Submitted by Hairy Scot on April 7, 2014

Have diphthongs gone for good?

Will words like fæces, archæologist, fœtus disappear from our language or should they be preserved?

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....dipthongs...very...important.,...sometimes..we..need...it..for..class..discussions...specially for english..grammar....thats..what..i..think//...
if..dipthongs...gone...then...it..is..a
...BIG JOKE.....

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I missed these Ngrams off the last one as I was getting 'Invalid form registration' for some reason.

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=de...

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=ar...

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@AnWulf - 'every study that I'v seen shows that English speaking lands hav higher illiteracy rates and that nativ English speaking students are often behind their counterparts from other more fonetically written tungs'

There is certainly research that shows that native English-speaking children learn to read and write more slowly than their counterparts in other countries, but it doesn't seem to have much effect on overall literacy rates.

According to the CIA Factbook, via Wikipedia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand have a literacy rate of 99%, on a par with major European countries: France, Belgium, Italy and Hungary are all on 99%. The US and Australia come in a bit lower, at 96.9% and 96%. Apart form one or two rare cases, the only countries that are consistently above English-speaking countries are those of the ex-Soviet block.

Austria, where, according to one of those surveys, children learn to read and write faster than in Britain, turns out to have a lower overall literacy rate, at 98%.

Phonetically spelt Spanish doesn't come out so well. In Spain the literacy rate is only 97.7, although Argentina manages 97.9.

Although, to be honest, literacy rates probably have much more to do with education levels than the nature of the native language.

Secondly, English is the most successful second language ever, with native speakers outnumbered three to one. A hell of a lot of people are successfully managing to learn English to communicate to other non-native speakers, as I can hear on the streets every day. If spelling is a problem, it doesn't seem to be stopping people learning English. I tried googling 'problems foreign learners have with English' and spelling hardly seems to feature at all.

In any case, this is all academic: spelling reform ain't gonna happen any time soon, so we have to teach in the real world, which for me is mainly that of British spelling conventions. Of course, our students can use American spelling if they want to, as long as they're consistent.

I've no objection to people campaigning for spelling reform, but that isn't going to help my students one jot. Much more constructive is to think ways of explaining to students how spelling and pronunciation work, laugh with them at the inconsistencies, and encourage them to persevere. And use pronunciation poems, for example. Which most EFL materials do.

From my experience as an EFL teacher I would say that English spelling is much more of a problem for young native speakers than for foreign learners - the fact that the latter usually have rather a better grasp of English grammar also helps: you won't find foreign learners making mistakes like 'could of' or confusing 'their', 'there' and 'they're', which apparently happens with native speakers.

@jayles - do you teach people to count by giving them a calculator? I'm sorry, but spellcheckers should be used as a final check, not as a way to teach people how to spell. In any case, a lot of people are typing directly onto the Internet nowadays, rather than using a word processing program. Browser spellcheckers often seem to be stuck in American English, so I largely ignore mine.

In fact English, despite the exceptions, has some quite clear spelling rules, and where appropriate these should be explained to students. English spelling is not impossible! If I learnt it, and you learnt it - although with AnWulf it's sometimes difficult to tell :) - so can others.

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@AnWulf - good rant, but it just ain't going to happen, so on my blog I've started to try and work out just how the spelling system works; I prefer to work with what we've got rather then change the world.

It's interesting how both your main interests on this forum involve radically changing the language (which a lot of us are rather fond of just as it is, thank you - if that makes us snobs so be it). As in most things, I'd rather my language was governed by natural evolution rather than by enforced revolution. And not mucked around with by fiat.

I like the fact that both the words we use and their spelling reflects the history of English, which unlike you, I feel no need to rewrite, and much of the spelling reflects its grammar and word family connections - something that would be lost if it went entirely phonetic - and which I can assure you, foreign learners would not thank you for.

As for 'o' in dog - OK, agreed, but that was what they said on the American-made cassette - and there is quite a difference between British and American pronunciation - American is rather longer.

Incidentally, I wonder, if hwich, why not hwy? In fact why not hwitch?

Regarding 'ough' words - I think I got there first (April 19) - and by the way, we sometimes use these poems to help students, not to put them off - in fact relatively few 'ough' words are used very often, and of those that are, some, lik ' though' and 'through' are so common that they pose few problems.

