A spelling pronunciation is the pronunciation of a word according to its spelling, at odds with a standard or traditional pronunciation. Words spelled with silent letters (e.g. island, often), or traditionally pronounced with reduced vowels or omitted consonants (e.g. cupboard, Worcester), may be subject to a spelling pronunciation.
If a word's spelling was standardized prior to sound changes that produced its "traditional" pronunciation, a spelling pronunciation may reflect an even older pronunciation. This is often the case with compound words (e.g. waistcoat, cupboard, forehead). It is also the case for many words with silent letters (e.g. often), though not all—silent letters are sometimes added for etymological reasons, to reflect a word's spelling in its language of origin (e.g. victual, rhyming with little but derived from Late Latin victualia). Some silent letters were added on the basis of erroneous etymologies, as in the case of the word island and scythe.
Spelling pronunciations are generally considered incorrect next to the traditionally accepted, and usually more widespread, pronunciation. If a spelling pronunciation persists and becomes more common, it may eventually join the existing form as equally acceptable (for example waistcoat and often), or even become the dominant pronunciation (as with forehead and falcon). If a rare word is more often encountered in writing than in speech, the spelling pronunciation may be assumed by most, while the traditional pronunciation is maintained only by older or educated individuals.
Prevalence and causes of spelling pronunciation
Large numbers of easily noticeable spelling pronunciations only occur in languages such as English where spelling tends not to indicate the current pronunciation. Spelling pronunciations can arise in any language when the majority of the populace only obtain enough education to learn how to read and write, but not enough to understand when spelling is not indicating modern pronunciation; in other words, many people do not clearly understand the relationship between spelling and pronunciation.
On the other hand, spelling pronunciations are also evidence of the reciprocal effects of spoken and written speech on each other. Indeed, there is quite a bit of truth in this in the sense that many spellings represent older forms and corresponding older pronunciations. Some spellings, however, are not etymologically correct.
Though many people may believe (to various degrees of accuracy) that the written language is "more correct", this (in turn) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the written language affecting and changing the spoken language if a spelling does not represent an older pronunciation.
Examples of English words with common spelling pronunciations
- often, pronounced with /t/, which is in fact a reversion to the 15th century pronunciation, though the pronunciation without /t/ is still preferred by 73% of British speakers and 78% of American speakers. Older dictionaries do not list the pronunciation with /t/, though the 2nd edition of the OED does (and the first edition notes the pronunciation with the comment that it is prevalent in the south of England and "often used in singing"; see the Dictionary of American Regional English for contemporaneous citations discussing the status of the competing pronunciations). The sporadic nature of such shifts is apparent upon examination of examples such as whistle, listen and soften, where the t remains largely unpronounced.
- forehead once rhymed with horrid, but is now pronounced with the second syllable as /hɛd/ by 85% of Americans and 65% of people in Britain. This is in fact a reversion to its original pronunciation.
- clothes was historically pronounced the same way as the verb close ("Whenas in silks my Julia goes/.../The liquefaction of her clothes"—Herrick), but many speakers now insert a /ð/, pronouncing a voiced th. This is in fact a reversion to its 15th-century pronunciation.
- salmon, occasionally pronounced with /l/.
- falcon is now nearly always pronounced with /l/, and just 3% of speakers have no /l/. The /l/ was lacking in the old pronunciation: compare French faucon and the older English spellings faucon and fawcon. This may suggest either analogical change or the reborrowing of the original Latin.
- alm, balm, psalm; often now pronounced with /l/ in some parts of the United States. In most of the United Kingdom, the traditional /ɑːm/ pronunciation continues to prevail.
- comptroller, often pronounced with /mp/; accepted pronunciation is "controller" (the mp spelling is based on the mistaken idea that the word has something to do with comp(u)tare "count, compute", but it comes from contre-roll "file copy", both the verb and its agent noun meaning "compare originals and file copies").
- ye the article, pronounced as if spelled with a y instead of the printer's mark for Þ, the letter thorn. (Not to be confused with the 2nd person nominative plural ye in Middle and early Modern English.)
- taking the insular flat-topped g of northern scripts as a z- in names like Mackenzie, Menzies, Dalziel (in the last with the value of /j/ originally).
- tortilla and other words from Spanish with the double-L pronounced /l/ instead of /j/ (the latter being the closest approximation to the sound in Spanish); similarly the Italian-sourced maraschino (cherry) with /ʃ/ instead of /sk/.
- victuals, pronounced /ˈvɪtəls/ (rhyming with skittles), whose -c- (for a consonant lost long before the word was borrowed from French) was reintroduced on etymological grounds, and sometimes pronounced with /kt/.
- The pronunciation of waistcoat as waist-coat is now more common than the previous pronunciation weskit.
