Numerous English words contain a vowel with an unexpected spelling. Listed and categorised, these may become more memorable
THE UNRELIABILITY OF ENGLISH SPELLING
English spelling is famous for not accurately representing pronunciation (the reasons are interestingly set out in a recent book by David Crystal − click here for a review by the Guardian newspaper). There are various types of inaccurate spelling, such as silent consonants (see 155. Silent Consonants), silent syllables (as in comfortable, temperature and parliament), consonants doubled for historical rather than pronunciation reasons (see 45. Latin Clues to English Spelling), and ambiguous combinations (like “ough” in though, thought and through, and “ch”, which is different in chair and choir − see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary).
Illogical vowel spellings are another major kind of spelling unreliability. They may be defined as vowel letters which are not pronounced as in most other words. The pronunciation of the letter “a”, for example, is normally expected to be as in cap or cape or carp (or as /Ə/ when unstressed – see 125. Stress and Emphasis), but in the word village it is illogical because it must be pronounced like the letter “i” (/vɪlɪʤ/), and in can’t it must begin like carp, despite a spelling suggesting it should begin like cap (see 144. Words that are Often Heard Wrongly). The unexpected pronunciations of some vowels resemble the unexpected grammatical needs of some words (see 10. Words with Unexpected Grammar).
There are very few easy clues to the pronunciation of illogical vowels. It can occasionally help if you know a language where one originated (see 90. The Greek Impact on English Vocabulary and 135. French Influences on English Vocabulary). Usually the pronunciations just have to be discovered and memorised (for some suggestions regarding the former, see 91. Pronunciation in Reading Aloud). The aim of the present post is to provide a reference list of as many illogical vowel spellings as possible.
VOWEL LETTERS VERSUS VOWEL SOUNDS
Before looking at the list, however, I want to highlight the important distinction between vowel letters and vowel sounds. Most people, when asked what a vowel is, will list the five main English vowel letters: a, e, i, o and u. If asked what sounds these represent, they will fairly easily recognise that each letter represents at least two different sounds: “short”, as in cap, and “long”, as in cape (the presence or absence of a final “e” making the difference), so that ten English vowel sounds can be quickly named. However, the actual total of English vowel sounds is around 21, more than in many languages.
When there are only five vowel letters to express so many sounds, it is no wonder that English spelling is so tricky. Adding an “e” to the end of words is one of various clever ways that English has of getting around this spelling problem. Other devices are combining two vowel letters together (ea, ei, ie, oi, ou, etc), and putting a particular consonant after a vowel: “r” as in words like harp and firm, “w” as in raw, and “y” as in pay and boy.
In each of the lists that follow, all of the words have the same vowel sound, but none of them spells this sound in the expected way. The vowel in question is shown at the start of the list by means of both a phonetic symbol and a word with normal spelling. This will hopefully highlight the irregularity of the spellings in the list so that they can be memorised more easily. As already mentioned, the lists are not complete. This means that I would be grateful for any additions that readers can suggest.
LIST OF ILLOGICALLY-SPELLED VOWELS
(a) Illogical Spellings of /e/ said as in “bed”
said (an especial problem!), says, ate, any, head, lead (noun), read (past tense verb), thread, (in)stead, dread, bread, breadth, meadow, measure, jealous, cleanse, weapon, breath, leaven, heaven, heather, leather, feather, weather, realm, meant, bury, lieutenant (= lef-), leopard, jeopardy, Geoffrey, leisure, heifer, friend.
(b) Illogical Spellings of /ı/ said as in “sit”
I am not counting as illogical the very common use of “e” to spell /ı/ at the start of many words, like prefer, as well as in the -est ending and in some instances of –es and -ed, e.g. rushes and reported (see 86. The Pronunciation of “e” and “i”). The more illogical spellings are:
village (and, in general, most words ending “-age”, e.g. advantage, average, cabbage, damage, garage [British English], message, passage), knowledge, women (both vowels), minute (noun), busy, business, captain, forfeit, biscuit, circuit, guilt, guitar, sovereign, challenge, purchase, solace, determine, urine, doctrine, intestine, discipline, hypocrite, promise, abyss, analytic, pyramid, sieve, anemone, breeches.