But end on a conciliatory note, as your last point is indeed evolutionary, and as I've already said as much, I'll agree with you on this one, but in the exact words you used - 'let them go' - not force them out.

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I would suggest that proficient English readers do not read by sounding out each syllable to understand the word; each word becomes a sort of symbol pretty much like Chinese, so whether it is orthographic or not becomes irrelevant to the reading process; it just needs to be consistent and familiar.
Spelling is an issue when we're learning to read and write and in an ESOL context; for most of us we are past it (or very much past it).

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BTW I suppose you guys realise you can upvote your own comments! ;=))

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So that makes it all pretty easy; all one needs is a sound knowledge of the GVS, a smaltering of Latin-ing, a soupcon of medaeval French and Bob is indeed to goodness your uncle. It is but a small "en-devoir" or endeavour or endeavor or whatever.
However sins enii olternativ speling sistem wud luk vaastlii diferent and distroi backwerds kompatibiliti chaenjing wud not bii werth it.

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@jayles
Nice one!

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I assume that you're talking about the letters æ and œ. The problem is that they show a sound that is alreddy shown by other letters and diphthongs. Thus they aren't needed for the long ē.

In the IPA the æ is noted to show the flat a as in ash ... which is the name of the letter. This happens to be an Old English note of the letter as well. In OE 'at' was 'æt', 'path', 'pæþ' þ=th.

If the letter were noted for this sound, I would be all for it. But for the long ē, let it go.

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I think there are two different things here:

The first mainly affects British spelling - in faeces and foetus, the ligature (æ and œ) has a single vowel sound- 'ee' - /ɪ:/ in IPA; it's not pronounced as a diphthong:

/ ˈfɪsiɪz/ and /ˈfɪ:təs/

In American English this has been rationalised, and even in British English, fetus already seems to be ousting foetus, although faeces still leads feces, but I imagine it's only a question of time.

But the the ligature (æ) in archaeologist is sounded as a true diphthong - ay - /eɪ/ in IPA, and there is no need, even for spelling reformers, to change it. There is a possible alternative spelling in American English - archeology - but it doesn't seem to be used very much.

Looking at the examples of words that can be spelt with a ligature at Wikipedia, I don't think you can make any hard and fast rules (and we're mainly talking about BrE here).

True diphthongs will no doubt stay: archaeology

While historians and Anglo-Saxon specialists will talk of Ælfred, most of us think of Alfred the Great. On the other hand I imagine Caesar and Oedipus are cast in stone, as is Aesop, for Brits at least.

Some of British spellings will probably stay, simply because we like 'our' spelling - encyclopaedia and manoeuvre, for instance.

Others have already been largely replaced by their simpler versions - hyaena, mediaeval - a process which seems to have started at the beginning of the twentieth century. Others even earlier - chimaera.

And who now uses (even in British English) færie, fœderal, dæmon?

It seems to me that there is a historical process going on here, where many words have already lost their diphthongs, some, centuries ago. Others have been in the process of losing them for the last century or so, and some, like fixed expressions in the otherwise largely moribund subjunctive, will no doubt stay with us for a long time.

Although I don't agree with AnWulf's desire for wholesale spelling reform, I think in this case, when these old forms of spelling really are at odds with the sound of the word, we should just let them go quietly without too much fuss. I'm afraid I can't get worked up trying to keep spellings like foetus and faeces, which simply seem counter-intuitive to me.

Incidentally, I have just discovered that the word diphthong can be pronounced with an f sound instead of a p sound at the beginning, in both BrE and AmE, but I'm not aware of ever having heard it pronounced that way. (I reluctantly admit that I've probably been spelling it wrong all my life - another candidate for spelling reform, perhaps?)

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@WW
I've always used the f sound when pronouncing diphthong.
My earliest recollection is of my English master trumpeting it while spelling "onomatopoeia".

:-))

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As for pronunciation of æ and œ, I wonder if the modern tendency toward an 'e' sound is in fact correct.
Perhaps an altered 'a' and 'o' similar to the pronunciation of 'ä' and 'ö' in German might be closer to the true pronunciation.

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Is this a question of spelling or ligatures?
Ligatures like æ are tricky to get for the uninitiated from a standard keyboard so maybe that is a downer for them. (How do people in Europe get the euro € ?)
I would suggest, as far as spelling goes, the trend is to follow whatever is in the spell-checker.

