Questions about putative differences between spelling and pronunciation.

The connection between English spelling and pronunciation is one of the most complex mappings between written letters and spoken pronunciation of any language. The reasons for this are many, of which the Great Vowel Shift is probably the single largest contributing factor: English froze its spelling long before it stopped shifting its pronunciation — and in fact, has not stopped yet.

Other factors are many, including loanwords left in the original spelling, historical confusion, and regional differences. English spelling tells a complex tale, and its job is not merely that of pronunciation; it also gives hints to a word’s origin, history, and relationships with other words that would all be lost were a “phonemic” spelling ever somehow adopted.

But even that would be impossible. There are only 26 letters in the current English alphabet, but the number of phonemes in its repertoire is probably in the neighborhood of half again that. And even then you would not know the pronunciation of word, because each phoneme has numerous allophones, many of which are quite different in different parts of the world. No phonetic spelling would ever work, and no phonemic spelling would ever tell one how a word is actually pronounced where you happen to be. Plus we would lose a great deal, so that is never going to happen.

Yes, there are some rules, but there are more exceptions than there are rules. No one who has not seriously studied Middle English, French, Latin, Greek, and a good many other languages from which Modern English derives its words and spellings will be able to have a good grasp of just what the connection is between spelling and pronunciation for any given word, and this takes years of hard study that nearly no one ever pursues.

In the meanwhile, you should learn every new word just like every native speaker does: by listening to others speaking it. And if you chance upon a written word you have never seen before, you will have to look up how to say it in a good pronouncing dictionary (read: nearly nothing made in America, where sadly the International Phonetic Alphabet is virtually unknown).

The spelling of a word and the pronunciation of that word are two very different things in English, each with its own unique history. Nor is there necessarily only one of each: many words have several possible pronunciations; others have several possible spellings, and some have both.

You must therefore learn a word’s spelling and pronunciation separately. Trying to guess one from the other leads to two classes of error. Using the wrong pronunciation of a word based on its spelling is called a spelling pronunciation, while using the wrong spelling of a word based on its pronunciation is called eye dialect. The former is unintentional error, but the latter is occasionally used deliberately by experienced writers to represent the quirks of dialectal speech in writing.

Probably it is best to take the advice given by the Dutch (yes Dutch, not English) scholar Gerard Nolst Trenité in the last line of his famous 1922 poem, “The Chaos”:

Dearest creature in creation
Studying English pronunciation,
         I will teach you in my verse
         Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

I will keep you, Susy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
         Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
         Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

Pray, console your loving poet,
Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
         Just compare heart, hear and heard,
         Dies and diet, lord and word.

Sword and sward, retain and Britain
(Mind the latter how it’s written).
         Made has not the sound of bade,
         Saysaid, paypaid, laid but plaid.

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as vague and ague,
         But be careful how you speak,
         Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak,

Previous, precious, fuchsia, via
Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;
         Woven, oven, how and low,
         Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
         Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
         Missiles, similes, reviles.

Wholly, holly, signal, signing,
Same, examining, but mining,
         Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
         Solar, mica, war and far.

From “desire”: desirableadmirable from “admire”,
Lumber, plumber, bier, but brier,
         Topsham, brougham, renown, but known,
         Knowledge, done, lone, gone, none, tone,

One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel.
         Gertrude, German, wind and wind,
         Beau, kind, kindred, queue, mankind,

Tortoise, turquoise, chamois-leather,
Reading, Reading, heathen, heather.
         This phonetic labyrinth
         Gives moss, gross, brook, brooch, ninth, plinth.

Have you ever yet endeavoured
To pronounce revered and severed,
         Demon, lemon, ghoul, foul, soul,
         Peter, petrol and patrol?

Billet does not end like ballet;
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
         Blood and flood are not like food,
         Nor is mould like should and would.

