A spelling pronunciation is the pronunciation of a word according to its spelling, different from a standard or traditional pronunciation. Words spelled with silent letters (e.g. island, knife), 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 cases of the words island and scythe.
Spelling pronunciations are often prescriptively discouraged and perceived as 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 a standard variant (for example waistcoat and often), or even become the dominant pronunciation (as with forehead and falcon).
Prevalence and causes
A large number of easily noticeable spelling pronunciations occurs only in languages such as French and English in which spelling tends to not indicate the current pronunciation. Because all languages have at least some words which are not spelled as pronounced, even those such as Finnish with most words being written phonetically, spelling pronunciations can arise in any language in which most people obtain only enough education to learn how to read and write but not enough to understand when the spelling fails to indicate the modern pronunciation. In other words, when many people do not clearly understand the relationship between spelling and pronunciation, spelling pronunciations are common.
On the other hand, spelling pronunciations are also evidence of the reciprocal effects of spoken and written language on each other. 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", that, in turn, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the written language affecting and changing the spoken language and resulting in a pronunciation that is similar to an older pronunciation or even to a new pronunciation that is suggested by the spelling but had never occurred before.
Examples of English words with common spelling pronunciations
- often, pronounced with //. This is actually a reversion to the 15th-century pronunciation, but the pronunciation without // is still preferred by 73% of British speakers and 78% of American speakers. Older dictionaries do not list the pronunciation with // although 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 that discuss the status of the competing pronunciations). The sporadic nature of such shifts is apparent upon examination of examples such as whistle, listen and soften in which the t remains usually silent.
- forehead once rhymed with horrid but is now pronounced with the second syllable as // by 85% of American speakers and 65% of British speakers. This is actually a reversion to the 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 //, a voiced th. This is actually a reversion to the 15th-century pronunciation.
- salmon is occasionally pronounced with //.
- falcon is now nearly always pronounced with //, and only 3% of speakers have no //. The // was silent in the old pronunciation: compare French faucon and the older English spellings faucon and fawcon. That may suggest either analogical change or the reborrowing of the original Latin.
- alm, balm, psalm are now often pronounced with // in some parts of the United States. In most of the United Kingdom, the traditional // pronunciation continues to prevail.
- comptroller is often pronounced with //; the 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 as in Ye Old Coffee Shoppe is often pronounced not as the, as it should be, but as if spelled with a y, instead of the printer's mark for Þ, the letter thorn. (The archaic/obsolete second-person nominative plural pronoun ye in Middle and Early Modern English is correctly pronounced like the beginning of you.)
- Taking the insular flat-topped g of northern scripts as a z- in names like Mackenzie, Menzies, Dalziel (originally pronounced with the value of //).
- tortilla and other words from Spanish with the double-L pronounced // instead of // (the latter being the closest approximation to the sound in Latin American Spanish); similarly, the Italian-sourced maraschino (cherry) and bruschetta with the // associated with that consonant cluster in German instead of the // of Italian.
- victuals, pronounced // (rhyming with skittles), whose -c- (for a consonant that had been lost long before the word was borrowed from French) was re-introduced on etymological grounds, and the word is sometimes pronounced with //.
- The pronunciation of waistcoat as waist-coat is now more common than the previous pronunciation //.
- conduit, historically pronounced // or /-/, is now nearly always pronounced // in most of the United States.
- covert, historically pronounced // (reflecting its link with the verb cover) is now pronounced usually //, 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 // or //, is now //.
- Anthony (< Lat. Antonius), now (in the US) //.
- Numerous placenames with traditional pronunciations have been displaced by ones influenced by the spelling: St. Louis, formerly // now (locally) //, Papillion (Nebraska), formerly // now //, Beatrice (Nebraska) formerly and still somewhat currently //, now //. Montpelier, the capital of Vermont, is now pronounced //, instead of the French [mɔ̃pəlje].
- Sir George Everest's surname is pronounced //. The mountain named after him – Mount Everest – is generally pronounced //.
- Interjections such as tsk tsk! or tut tut! (a pair of dental clicks), now commonly / / and / /.
- The words Arctic, Antarctic and Antarctica were originally pronounced without the first //, 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 // (as it is a loanword from Norwegian), but it is now usually //.