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@jayles - I think it's a question of spelling. Fetus vs foetus rather than fœtus. Try doing a site search for fœtus the BBC or the Guardian and nearly all the results are for foetus. And remember that spellcheckers in browsers (what shows up when I'm writing in the comments box, are usually for American English).

@HS - it depends on what you consider correct or the 'true' pronunciation. Even if you're talking about Latin, there are problems: for example, caelis is pronounced completely differently by Classical Latin scholars (Kylis) and by those who use Church Latin (Chaylis).

Secondly, most vowel sounds have changed since the end of Early English, with the Great Vowel Shift. Recent productions of Shakespeare with input from David Crystal even suggest that there have been changes since his time. And thirdly, vowel sounds are often the main differences between different varieties of English: what is the standard pronunciation of vowels is often different for a Northern Englishman and a Southerner or a Scot speaking Standard English (think of 'poor'), a Brit and an American or Australian. Is bath with a long a any more correct than bath with a short a? I simply don't think it's possible to speak of 'true' pronunciation in this way.

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@WW
Looking at it logically, which is perhaps the wrong approach with English, there seems to be no sense in coupling an 'e' with an 'a' or an 'o' just to get a long 'e' sound.
That the 'e' is meant to moderate the sound of the other vowel certainly makes more sense.
Or was Spencer thinking of a Fehrie Queen?

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@HS - some of these spelling conventions seem to have arrived much later than the words. For example, Online Etymology suggests that it was in fact fetus, not foetus, in Latin. A well-known example is scissors, which started off without the c until a 16th century scholar decided (wrongly as it turned out) that it came from the Latin verb scindere and so added the c.

I was looking at some 17th century English books the other day and was somewhat surprised to come across 'theater' spelt with an 'er' rather than an 're'. After a bit of investigation, I've discovered that the 'er' spellings for theatre, centre and sceptre seem to have been commoner in English books than 're' endings until about the second half of the 17th century. One 17th century dictionary listed only the 'er' endings, and it's not till we come to Johnson's 1755 dictionary that the 'er' endings disappear form dictionaries. And of the examples Johnson quotes, in the originals they are nearly all spelt theater and center, rather than with the 're' endings he cites.

In Shakespeare's First Folio there are seven instances of theater to one of centre, five of theater to one of theatre, and thirty-six of scepter to none for sceptre.

So sometimes what we think of as the original spelling isn't necessarily that original after all. Especially as spelling wasn't really standardised until the eighteenth century. Spenser may have written 'Faerie' in 1590, but about the same time we have several examples of 'fairie, and then 'Shakespeare spelling it 'fairy' in a 1600 edition of Midsummer Night's Dream, although apparently reverting to 'faerie' in the First Folio (1623).

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2014/04...

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As typewriters came into common use, I can't see how the mechanical versions would allow letters to overlap. They are designed to strike and advance to the next space.
Backspacing to over-strike a character is simple enough, but generating 1/2 space overlap consistently? tricky at best.

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@Liverwort
"As typewriters came into common use, I can't see how the mechanical versions would allow letters to overlap."

Special characters perhaps?
Have German typewriters not handled umlauts from the beginning?
In any case the advent of computerised word processors makes handling of such anomalies relatively simple.

@WW
If faerie = fairy, why does faecal = fecal?

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Let me say at the beginning that it's late at night where I am and I hav a pounding headake right now ... so my writing may be even sloppier and odder than other times.

That said ... Louisa Moats ... Not only does the woman make a fine living off teaching the crazy spellings (nothing wrong with that but she shouldn't tout keeping the crazy system so as to keep her working), she is amazingly uncouth (ignorant, unknowing) of the history of English. She says in that paper:

Norman French and Old English were gradually amalgamated, merging by the late 15th century into what is now known as Middle English.

... The late 15th Century was the END of ME and the beginning of Erly Modern English (the cutoff being 1475 to 1500). Old English was fairly regular (tho not perfect) in its spelling ... it was putting the Norman-French spelling ways on top of it that messt it up ... OE þurh (thru) took the French 'ou' and the Norman traind scribes way of writing the sumhwat gutteral h with 'gh' that givs up the utterly screwd up 'through'.

