The English alphabet has a common pronunciation. For example, the letter b is pronounced like the word bee, the letter c like the word see, and the letter i like the word aye.
Is there a formal spelling for the letter names?
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Formal yes, universal no. Here's one:
We have included each letter with its name and plural below the list of examples. The United States uses zee, while other countries use zed.A a aes B bee bees C cee cees D dee dees E e ees F ef (verbal eff) efs (effs) G gee gees H aitch aitches I i ies J jay jays K kay kays L el or ell els or ells M em ems N en ens O o oes P pee pees Q cue cues R ar ars S ess (es as prefix) esses T tee tees U u ues V vee vees W double-u double-ues X ex exes Y wy or wye wyes Z zee or zed zees or zeds
Letter names Each letter of the English alphabet can be spelled as itself (e.g., a DJ or T-shirt) or it can be spelled out using its name (e.g., a deejay or tee-shirt). Vowels still stand for themselves, and while very rare, the plural of vowels are made by adding -es. In the capitalized form the plurals are made by either -s or -‘s (e.g., L’s or As).
Spelling letters usually occurs in compound names or derivatives. These spellings are different than the phonetic alphabet used to distinguish similar sounding letters while speaking.
In comments, John Lawler first wrote:
No, not really. English spelling is so awful at recording pronunciation that there are too many ways to represent the pronounced letter names, and no ways that are unambiguous. So you see ee, ie, e, i, for instance for
E, o, oh, ow, ou for
O, etc. Use phonemic symbols if you need accurate rendition of English sounds.
And then added:
I always want to pronounce
Was /'wəbəlyu/. It's particularly awful in abbreviations like the one for Western Washington University here in Bellingham. Western Washington University contains 10 syllables, but Double-U Double-U U contains 7; not much saving there; I tend to pronounce it as /'wuwu/.
In a comment, Brian Donovan wrote:
Usual orthography for the names of the letters is just to write the letter itself, capitalized and/or italicized. (These forms are also just about the only ones that really need a greengrocer's apostrophe, since "straight As" does not immediately suggest to the reader a perfect academic record.) One exception, particularly well established, is "aitch" for H.
I'd like to submit "double-double-u u" for WWU. I'd also like to submit that saying that "English is so awful at recording pronunciation" is like saying "an ostrich is so awful at being a horse," to paraphrase Venezky. English orthography didn't evolve as a phonetic transcription device; no orthography did. That's not its purpose. Symbols have names, and those names are spelled: seven, asterisk, ampersand, hyphen, edh, ash, schwa. Letter are no different. There is variation in letter names (e.g. zee and zed, aitch and haitch), and variations in spelling them, but that isn't because the English ostrich really meant to be an IPA horse.