Banquet is not nearly parquet,
Which exactly rhymes with khaki.
         Discount, viscount, load and broad,
         Toward, to forward, to reward,

Ricocheted and crocheting, croquet?
Right! Your pronunciation’s OK.
         Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
         Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Is your r correct in higher?
Keats asserts it rhymes Thalia.
         Hugh, but hug, and hood, but hoot,
         Buoyant, minute, but minute.

Say abscission with precision,
Now: position and transition;
         Would it tally with my rhyme
         If I mentioned paradigm?

Twopence, threepence, tease are easy,
But cease, crease, grease and greasy?
         Cornice, nice, valise, revise,
         Rabies, but lullabies.

Of such puzzling words as nauseous,
Rhyming well with cautious, tortious,
         You’ll envelop lists, I hope,
         In a linen envelope.

Would you like some more? You’ll have it!
Affidavit, David, davit.
         To abjure, to perjure. Sheik
         Does not sound like Czech but ache.

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.
         We say hallowed, but allowed,
         People, leopard, towed but vowed.

Mark the difference, moreover,
Between mover, plover, Dover.
         Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
         Chalice, but police and lice,

Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.
         Petal, penal, and canal,
         Wait, surmise, plait, promise, pal,

Suit, suite, ruin. Circuit, conduit
Rhyme with “shirk it” and “beyond it”,
         But it is not hard to tell
         Why it’s pall, mall, but Pall Mall.

Muscle, muscular, gaol, iron,
Timber, climber, bullion, lion,
         Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
         Senator, spectator, mayor,

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
Has the a of drachm and hammer.
         Pussy, hussy and possess,
         Desert, but desert, address.

Golf, wolf, countenance, lieutenants
Hoist in lieu of flags left pennants.
         Courier, courtier, tomb, bomb, comb,
         Cow, but Cowper, some and home.

“Solder, soldier! Blood is thicker”,
Quoth he, “than liqueur or liquor”,
         Making, it is sad but true,
         In bravado, much ado.

Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
         Pilot, pivot, gaunt, but aunt,
         Font, front, wont, want, grand and grant.

Arsenic, specific, scenic,
Relic, rhetoric, hygienic.
         Gooseberry, goose, and close, but close,
         Paradise, rise, rose, and dose.

Say inveigh, neigh, but inveigle,
Make the latter rhyme with eagle.
         Mind! Meandering but mean,
         Valentine and magazine.

And I bet you, dear, a penny,
You say mani-(fold) like many,
         Which is wrong. Say rapier, pier,
         Tier (one who ties), but tier.

Arch, archangel; pray, does erring
Rhyme with herring or with stirring?
         Prison, bison, treasure trove,
         Treason, hover, cover, cove,

Perseverance, severance. Ribald
Rhymes (but piebald doesn’t) with nibbled.
         Phaeton, paean, gnat, ghat, gnaw,
         Lien, psychic, shone, bone, pshaw.

Don’t be down, my own, but rough it,
And distinguish buffet, buffet;
         Brood, stood, roof, rook, school, wool, boon,
         Worcester, Boleyn, to impugn.

Say in sounds correct and sterling
Hearse, hear, hearken, year and yearling.
         Evil, devil, mezzotint,
         Mind the z! (A gentle hint.)

Now you need not pay attention
To such sounds as I don’t mention,
         Sounds like pores, pause, pours and paws,
         Rhyming with the pronoun yours;

Nor are proper names included,
Though I often heard, as you did,
         Funny rhymes to unicorn,
         Yes, you know them, Vaughan and Strachan.

No, my maiden, coy and comely,
I don’t want to speak of Cholmondeley.
         No. Yet Froude compared with proud
         Is no better than McLeod.

But mind trivial and vial,
Tripod, menial, denial,
         Troll and trolley, realm and ream,
         Schedule, mischief, schism, and scheme.

Argil, gill, Argyll, gill. Surely
May be made to rhyme with Raleigh,
         But you’re not supposed to say
         Piquet rhymes with sobriquet.