She also lays out a seven-year plan ... seven years! ... to teach children how to spell. A study from 50 years ago show'd that Soviet (Russian) children were far ahed of English speaking children in mastering of reading wordstock and academics at the same ages. While English speaking children were still reading babyish primers, the Soviet children were handling material of a kind that English speaking children did not reach until years later. … Trace, Arthur S., Jr.,"What Ivan Knows that Johnny Doesn’t"

As for hwat and not hwy ... in the blog I'm writing, it is hwy, but I didn't want to overwhelm you with too many of them at once. Hwich brings up the frain of hwether to go slo with a few chanjes or all out ... most like the go-slo way better as too many chanjes overwhelms the readers who are wonted to the old ways.

Slough ... meaning a backwater or bayou ... is well noted in the US and often spelt (and said) sloo https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sloo

Slough ... meaning to shed off ... is often spelt sluff: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sluff

It's not hwether many of the more fonetic spellings are coming ... they're alreddy here, one must only choose to note them.

A word on the GVS, it more of crutch noted by many and it wasn't nearly so great as many make it out to be. The truth is that England had ... and still has ... many dialects. What happen'd more often than not was that the way to say word came from one dialect while the way to spell came from another or came from the sway from French spelling on English. One only needs to read ME texts to see that spelling was all over the sted (OE sted) ... for byspel, we find both 'color' and 'colour' in ME. Thru was thru-, thro(g)-, tru(ch)-, trug-, truwe-, tro(g)-, drou-, thurg-, thorowe-; thrugh(e, thrught(e, thru(g, thru3ht, throu(gh(e, throuȝ, throuȝht, throuh, throgh(e, thro(ȝ(e, throth, throwe, threu, threwe, trugh, truth & (early) þurȝh, þurhc, þurht, þurf, þurðh, þurt, þuruh, þuregh, þureȝ, þureh, þureu, þurru, þuruch, þoruȝh & more! ... So you see, it wasn't a GVS ... heck, pick a vowel and way as it was hwich one you want to write!

And y'all are right about English becoming more like Chinese: Nicholas Ostler, a linguist whose insights are often brilliantly surprizing [so said the writ], said that “… the peculiarly conservative, and hence increasingly anti-phonetic, system is another facet of English that bears a resemblance to Chinese”, and “as has happened with Chinese … the life of English as it is spoken has become only loosely attached to the written traditions of the language.”

Is this a good thing? I don't think so.

It's not a matter of forcing the better spellings but acknowledging them as valid. Color and colour hav stood side by side for many years ... spellings like thru, tho, altho, dialog, catalog, analog, synagog, and so forth stand as acceptable in the US.

But it isn't only in the US that spelling is shifting. English is the worldwide tung of business. As alreddy said, ther are more outlanders speaking … and writing … English than nativ speakers. They will push edge. For byspel, in Malay, garage is spelt garaj. That makes good witt! The word "raj" is in the word books and is said the same way as the "-rage" in garage, so hwy not note garaj insted of garage? At least they don’t befuddl the sounds of garage with rage … or page … or sage … or age. More Malay spellings
• ... nibble on a biskut
• ... put your car in the garaj
• ... buy a ticket at the kaunter
• ... be late for your English kelas (class)
• ... buy a new komputer
• ... take a mesej for someone (message; I put forth messej as it is less of a shift)
• ... try to understand a sistem
• ... take a teksi
• ... watch televisyen, or
• ... visit a muzium

But this highlights hwat can happen if nativ speakers don’t reform English spelling on their own. Outlanders will do it for us and it could come out looking sumthing like this (these spellings were done by a 'consensus' of outlanders): http://freespeling.com/new-simpler-spelings/ or MN Gogate's "Globish" with "neat" spellings: http://www.mngogate.com/e02.htm

The choice is ours, either we nativ speakers do it or the outlanders will.

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@HS - I think you are investing me with more expertise than I possess. However, I think if I was creative, my answer might begin something lie this:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.

http://www.wordsmith.org/awad/english2.html

In other words, don't expect English spelling to be phonetic or particularly rational. What surprises me, though, foreign learners don't seem to have big problems with it. Far more problematic for them are things like tense use.

