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The words say, pay, lay are phonemically /seɪ/, /peɪ/ and /leɪ/ respectively (with the diphthong /eɪ/). Their past and past participles are respectively: /sɛd/ (or /sed/), /peɪd/ and /leɪd/. The past/past participle (and present simple singular) of "said" contains a vowel instead of the expected diphthong /eɪ/.

Say and lay are both Old English words while pay is from Old French through Middle English. "Say" and "lay" belonged to the same verb class in Old English, if I understand it correctly. That's why their past/past participle are spelled the same.

I didn't have much luck tracing their roots and finding what happened that caused "said" to have the vowel /ɛ/ instead of the diphthong /eɪ/.

So why does "said" have a vowel and not a diphthong?

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    Probably because its pronunciation was influenced by its Old English original term : Past tense said developed from Old English segde. etymonline.com/word/… – user 66974 Apr 24 at 11:10
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    Probably because it's usually used in weakly stressed positions. – Decapitated Soul Apr 24 at 13:33
  • Unquestionably because English orthography is psychotic. – Dan Bron Apr 25 at 9:32
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    English spelling was codified, largely by printers, somewhere between 1600 and 1750. Around 1600, when Shakespeare wrote, in his poetry he rhymed said with allay'd (Sonnet 66), with stay'd (Venus and Adonis), and with afraid (A Lover's Complaint). – Peter Shor Apr 25 at 18:56

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