(c) Illogical Spellings of /ʌ/ said as in “cup”
The letter “o” so frequently has this sound that it is almost an ambiguous vowel rather than an illogical one. Examples are ton, won, son, front, stomach, other, oven, cover, monk, monkey (but not donkey!), money, monetary, month, mother, among, (ac)company (but not companion!), accomplish, accomplice, covenant, come, some, comfort(able), compass, London, onion, worry, wonder(ful), constable, sponge, love, dove, done, does, sloven(ly). Other notable words are southern, flourish, touch, double, trouble, cucumber (not strictly illogical, but confusing because the first “cu-“ is pronounced differently), rough, tough, slough, enough, hiccough, blood, flood.
(d) Illogical Spellings of /ɒ/ said as in “boss”
because, laural, gone, scone, trough, cough, shoulder, mould, knowledge, yacht, blancmange, exalt, halt, halter, salt(y), what, wad, was, wallet, wand, wander, want, wanton, warrior, wash, watch, warrant, swan, swap, swat, quaff, quality, quantity, qualify, quantify, quandary, quash, quarrel, squander, squash, squat, squalid, fiancé.
(e) Illogical Spellings of /eə/ said as in “care” or “hair”
pear, bear, tear, wear, vary, variable, parents, area, malaria, scarce, their, there, where, heir (silent “h”), mayor, prayer.
(f) Illogical Spellings of /ɔ:/ said as in “born” or “lawn” or “roar” or “taut”
August, automatic (“au” is not so illogical, but in these words it is often mispronounced to sound like “ow” in now), all (and most other -all words like ball, call, small – but not shall), alter, altar, alternative, almighty, almost, almanac, although, walk, stalk, talk, war, ward, warm, warn, wart, towards, warble, swarm, water, wharf, quart, quarter, four, pour, your, court, mourn, tournament, door, poor, floor, boor, caught, taught, naught(y), haughty, daughter, distraught, ought, thought, fought.
(g) Illogical Spellings of /ɑ:/ said as in “harm”
are, ask, cask, mask, task, clasp, grasp, clerk, heart, can’t, chant, slant, grant, father, lather, rather, example, half, alms, balm(y), calm, palm, qualm, psalm, aunt, laugh(ter), castle, glass, massage, sabotage, garage (American English), mirage, moustache, repertoir, reservoir, memoire,
(h) Illogical Spellings of /u:/ said as in “tooth” or “blue” or “blew”
do, to, who(m), shoe, manoeuvre, tomb, womb, move, prove, lose, wound (= injure), lieu , fruit, suit(able), juice, sluice, bruise, cruise.
(i) Illogical Spellings of /eɪ/ said as in “hate” or “rain” or “may”
alien, ache, they, whey, vein, great, break, steak, eight, weigh, neigh, deign, feign, reign, fete, bidet, cachet, ricochet, ballet, bouquet, chalet, tourniquet, fiance(e), negligee, gauge, bass, plague, vague.
(j) Illogical Spellings of /i:/ said as in “sees” or “eat” or “these” or “piece”
thesis, bidet, criteria, bacteria, stereo, people, quay, key, simile, police; marine, aubergine, cuisine, magazine, margarine, and routine.
(k) Illogical Spellings of /əʊ/ said as in “boat” or “low” or “hoe” or “go”
loth, sloth, solar, sew, plateau, tableau, mauve, brooch, soul; folk, yolk.
(l) Illogical Spellings of /ɜ/ said as in “fir” or “fur” or “her”
word, world, worm, worse, worth(y), heard, pearl, earn, learn, rehearse, gourd, journey, scourge.
(m) Other Illogical Spellings
(/ju:/ as in due – few – too) beauty, feud, queue; (/æ/ as in hat) plait; (/ʊ/ as in book – put) woman, should, could, would, bosom; (/aɪ/ as in bite – light – my – dye – die) buy, aye, diet, lichen, either, guide, guile, height, island, viscount, indict; (/ɪə/as in here – pier – fear – beer) idea, weir, weird, query; (/au/ as in now – foul) bough, plough.