556 - A look at the history of English pronunciation

2020-01-20 10:22:22

The pronunciations of 'ough' and a look at the history of pronunciation of English letters

We are well aware that English words come mainly from old German and Norman French (and Latin, Saxon, and others), and that its alphabet of 26 letters makes it impossible to represent its 43/44 speech sounds with just one symbol per sound. But that is not why many English spellings, such as 'daughter', 'brought' and 'people', are now irregular.

The pronunciations used in all three languages have changed since 1066. But English spellings have become unreliable guides to pronunciation (sound, southern, soup [those 3 words have 3 different pronunciations for the ou]; enough, cough, drought, though, thought, through, hiccough [those 7 words have 7 different pronunciations for the letters ough]), and spellings for identical sounds have ended up exceptionally varied (blue, shoe, flew, through, you, to, two, too, gnu [those 9 words rhyme]).

The consistency of English spelling was first seriously corrupted during the reinstatement of English as the official language of England in the 15th century. It suffered even more at the hands of foreign printers during the bible wars of the 16th century because the early printing presses (printing machines) were limited in the variety of letters they could print. Unfortunately, there has never been a serious effort to remedy the various accidental and deliberate corruptions of the alphabetic principle (of representing speech sounds in a regular manner) in English. Thus, we have the mess we have.

I showed you the some words that represent the most common pronunciations of the ough letter combination, but here is another I want to point out: slough. "Slough" has three pronunciations depending on its meaning:

  • /sluː/ (as in, "slogging through a slough of mud") It rhymes with blue.
  • /slʌf/ (as in "to slough off", meaning to shed off) It rhymes with stuff.
  • /slaʊ/ the town of Slough in the Thames Valley of England. It rhymes with cow.

I should point out that a few of those words have changed, or are in the process of changing, in today’s English. Hiccough is acceptable as hiccup; plough is acceptable as plow; slough is acceptable as slew or sluff; doughnut can be written as donut. I would advise against using these “new” spellings in formal writing, though.

Enough about ough, what about ow?

  • /aʊ/ as in cow, now, bow (stoop), sow (pig), glower (glare), town, owl, fowl, etc.
  • /oʊ/ as in crow, know, bow (weapon), sow (plant), lower (let down), own, bowl, etc.
  • /ɒ/ as in knowledge, acknowledge
  • /uː/ as in bowie knife (ow rhymes with oo in boot)

Here’s another to look at: omb. Most words with this combination do not pronounce the b, it is silent, but of course there are exceptions. With the following words you pronounce the b:

  • somber, combat, zombie, wombat
  • combine, Colombia, Columbia

But with these words the b is silent, and the om in each has a different pronunciation:

  • womb rhymes with room
  • bomb rhymes with mom
  • comb rhymes with dome

If English had a completely regular spelling system, as Spanish, Italian, Finnish, Korean, and others do, it would have no more than 44 spellings, and learning to read and write English would be as easy as those two languages. Most alphabetic writing systems, however, do not have a completely one to one relationship between their sounds and spellings, with a few more spellings than sounds.

The European average is around 50. Learning to read and write English is exceptionally difficult because it has 185 spellings for 44 sounds.

Unfortunately, good old English, for all its many pluses (one gender, simple plurals, few inflexions etc) suffers from a "double whammy" when it comes to spelling — not only can't you predict spelling from pronunciation but you can't always predict pronunciation from spelling. This is because English has many different ways of representing the same sound AND has some letter combinations that can represent more than one sound (as shown above). Understanding this fundamental problem will help you to understand the difficulties you may be facing as you continue your journey of learning English.

Most children in English speaking countries do eventually learn to master spelling more or less satisfactorily. But they tend to take up to three years longer to complete this process than those speaking other languages, and an unacceptably high proportion (about 23%) never master the process at all causing all kind of social problems.

This is partly because children have to learn to pronounce 185 spellings, instead of just around 50. The greatest English reading difficulties, however, are caused by 69 spellings which have more than one pronunciation. They make at least 2000 English words not completely decodable.

A study was done Professor Philip Seymour from Dundee University in 2003 and published by the British Journal of Psychology. The study investigated literacy acquisition rates in 13 European languages. It has this to say on the subject: “Children from a majority of European countries become accurate and fluent in foundation level reading before the end of the first school year. ....The rate of development in English is more than twice as slow."

When all spellings have reliable sounds and the total number of spellings used is only 50 or fewer, as in all European languages other than English, teaching children to read requires very little training. Almost any literate adult or child can do it. Because English uses 185 spellings, 69 of which have variable sounds, English literacy has to be taught by well-trained professionals.

