Perhaps this is more of a Linguistics question, so I apologize if this is not posted in the right place.

Why is it that these words in English sound so different?

  1. earth   = /ɜrθ/     “urth”
  2. hearth = /hɑrθ/   “harth”
  3. heart   = /hɑrt/    “hart”
  4. hear    = /hir/      “heer”
  5. ear      = /ir/        “eer”
  6. heath   = /hiθ/     “heeth”

Looking at the first two examples, the only difference is the preceding h, which makes me think that’s the reason for the change. The second and third together sound the same, despite the removal of the trailing h, which supports that — for now. Then the last three examples sound still different from those already mentioned; however, the differences in spelling are not consistent.

My assumption is that there is some linguistic property of both the h and the rt, which I will describe like this:

  • A trailing rt (not simply r or t) will have an effect — let’s call it “Effect A” — on the sound of ea.
  • A leading h will have an effect — let’s call it “Effect B” — on the sound of ear, but only if already modified by Effect A.

If this is more or less correct, what are these two Effects A and B, and what are they called? And if this is not more or less correct, please tell me what is.

An alternative thought is that this really has nothing to do with phonology and instead more to do with orthography, and that the difference is just because someone at some point decided to transcribe a given word in one particular way instead of in some other way, such as through vs. threw (or even the non-standard thru).

Any evidence to support either possibility, or supporting some alternative I haven’t thought of here, would be appreciated.

  • 4
    If you don't know IPA, how in the world do you expect to discuss pronunciation online in writing? None of your hypotheses are even remotely correct, and can't be corrected here. – John Lawler Jul 13 '12 at 21:03
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    @JohnLawler I didn't say I don't know IPA, I said I was rusty. I can generally understand how to interpret it when I see it, but not so much recalling what to use (and how to type it). Since this is a site for English, I had assumed that there would be native speaker who would be able to well enough understand my transcription. I understand my hypotheses may be incorrect, bu then, that's why I'm here, isn't it? – Gaffi Jul 13 '12 at 21:11
  • Closely related: Why is “great” pronounced as “grate”, but spelled with “ea”? In fact looking at the answer there this is a possible dupe. – RegDwigнt Jul 13 '12 at 21:21
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    And for the record, @JohnLawler, Reg's linked question uses no IPA transcription and was accepted just fine without the chiding, thanks. – Gaffi Jul 13 '12 at 21:26
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    @JohnLawler, Gaffi: IPA isn't that hard to edit in. – Daniel Jul 13 '12 at 21:43

All these words were spoken before they were written, so I do not think that the spelling affects the pronunciation. It probably has more to do with the pronunciation of the words from which they evolved. For example, "earth" is derived from words which did not contain the letter "a" when written down. In German, the word is "Erde". "Hearth" is etymologically related to "carbon" (burning etc), which might explain why the "ea" is pronounced differently in that word.

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  • 1
    English writing has nothing to do with pronunciation. Or perhaps, about as much as Chinese writing has to do with Chinese pronunciation. – John Lawler Jul 13 '12 at 20:59
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    All these words have different histories, and the fact that they use some of the same letters in English is irrelevant. The history is the history of their pronunciation. Then somebody wrote each of them down -- at a different time for each one. Then their pronunciation kept changing anyway because most people were illiterate. And still are. – John Lawler Jul 13 '12 at 21:01
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    @JohnLawler I hate to make this too much of a converstaion, but you've stated that my hypotheses are wrong, yet you essentially agree with my final thought in this last comment of yours... An alternative thought is that this really has nothing to do with phonology and more instead with orthography, and that the difference is just because someone decided at some point to transcribe a word a particular way over another. So, what gives? – Gaffi Jul 13 '12 at 21:14
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    Because it has everything to do with phonology -- phonology is the grammar of pronunciation. Spelling is just irrelevant, and even thinking about spelling when talking about pronunciation is bound to cause more trouble than it's worth. And if one doesn't know IPA, one can't discuss phonology. At least not online. – John Lawler Jul 14 '12 at 0:05
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    Geoffrey Pullum has an instructive and entertaining Language Log post on all of this here: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2762 – Barrie England Jul 14 '12 at 6:06

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