- conduit, historically pronounced /ˈkɒndɪt/ or /ˈkʌndɪt/, is now nearly always /ˈkɒndjuːɪt/, /ˈkɑndwɪt/ or /ˈkɑnduɪt/ in most of the United States.
- covert, historically pronounced /ˈkʌvɚt/ (reflecting its link with the verb cover) is now usually /ˈkoʊvɚt/, by analogy to overt.
- medicine, historically pronounced with two syllables but now quite often with three (some speakers use two when they mean medicaments and three when they mean medical knowledge; the pronunciation with three syllables is standard in the United States).
- Bartholomew, formerly pronounced /ˈbɑrtəlmi/, is now /bɑrˈθɒləmju/.
- Anthony (< Lat. Antonius), now (in the US) /ˈænθəni/.
- Numerous place-names with traditional ("old-fashioned") pronunciations have been displaced by ones influenced by the spelling: St. Louis, formerly /sæn ˈluːiː/ now /seɪnt ˈluːɪs/, Papillion (Nebraska), formerly /ˌpæpiˈjɒn/ now /pəˈpiljən/, Beatrice (Nebraska) formerly and still somewhat currently /biˈætrɪs/, now /ˈbiətrɪs/. Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, is now pronounced /mɒntˈpiːliər/ instead of the French-influenced /mɔ̃pelje/.
- Sir George Everest's surname is pronounced //. The mountain named after him – Mount Everest – is generally pronounced // or //.
- Interjections such as tsk tsk! or tut tut! (a pair of dental clicks), now commonly /ˈtɪsk ˈtɪsk/ and /ˈtʌt ˈtʌt/.
- The words Arctic, Antarctic and Antarctica were originally pronounced without the first /k/, but the spelling pronunciation has become very common. The first "c" was originally added to the spelling for etymological reasons and was then misunderstood as not being silent.
- ski, originally pronounced /ʃiː/ (as it is a loanword from Norwegian), now usually /skiː/.
- zoology, which is often pronounced "zoo-ology" (/zuˈɑlədʒi/). This is not quite "spelling pronunciation" because it is never pronounced "zoo-logy" (/ˈzulədʒi/). It is probably influenced by the word zoo (derived from zoological garden), which rhymes with goo. A similar case might be the pronunciation (not in the US) of hecatomb as rhyming with "deck a tomb" (that is, /ˈhɛ.kə.tuːm/).
Opinions about spelling pronunciation
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Spelling pronunciations give rise to varied opinions. Often those who retain the old pronunciation consider the spelling pronunciation to be a mark of ignorance or insecurity. Those who use a spelling pronunciation may not be aware that it is one, and consider the historically authentic version to be slovenly, since it "slurs over" a letter. Conversely, the users of some innovative pronunciations such as "Febuary" (for February) may regard the historically (and phonetically) authentic version as a pedantic spelling pronunciation.
Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933) reports that in his day there was a conscious movement among schoolteachers and others encouraging people to abandon anomalous traditional pronunciations and "speak as you spell". According to major scholars of early modern English (Dobson, Wyld et al.), already in the 17th century there was beginning an "intellectual" trend in England to "pronounce as you spell". This presupposes a standard spelling system which was beginning to form at that time. Similarly, quite a large number of "corrections" slowly spread from scholars to the general public in France, starting several centuries ago.
Others would argue that this trend, though understandable from a socio-psychological point of view, is, from a strictly linguistic perspective, irrational, since writing was invented to represent the sounds of the language and not vice versa. According to this belief, there is no good reason to "speak as one spells", but there are many good reasons to "spell as one speaks", i.e., to reform the orthography of a language whenever it does not render its pronunciation clearly and unambiguously – which is the task of a writing system. How easy such a reform would be in practice is quite another matter.
A different variety of spelling pronunciations are phonetic adaptations, i.e., pronunciations of the written form of foreign words within the frame of the phonemic system of the language that accepts them: an example of this process is garage ([ɡaʀaːʒ] in French) sometimes pronounced [ˈɡæɹɪd͡ʒ] in English. Such adaptations are quite natural, and often preferred by speech-conscious and careful speakers.
Spelling pronunciations in children and foreigners
Children who read a great deal often produce spelling pronunciations, since, assuming they do not consult a dictionary, they have only the spelling to indicate how the rare words they encounter are correctly pronounced. Well-read second language learners are likewise vulnerable to producing spelling pronunciations.
In some instances a population in a formerly non-English speaking area may retain such second language markers in the now native-English speaking population. For example, Scottish standard English is replete with spelling pronunciations from when English and Scots were subsumed by English in the 17th century.