- zoology, which is often pronounced "zoo-ology" (//). That is not quite "spelling pronunciation" because it is never pronounced "zoo-logy" (//). It is probably influenced by the word zoo (derived from zoological garden), which rhymes with goo. (It has been posited that dropping the diaeresis in zoölogy antiquated the pronunciation //.) A similar case might be the pronunciation outside the United States of hecatomb as rhyming with "deck a tomb" and pronounced //.
- hotel, originally pronounced // because of the pronunciation of the French hôtel, is now usually pronounced with an audible h. Nevertheless, maître d'hôtel is pronounced //.
- herb, a word with origins in Old French, is pronounced with a silent h in the United States (generally speaking, anyway. It is the most common pronunciation there, although the h-pronouncing pronunciation is used there too, although it is often perceived as incorrect). The same was true of the United Kingdom until the 19th century, when it adopted a spelling pronunciation, with an audible h.
- Ralph, originally pronounced // or // in the United Kingdom (at least in England), is now often pronounced //.
- German loanwords such as spiel and stein are sometimes pronounced as beginning with //, as if they were native English words, instead of //. In German, initial s, immediately before p or t, is pronounced as if it were sch //.
- nephew was, until recent generations, predominantly pronounced //, descended from Middle English nevew and originally loaned from Old French neveu, a spelling which remains unchanged into modern French. But the v was later changed to ph where the p hints at its Latin root nepot-, which can be found in more recent Latin loanwords like nepotism. Today, spelling pronunciation has shifted the word's pronunciation predominantly to //.
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 to be 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 to "speak as you spell". According to major scholars of early modern English (Dobson, Wyld et al.), in the 17th century, there was already beginning an "intellectual" trend in England to "pronounce as you spell". That presupposes a standard spelling system, which was only beginning to form at the time. Similarly, quite a large number of "corrections" slowly spread from scholars to the general public in France, starting several centuries ago.
A different variety of spelling pronunciations are phonetic adaptations, 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.
Children and foreigners
Children who read a great deal often have spelling pronunciations because if they do not consult a dictionary, they have only the spelling to indicate the pronunciation of words that are uncommon in the spoken language. Well-read second language learners may also have 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 Scots was subsumed by English in the 17th century.
However, since there are many words that one reads far more often than one hears, adult native-language speakers are also affected. In such circumstances, the "spelling pronunciation" may well be more comprehensible than any other. That, in turn, leads to the language evolution mentioned above. What is a spelling pronunciation in one generation often becomes the standard pronunciation 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] but it is now [ʃɑ̃pwɛ̃]
In Modern Hebrew, the word חֵטְא ([χe̞t], meaning 'sin') is sometimes pronounced [ˈχe̞tä], as suggested by its spelling, especially by children. Other examples of spelling pronunciations are the Sephardic Hebrew כָּל ([ˈkol], meaning all) being pronounced as [ˈkäl] and צָהֳרַיִם ([ˈtso.oɣäjim], meaning noon) being pronounced as [ˈtsä.oɣäjim] because of how the kamatz katan vowel point (אָ), which indicates [o], is visually identical to the kamatz, which indicates [ä].
In Italian, a few early English loanwords are pronounced according to Italian spelling rules such as 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); that particular instance of spelling pronunciation must have occurred before the 16th century, when the 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 they are used as parts of Italian street names. For exame, the name of Edward Jenner retains its usual English pronunciation in most contexts, but Viale Edoardo Jenner (a main street in Milan) is pronounced [ˈvjale edoˈardo 'jɛnner]. The use of such old-fashioned spelling pronunciations was probably encouraged by the custom of translating given names when streets were named after foreign people: Edoardo for Edward, or Giorgio for George for Via Giorgio Washington.
In Spanish, the "ch" in some German words 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 the Americas, it is 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 Spanish stress mark, and the word is pronounced [ˈelite].
When Slavic languages like Polish or Czech borrow words from English with their 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, initial "v" is often pronounced like a "y" ([j]) in the central and southern varieties. However, in formal speech, speakers often revert to the spelling pronunciation, which is increasingly being used in casual speech as well.
- often in the American Heritage Dictionary
- victuals in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- victual in Oxford Dictionaries
- 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.
- 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 ed., 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.
- 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