties of an instructor of youth, to do away with these barbarous provincialisms:

...

Shot or Shet for Shut.

Shear for Share.

So for Sew.

Sot for Sat or Set.

Sor for Saw.

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives only one pronunciation for sew—the unpardonably vulgar 'sō—as indeed does every other Webster's Collegiate edition, going back to the first edition (1898). This would seem to suggest that the correct pronunciation of sew, according to the Vermont Phoenix, effectively died out rather quickly in the United States, between 1839 and 1898.

Further research on this point, however, makes the newspaper item even more dubious. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) begins its entry for sew as follows:

SEW, v. t. pronounced so, and better written soe. {Sax[on] siwian, suwian ; Goth[ic] siuyan ; Sw[edish] sy ; Dan[ish] syer ; L[atin] suo.} This is probably a contracted word, and if its elements are Sb or Sf, it coincides with Eth[iopic] ~~~ shafai, to sew ; and the Ar[abic] has ~~~ an awl. ... The Hindoo has siwawa, and the Gipsey siwena. But the elements are not obvious.}

Webster was a native of Connecticut and would certainly have been aware of a different—and preferred—pronunciation of sew among cultivated New Englanders if it existed. Since he indicates no such awareness, I think the likelier explanation is that the objection to "So for Sew" in the 1839 Vermont newspaper isn't objection to pronunciation at all, but to phonetic spelling. If this is the case, though, it is striking that the newspaper views so as a barbarous provincialism at the same time that Webster endorses soe as a "better" way to spell sew.

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