However, since there are many words which one reads far more often than one hears, the problem also affects adult native-language speakers. This, in turn, leads to the language evolution mentioned above. What is a spelling pronunciation in one generation often becomes standard in the next.
In other languages
When English club was first borrowed into French, the approved pronunciation was /klab/, as being a reasonable approximation of the English. The standard then became /klyb/ on the basis of the spelling, and later, in Europe, /klœb/, deemed closer to the English original. The standard pronunciation in Quebec French remains [klʏb]. Similarly, shampooing "product for washing the hair" at the time of borrowing was /ʃɑ̃puiŋ/; now it is /ʃɑ̃pwɛ̃/
In Hebrew, the word חטא ([χe̞t], meaning 'sin') is sometimes pronounced [ˈχe̞tä], as suggested by its spelling, especially by children. Other examples of spelling pronunciations are the Sephardic "kal" for "kol" (meaning all) and "tsahorayim" for "tsohorayim" (meaning noon): see Sephardi Hebrew.
In Italian, a few early English loanwords are pronounced according to Italian spelling rules. These include water ('toilet bowl', from English water (closet)), pronounced [ˈvater], and tramway, pronounced [tranˈvai]. The Italian word ovest ('west') comes from a spelling pronunciation of French ouest (which, in turn, is a phonetic transcription of English west); this particular instance of spelling pronunciation was only possible before the 16th century, when letters u and v were still indistinct. A few foreign proper names are normally pronounced according to the pronunciation of the original language (or a close approximation of it), but they retain an older spelling pronunciation when uses as parts of Italian street names. E.g., the names of George Washington and Edward Jenner retain their usual English pronunciation in most contexts, but Via Giorgio Washington and Viale Edoardo Jenner (two main streets in Milan) are pronounced [ˈvia ˈdʒɔrdʒo ˈvaʃʃinton] and [ˈvjale edoˈardo 'jɛnner], respectively. The usage of such old-fashioned spelling pronunciations is probably encouraged by the custom of translating given names when naming streets after foreign people (as e.g. Giorgio and Edoardo in place of George and Edward).
In Spanish, the "ch" in some German words and surnames is pronounced /tʃ/ or /ʃ/ instead of /x/. Bach is correctly pronounced [bax], and kuchen is [ˈkuxen], but Rorschach is [ˈrorʃaʃ] rather than [ˈrorʃax], Mach is [maʃ] or [matʃ], and Kirchner is [ˈkirʃner] or [ˈkirtʃner]. Other spelling pronunciations are club pronounced [klub], iceberg pronounced [iθeˈβer] in Spain (in American Spanish, it's pronounced [ˈaisberɡ]), and folclor and folclore as translations of folklore, pronounced [folˈklor] and [folˈkloɾe]. Also in Spanish, the acute accent in the French word élite is taken as a stress mark and the word is pronounced [ˈelite].
When Polish borrow words from English with spelling preserved, the pronunciation tends to follow the rules of Polish. Words such as "marketing" are pronounced as spelled instead of the more faithful "markytyng".
In Vietnamese, the letter "v" as an initial consonant is often pronounced like a "y" ([j]) in the central and southern varieties. However, in formal speech, speakers will often revert to the spelling pronunciation, which is also increasingly being used in casual speech as well.
Books and articles
- See the index entries under "spelling pronunciation" from Leonard Bloomfield, Language (originally published 1933; current edition 1984, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; ISBN 81-208-1195-X).
- Most of the etymologies and spelling histories above are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.
- Neuman, Yishai. L'influence de l'écriture sur la langue, PhD dissertation, Paris: Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2009.
- --. "Graphophonemic Assignment", G. Khan (ed.), Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Volume 2, Leiden: Brill, pp. 135–145
- often in the American Heritage Dictionary
- victuals in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- island in the American Heritage Dictionary
- "Definition for waistcoat - Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
- Michael Stubbs, Language and Literacy: the Sociolinguistics of Reading and Writing. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 31-32
- Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 560.
- Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 317.
- Algeo, John (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th edn, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, p. 46.
- John Wells (2010-07-16). "OED note on history of "clothes"". Phonetic-blog.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
- Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 297.
- Algeo, John (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th edn, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, p. 142.
- Claypole, Jonty (Director); Kunzru, Hari (Presenter) (2003). Mapping Everest (TV Documentary). London: BBC Television.
- Everest, Mount – Definitions from Dictionary.com (Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006)
- See "The Fight for English" by David Crystal (p. 172, Oxford University Press) and the entry for "antarctic" in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
- Peter Rickard, A History of the French Language: 1989
- "Trésor de la langue française". Cnrtl.fr. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
- "DPD 1.Ş edición, 2.Ş tirada" (in Spanish). Buscon.rae.es. Retrieved 2012-05-27.