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I know a word in another language which appears at first to have a highly irregular spelling that does not match the pronunciation. However, further examination suggests that the spoken and written forms have different - and unrelated - etymologies. Are there any examples of this in English?

The example in another language is the Scots Gaelic word leugh /lʲeːv/ which means "read". Dwelly. Even without a knowledge of Gaelic orthography it can be appreciated that /v/ is a strange rendition of gh. The expected form would be /lʲeəɣ/. Leugh is clearly similar to the Latin lego ("read") from which it is assumed to derive. This fits with the introduction of reading by Latin-speaking monks. So where does the /v/ come from? It was inevitable that the monks introduced reading and books at the same time. The Latin for "book" is liber and the French livre demonstrates that b can change to v /v/. The corresponding word in Gaelic is leabhar /lʲevər/ (except that /v/ and /w/ are interchangeable, as in many languages). It seems that /lʲeːv/ is simply the verb backformed from /lʲevər/, as if /lʲevər/ "book" is simply the thing you use to /lʲeːv/ "read".

In short, the anomaly has arisen because of the close semantic link between reading and books, and the co-incidental similarity of the words, leading to confusion.

  • It's certainly plausible that a certain English word might have, eg, a French-based pronunciation and a German-based spelling. Nothing remarkable, given the way English has stolen from every other language on the planet. – Hot Licks Mar 30 at 23:04
  • @HotLicks I guess there are lots of examples like that. I presume you are talking about French and German cognates of the same word, where the Anglo-Saxon population might not have updated their pronunciation when the Normans introduced their spellings for words they recognized as Norman French. Examples of that would be interesting as I do not actually know of any specific examples. But I was really thinking of examples where the forms come from words that are not cognate. So examples of either type would be appreciated. – David Robinson Mar 30 at 23:36
  • I am distracted by the absence of your foreign language example. Usually written forms are used for etymological study if it's a language with a long history of writing. – jlovegren Mar 31 at 3:03
  • Yes, @jlovegren, you are right. But they only use written forms because it is usually all they have. The usual assumption amongst linguists is that it is the spoken form which is the primary form, in which change occurs and that the written form is just a copy. I accept that this was the case, but I am sure it became less so when literacy became widespread. And now that younger people seem to have given up talking and text instead, I am hearing more and more forms that suggest the spoken form is beginning to copy the written form. And by the way, I never said it was a foreign language! – David Robinson Mar 31 at 22:39
  • @DavidRobinson you said "another language." Just show us the example and you'll get better answers. – jlovegren Apr 4 at 0:25
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This isn't quite what you're looking for, but it's close.

The word island comes to us from the old English word iegland, which became yland in Middle English. Note that there is no "s" in it. The "s" was added by mistake.

The "s" in the spelling comes from confusion with the unrelated word isle. This was ile in Middle English, from Old French ile, from Latin insula. This word had an "s" added in the 16th century because there had been one in Latin.

  • That is an interesting example. It matches the example I was thinking of in that the words have some morphological similarity which appears to have led to confusion. But it contrasts because the words were synonyms, whereas my example they have clearly different meanings which are used in the same context. – David Robinson Mar 31 at 0:00
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It looks like a sound change occurs in the language that affects only a single word, due to the influence of some other word or words. You'll see this type of phenomenon referred to as "folk etymology," "contamination," or "analogical change" in linguistics literature.

The extra thing that makes the OP's example special is the fact that the written form preserves the older pronunciation. But you can find many other examples if you don't insist on this quirk. One I came across is the Old French word Octembre (derived from Latin October, under influence of September and November).

  • Yes, that could be. As with many languages, we have limited evidence of how it was pronounced, or what the peasants spoke in Scotland. It was written in classical Old Irish, but as today in Scotland, where most writing and most high-register speech is English, but many people speak something incomprehensible in England, so Old Irish, as recorded in the texts, may have been a foreign tongue to the average speaker of Scots Gaelic. Perhaps they used the verb "to book" to describe a monk staring a book and getting words from it, and only learn the word leugh when they themselves learnt to read. – David Robinson Apr 4 at 14:13

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