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Why is 'Done' pronounced with a short ŏ vowel sound instead of the long ō vowel sound? Rules typically dictate when a word ends with an E, it changes the O to a long vowel sound. I've tried to find the etymology, but can't really find anything.

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  • Compare love, glove, mother, cover, Somerset - all with sonant consonants following. But I can only think of one other example where the sequence 'one' has the /ʌ/ vowel! Note however that son and ton have that vowel rather than the expected one; and gone and (for some people) scone have a different but also "short" (actually "lax") vowel. Because English spelling. – Colin Fine Mar 8 at 17:40
  • Done, gone, cone – Mitch Mar 11 at 18:40
  • The simplest answer: because English is weird and inconsistent :-) – Rory Alsop Mar 15 at 13:14
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Two words: vowels shifted.

In general, there are no perfect rules in English spelling. As this article notes, there are at least three ways to pronounce words ending in -one: bone, gone, done. Similar pairs or trios can be found for any common spelling scheme in Englishes across the globe.

In exploring the applicability of the "magic " or "silent e" rule, the Dictionary of the British English Spelling System (2015) says that the collocation of letters o.e (o, a consonant, and e) generates a long o or /əʊ/ (bone) 95% of the time (p. 453). Combined with similar rules for other vowels, that's a good enough rule for a spelling class. However, two major exceptions occur for this: having a short u or /ʌ/ (done, love) or having the final letter e be pronounced with a long e or /i/ (abalone).

Done (and some other o.e words using /ʌ/) is an exception because of changes in vowel pronunciation between Middle English and today. Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary explains it within its etymology of do, v.:

The Old English past participle shows the -n ending of the strong past participle and apparently the same stem vowel as in the present stem (usually as prefixed -dōn : see Forms 7α). The rare Old English past participle form -dēn (only attested in prefixed form: see Forms 7β) apparently shows an i-mutated form of ō (reflecting variation in the participial suffix). [Like does], modern standard English done ( Brit. /dʌn/ , U.S. /dən/ ) reflects a shortening of the reflex of Middle English long close ō.

The sound change is rather complex, but the first step is traced through step 2 of this chart modeling the Great Vowel Shift:

enter image description here

From here, the /u/ sound shifted further to /ʌ/ via /ʊ/. In common pronunciation terms, we went

  • from the o sound in bone (/o/)
  • to the oo sound in boon (/u/)
  • to the oo sound in foot (/ʊ/)
  • to the o sound in done. (/ʌ/)

And if you're American, we stop the last step at the unaccented vowel /ə/:

  • to the unaccented "uh" vowel in done (/ə/)

In other words, we moved where the vowel was pronounced in the mouth over time, just as we did for thumb and dumb, which had -ome or -oom forms in Middle English:

enter image description here

It's hard to say more because it's hard to explain why the Great Vowel Shift happened, but that's the track done followed.

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