I have noticed that certain, seemingly random, words tend to sometimes have "ie" or "ei" in them. For example, the word "Foreign" has an "e", followed by an "i", but the word "friend", has an "i", followed by an "e". Why is this, and does one structure have a particular etymology that is different from another?

  • List all words that contain ie morewords.com/contains/ie - List all words that contain ei, morewords.com/contains/ei. I think it just depend on etymology and relative orthography of each term. Apparently there is no specific meaning or derivation for ei or ie. Note that ie as a suffix is an alternative spelling of -y; now mostly of -y (3), but formerly of others. etymonline.com/…
    – user66974
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 5:56

3 Answers 3


Foreign is from Old French and entered the English language in the 1300s. At this time it was spelled (most of the time) 'ferren, foran, foreyne'. The spelling was altered in the 17th century most likely to match other French origin words like 'sovereign' and 'reign'.

Friend is from Old English 'freond'. Its pronunciation was probably influenced a lot by the Old Norse presence in the East in the 9th century when a lot of sounds were broadened (ON friend 'frændi').

If you listen carefully, foreign and friend don't have the same 'e' when they are pronounced. The first one is lower and closer to a schwa. The second one is broader and closer to the 'e' in 'bed, 'met', or 'bled' (which are all from Old English).

Although not 100% consistent, the spelling of words can be understood from which language and what time the words entered the English language and whether or not they were revised at some point (such as Samuel Johnson), who was probably responsible for the current spelling of 'foreign'.

Most words with the short 'ie' variation come from Old English (thief, lief). Words with the long 'ie' sound (grieve). Note also that 'sieve', which has a short sound when its pronounced, comes from Old English.

Most words with the 'ei' spelling are a result of 17th century revisions to try and distinguish between OE and OF origin words. But Johnson and contemporaries missed quite a few so it's really all over the place.

  • 1
    Erm … chief, thief, lief, grieve all have the same, long /iː/. None of them has a short vowel like sieve or friend or mischief or kerchief. Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 10:35
  • For a start you could look up the effect of certain consonants on vowel duration. IPA is a tricky thing because it doesn't account for a lot of things and you can't just go and throw it around like that. Later I might edit my post to include this information, but I didn't think it was that relevant. I made it obvious I was talking about how pronunciation evolves historically in the context of other languages. Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 11:41
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    I am aware that vowels are slightly longer before voiced consonants, but that is an entirely automatic and non-phonemic surface feature. The words you mention as having “the short ie variation” here have both phonemically and phonetically long (or tense, if you prefer) vowels. The vowel in grief is (phonemically) the same as the one in grieve. And it's not true that IPA “doesn't account for a lot of things”: it's specifically designed to be able to account for basically everything. How it is used, and what level of detail is deemed relevant in its usage, is a different matter. Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 11:52

Years (and years) ago everbody learnt the mnemonic rhyme

'i' before'e', except after 'c';
unless its 'e:' like beige, or sleigh.

That was helpful to those of us who couldn't detect 'the height of a beige ceiling.'

  • Of course it was never meant to cover diaeresis, like being and raciest; but still that does leave rather more that1600 false positives. Ah well.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 16:17
  • 1
    Various more or less useless versions of this have been (and are still) taught in schools all over the world. The only really useful version is only rarely taught, though, because it doesn’t rhyme: i before e, except after c is the basic rule when you’re deciding between ⟨ie⟩ and ⟨ei⟩ to represent /iː/ (the ‘long e’ sound as in week) in a stressed syllable, and only then. That’s the intended context and limitation of the rule, and it has a much, much higher success rate in that formulation—there are only a handful of exceptions, versus hundreds of words that do as they’re supposed to. Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 21:58

"Foreign" has superfluous letters, i and g, in "friend" the letter i is superfluous. There is no system in the English orthography. It is a compromise between two aims: to indicate the pronunciation and to give an idea about the historical origin of the word.

So in most cases etymonline (Eol), an online dictionary of etymologie, often gives an idea about the particular spelling of a word.

foreign: Eol gives Old French forain as immediate source. Later the spelling was changed. Eol: perhaps influence of reign.


friend: as Eol shows most cognates, related words in neighbouring languages, have the letter i.


  • 2
    It is called Online Etymology Dictionary which can be abbreviated as OED, (unfortunately it is the same acronym as the Oxford English Dictionary) or Etymonline [dictionary], so possibly ED. And I have seen users call it "ety", but that is rare. However, I don't think I have ever seen it abbreviated as Eol.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 15:04
  • I called it etymonline because you can google with etymonline..Eol is my abbreviation when I have to write the word etymonline more than two times.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 16:30
  • English orthography may have these two things as aims, but if so it misses the mark fairly often. The "g" in foreign doesn't indicate the pronunciation or give any useful information about the etymology.
    – herisson
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 16:57
  • See etymonline, what is said about the insertion of g.
    – rogermue
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 19:28

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