Of all the ways I could come up with to pronounce the word "busy", "bizzy" would be very low on my list. At least "bussy" or "boosy". Why "bizzy"?

  • How else would you pronounce it? Seems natural to me. OTOH, compare with "bury", pronounced "berry". – pavium Jun 29 '11 at 2:32
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    English is not a mathematical language. Ever heard why "ghoti" is pronounced "fish"? – JohnK Jun 29 '11 at 3:49
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    @pavium: I'm not one of the sort, but some pronounce bury as in Cadbury, not like berry. Then again, many pronounce the berry in blueberry and strawberry the same as the bury in Cadbury. – Jon Purdy Jun 29 '11 at 5:29
  • @JonPurdy How one pronounces all the examples you sited will depend on which side of the Atlantic you happen to reside. – Sam Feb 22 '12 at 3:37
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    @JohnK ... Holy crap! A quick google search reveals that ghoti IS pronounced "fish" or as a silent word! WTF English! – Coomie Feb 22 '12 at 6:15

The problem isn't so much that "busy" is pronounced "bizzy", but that "bizzy" is still spelled "busy". An awful lot of English spelling is based on a language that would sound very foreign to most English speakers today -- English as it was before the Great Vowel Shift (and at a point when we still had velar fricatives, which is why there are words spelled with "gh"). The language has undergone major changes in pronunciation, while the spelling has merely been tidied up a bit so that words are spelled the same way every time. (Mostly.)

If you really think about it, almost none of English spelling makes any sense with regard to vowels. It used to, at least to the same extent that alphabetic writing makes sense in any language. Your example "bussy" would have been pronounced roughly like the Modern English word "boozey", but with a doubled/stressed "s"; "boosy" would have had a long "o" (both in the modern schoolroom sense that "the vowel says its name", and in the sense of duration).

What happened during the Great Vowel Shift was systematic. That's why we're able to derive spelling rules dealing with things like "silent Es" and so forth -- the "real" orthography applies to a differently-pronounced language that has changed in a particular way, so if we know how it has changed, we know how to apply the rules of the old language to the new one. But there are also differences that are dialectical -- the accepted spelling of some words reflects a dialect of Middle or Early Modern English that may have won the war, but it lost some of the battles. If "busy" is spelled "busy" today, it's probably because it was pronounced that way in the London dialect at one time. Unfortunately, written documents are the only recordings we have of the pronunciation, so we can never know exactly how it was pronounced, but we do know that there was at least some method to the madness back then.

As Ham and Bacon points out, "busy" is an old word. The problem with giving Old English roots (in this case, "bisig"), though, is that Old English was itself a bundle of dialects. Generally, what's reflected in etymologies is a "majority rules" case. That does not imply that the Old English dialect that gave rise to the Middle English dialect that made "busy" (or "busie") seem like a good idea did not also use a "u" or "y" (high front rounded) sound in their version of the word.

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  • It originally (in Old West Germanic) only had -i- as a vowel, as follows from all other source languages. Maybe, when -y- also became pronounced as -i-, some confusion arose as to the original vowel, and "bysig" also become common (it does occur in OE) as a spelling, which might help to explain the "busy" spelling... – Henno Brandsma Jun 29 '11 at 9:32

The spelling of busy (and bury) is the result of dialect mixture. Different Middle English varieties had different outcomes of Old English short /y/. In the West Midlands variety that underlies the standard, it became short /u/ as in blush; in Kent, short /e/ as in merry (for people who pronounce it with the same vowel as in met, anyhow); in the East Midlands, short /i/ as in bridge: all three of these words had short /y/ in Old English (blyscan, myrige, brycge). Busy is a West Midlands spelling for an East Midlands pronunciation; bury is likewise a West Midlands spelling, but for a Kentish pronunciation.

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    Great explanation! I think you might reach more people if you set short <e> as in met (presuming that’s what you meant, IPA /ɛ/), as there are a whole lot of marry/merry/Mary mergers in the world whom this might otherwise confuse. – tchrist Feb 22 '12 at 1:37
  • You're right, but <i>met</i> doesn't have an OE ancestor with <i>y</i>. But I added a parenthetical explanation. – John Cowan Jul 23 '14 at 22:02
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    I like your answer. When I looked up, even OED did not give a clear answer. It only says: "The ME. typical form was bisi, bisy, bysy: the form busi (with ü = OE. y) occurs in the later text of Layamon, but otherwise the u form is not found before the 15th c.: its prevalence in modern spelling, while the pronunciation is with i, as in ME., is difficult to account for." – Yongwei Wu Apr 24 '16 at 10:43

I reckon its in its etymology. It originally came from the Dutch word bezig:

O.E. bisig "careful, anxious, busy, occupied," cognate with O.Du. bezich,

The root was actually spelt with a 'z', and it was changed to 's' later. This can also be seen in the word "organisation":

1375–1425; late Middle English organizacion < Medieval Latin organizātiōn

Note that its root, Latin, was spelt with a 'z'.

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    Note that "cognate" does not imply "comes from". In fact it's a common West-Germanic word, which occurs natively in Dutch, Low German, Frisian and English. So it seems to be a coastal word. Old English also had "bysig", and the Middle Dutch spelling was "besech" (modern Dutch "bezig"). Your source alo indicates that the change in spelling (15c) has an "unclear reason". – Henno Brandsma Jun 29 '11 at 9:26

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