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?

  • 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 '13 at 16:31
  • @tchrist While they can be near-perfect homophones, the female pig rhymes with how. – coleopterist Mar 17 '13 at 16:44
  • 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 '13 at 16:50
  • 1
    But sew itself has multiple pronunciations, since a cow that’s gone sew (=dry) is pronounced [sjuː]. – tchrist Mar 17 '13 at 17:00
  • 2
    @tchrist: A sewer with thread and a sower with seeds are certainly homophones to me. – FumbleFingers Mar 17 '13 at 18:33

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].

  • Thank you. Any idea what mod.Sc. stands for? Scottish? – coleopterist Mar 17 '13 at 16:49
  • 2
    @coleopterist Aye. – tchrist Mar 17 '13 at 16:50
  • 6
    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. – Peter Shor Mar 17 '13 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. – FumbleFingers Mar 17 '13 at 18:50
  • 1
    @PeterShor- Is that where Ed Sullivan got it? – Jim Mar 17 '13 at 18:57

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.