Had this invalid invalid
Worthless documents? How pallid,
         How uncouth he, couchant, looked,
         When for Portsmouth I had booked!

Zeus, Thebes, Thales, Aphrodite,
Paramour, enamoured, flighty,
         Episodes, antipodes,
         Acquiesce, and obsequies.

Please don’t monkey with the geyser,
Don’t peel ’taters with my razor,
         Rather say in accents pure:
         Nature, stature and mature.

Pious, impious, limb, climb, glumly,
Worsted, worsted, crumbly, dumbly,
         Conquer, conquest, vase, phase, fan,
         Wan, sedan and artisan.

The th will surely trouble you
More than r, ch or w.
         Say then these phonetic gems:
         Thomas, thyme, Theresa, Thames.

Thompson, Chatham, Waltham, Streatham,
There are more but I forget ’em
         Wait! I’ve got it: Anthony,
         Lighten your anxiety.

The archaic word albeit
Does not rhyme with eight—you see it;
         With and forthwith, one has voice,
         One has not, you make your choice.

Shoes, goes, does. Now first say: finger;
Then say: singer, ginger, linger.
         Real, zeal, mauve, gauze and gauge,
         Marriage, foliage, mirage, age,

Hero, heron, query, very,
Parry, tarry fury, bury,
         Dost, lost, post, and doth, cloth, loth,
         Job, Job, blossom, bosom, oath.

Faugh, oppugnant, keen oppugners,
Bowing, bowing, banjo-tuners
         Holm you know, but noes, canoes,
         Puisne, truism, use, to use?

Though the difference seems little,
We say actual, but victual,
         Seat, sweat, chaste, caste, Leigh, eight, height,
         Put, nut, granite, and unite.

Reefer does not rhyme with deafer,
Feoffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
         Dull, bull, Geoffrey, George, ate, late,
         Hint, pint, senate, but sedate.

Gaelic, Arabic, pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific;
         Tour, but our, dour, succour, four,
         Gas, alas, and Arkansas.

Say manoeuvre, yacht and vomit,
Next omit, which differs from it
         Bona fide, alibi
         Gyrate, dowry and awry.

Sea, idea, guinea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.
         Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean,
         Doctrine, turpentine, marine.

Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion with battalion,
         Rally with ally; yea, ye,
         Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, key, quay!

Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, receiver.
         Never guess — it is not safe,
         We say calves, valves, half, but Ralf.

Starry, granary, canary,
Crevice, but device, and eyrie,
         Face, but preface, then grimace,
         Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Bass, large, target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, oust, joust, and scour, but scourging;
         Ear, but earn; and ere and tear
         Do not rhyme with here but heir.

Mind the o of off and often
Which may be pronounced as orphan,
         With the sound of saw and sauce;
         Also soft, lost, cloth and cross.

Pudding, puddle, putting. Putting?
Yes: at golf it rhymes with shutting.
         Respite, spite, consent, resent.
         Liable, but Parliament.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew, Stephen,
         Monkey, donkey, clerk and jerk,
         Asp, grasp, wasp, demesne, cork, work.

A of valour, vapid vapour,
S of news (compare newspaper),
         G of gibbet, gibbon, gist,
         I of antichrist and grist,

Differ like diverse and divers,
Rivers, strivers, shivers, fivers.
         Once, but nonce, toll, doll, but roll,
         Polish, Polish, poll and poll.

Pronunciation — think of Psyche!—
Is a paling, stout and spiky.
         Won’t it make you lose your wits
         Writing groats and saying “grits”?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel
Strewn with stones like rowlock, gunwale,
         Islington, and Isle of Wight,
         Housewife, verdict and indict.

Don’t you think so, reader, rather,
Saying lather, bather, father?
         Finally, which rhymes with enough,
         Though, through, bough, cough, hough, sough, tough??

Hiccough has the sound of sup. . .
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!

Come the day that each and every one of those makes perfect sense to you, you shall have understood the connection between English spelling and English pronunciation — and not a moment before.