Even children of average ability take longer (2 – 3 years longer) to learn to read and write English than their contemporaries in other languages, but the weakest native-English-speaking pupils need an extremely long time to achieve even moderate literacy. Until they do so, they cannot learn much else. Other spelling systems give all pupils easier access to wider learning.

Author George Orwell said, "... our existing spelling system is preposterous and must be a torment to foreign students. This is a pity, because English is well fitted to be the universal second language, if there ever is such a thing."

Another well known author, I’m sure you’ve heard of him, MarkTwain, said this, “… I disrespect our orthography most heartily, and as heartily disrespect everything that has been said by anybody in defence of it. Nothing professing to be a defence of our ludicrous spellings has had any basis, so far as my observation goes, except sentimentality. In these "arguments" the term venerable is used instead of mouldy, and hallowed instead of devilish; whereas there is nothing properly venerable or antique about a language which is not yet four hundred years old, and about a jumble of imbecile spellings which were grotesque in the beginning, and which grow more and more grotesque with the flight of the years."

Below is a list of all the sounds of typical American English.

This list shows example words for pronouncing the letters as well as the many ways of spelling those sounds.

The Sounds Made by 21 Consonants (39 different sounds/spellings)

Letter(s) Sounds represented
b bat
c (2 sounds) cat, city
ch (3 sounds) choke, chemistry, chef
d dog
f fog
g (2 sounds) gold, gin
h (2 spellings) hat, who
j jam
k king
l lemon
m man
n no
p pet
ph pheasant
ps psychology
qu queen
r ran
s (2 sounds) slam, please
sh shed
t tin
th (2 sounds) thing, that
v van
w wand
wh when
x (3 sounds) execute, exactly, xylophone
y (4 sounds) yak, fairy, why, dysfunction
z zebra

The Sounds Made by 5 Vowels (16 different sounds)

Letter(s) Sounds represented
A (long) (6 spellings) basic, same, rain, say, eight, great
A (short) ask, class
E (long) (5 spellings) free, each, piece, happy, she
E (short) (2+ spellings) bed, head (these words must be memorized: said, says, friend, guest, again)
I (long) (4+ spellings/3 sounds) ice, light, sky, pie (“ie” can also be pronounced as 2 separate letters as in “science” and “quiet”, as well as the long e sound in the word “brief”)
I (short) (2 spellings) it, system (these words must be memorized: give, busy, building)
O (long) (4 spellings) joke, soap, own, most
O (short) (2 spellings) sock, walk
U (long) (4 spellings) cute, fuel, few, ukulele (but not umbrella)
U (short) us
OO (long) boot
OO (short) book
OO (r-controlled) door
OO (seperated) coordinate
OI voice, boy
OW cow, mouse
schwa All vowels can have the schwa sound which is similar to the short U, it sounds like the last letter “a” in the word camera, the “a” at the beginning of again, the second “e” in celebrate, the “I” in experiment, the first “o” in condition, the “u” in support, the “oo” in flood.

A Brief History of English

English cums from at leest 4 difrent language roots – Latin, Nordic, Saxon, French. They all got mixd up together as English was sorting itself out & emerging as one language, from 800- 1400.

At that time riters wer spelling enny way they thaut best. Chaucer & Shakespeare wer both inconsistent spellers.

That period wud hav been the time to edit & regularize the spelling, to deci e.g. wether the word “pay” was going to be ritten pey [saxon], paiien [old french, the language of Wm. the Conquerer], or pacare [latin].

“Pay” was the new way, now cald The Great Shift, under wich the sound of the letter A wich had been “ah” changed for sum reeson & became “ay”, today’s name for the letter A.

Wich to use? Since nobody knew, paiien became pay wile saxon they stayd as they. Inconsistent? Yes. Dificult to lern? Yes.

Pay & they rime. They wud be eesier to read & rite if they wer speld alike. The other languages of Europe settled on consistent spelling patterns, so they ar eesy to spel. English is nothing of the sort. It stumps menny of its own peeple, as wel as outsiders lerning it.

The erly problem was worsend wen printing was invented in the 1300’s. The first printers of inglish wer germans. Thees, not being familiar with inglish, did not feel up to editing the MSS that wer handed to them.

The German printers took the words & printed them as they wer ritten – mistakes, inventiv spellings & all.

Once printed, the words took on a certan holiness. From then on they wer regarded as being corectly speld wether they wer or not.

Samuel Johnson about 1750 created one of the first English dictionarys. He made no effort to cleer up the contradictions, but left them all as they wer.


by Theo Halladay, 2008. The Spelling Society, London, UK.

In 1825 Noah Webster published his first dictionary of American English, called A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language. He introduced some changes to spellings of some words (colour -> color, centre -> center, etc) and included many words that had never been in any dictionary previously (skunk, squash, etc).