Or how about this - same sound, different spelling:

fairy
hair
prayer
tear
bare
stare

Or another way - same spelling (ae), different sounds - three I think: ay as in day, ee as in seed, igh as in sigh

algae
anaemic
Caesar
encyclopaedia
larvae
maelstrom
minuitiae
paediatrics
phaeton
praesidium
reggae

http://www.morewords.com/contains/ae/

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wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_on_traditional_and_simplified_Chinese_characters#Pro-Simplified_characters_2
see the section on literacy rates - basically simplification has not improved literacy.

The real catch with English is we have about 11 basic vowels but only aeiou and y on our keyboard so some agreed sistem would b kneaded if truely hole-sale change was the goal. One needs to address bakwards compatibility and word-reference books and the whole issue of ASCII/UTF-8/sort-sequence if one includes extra chars.

I do agrree that alternative spellings of -ough words are well worth thinking about.
<a href="theguardian.com/education/2006/nov/01/schools.wordsandlanguage" >

theguardian.com/education/2006/nov/01/schools.wordsandlanguage

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@HS - It seems we can put quite a lot of these inconsistencies down to the Great Vowel Shift, the first stage of which involved two high vowels being diphthongised - /ɪ:/ as in tree started to be pronounced /eɪ/ as in train, and /u:/ as in boot started to be pronounced /aʊ/ as in house. Spellings, however, didn't change.

So it's possible that oe and ae weren't originally pronounced as they are today, but that the changes were part of a general shift, rather than anything specific to those words that had originated from ligatures.

The GVS apparently accounts for a lot of our present-day homophones. Each word in these pairs apparently had a different pronunciation before the GVS:

meet / meat
piece / peace
see / sea
tee / tea

Not all dialects and not all words were equally affected, though. Just think of the way many Scots pronounce food like good and wood rather than mood.

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@WW "Slough is a rather characterless town"
Surely the train station, the mixed bus/pedestrian high street, the Mars factory, the linked traffic lights, a selection of excellent brothels, and a helpful branch of Samaritans, lend it a certain je ne sais quoi. If you go there, please keep an eye out for my virginity.

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@WW (April 15th, 1:36pm):
And who now uses (even in British English) færie, fœderal, dæmon?

I'm with you on fœderal, but I think there's a subculture in which words like færie and dæmon thrive. The æ ligature (or even just the 'ae' digraph which is unusual in English) has a certain mystical, mediæval feel about it.
Dæmons (which are nothing like demons) play an important part in Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series.

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@Chris B - fair enough, but as you say, it is rather a subculture. As I understand, it the 'Dark Materials' series are children's books, and fantasy at that. I'm sure there are lots of words and spellings in Tolkien and Harry Potter, that are not exactly mainstream. As for general usage, faerie hardly shows up on Ngram, and færie not at all. See below for demon / daemon / dæmon.

The use of the ligature may indeed have a 'mediæval feel' to it, and that's fair enough if you're wanting to give your work that kind of atmosphere, but most of us (and I'm talking about BrE speakers) don't even spell medieval with a diphthong these days, let alone a ligature. :)

http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=me...

Finally, I would disagree that the ligature is more common than the diphthong: everything I've seen suggests it's just the opposite: Google Search gives some 14 thousand for færie as opposed to 4 million for faery. And with more commonly-used words which can theoretically be spelt with the ligature (usually in British English), such as foetus / fœtus or archaeology / archæology, the diphthong is overwhelmingly used rather than the ligature. In fact, for both of these words, Oxford Online only lists the spelling with the diphthong, and doesn't even list the spelling with the ligature as a possible variation.

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I don't think I was implying that the ligature is more common than the two separate letters. At least I wasn't trying to. Although I think the rarity of the æ and œ ligatures nowadays is largely because they're hard to type (for the same reason that you see things like "2.5 years" or "2 1/2 years" when "2½ years" looks much better).

Another (more mainstream) place you see 'daemon' is when an email bounces back.

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@Chris B - my misunderstanding :)

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Interesting, that in British books, if Ngram is anything to go by, the æ and œ ligatures gave way to ae and oe diphthongs around 1820, well before the invention of the typewriter.

This is the case with fæces, dæmon, fœtus, hyæna, Cæsar, chimæra, encyclopædia and manœuvre. It is uncanny how these ligature spellings are all replaced by diphthongs in almost exactly 1820 (although the process had started earlier), according to Ngram.

This change coincides with the introduction of the steam press in the 1820s, so I wonder if that had something to do with it.

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My interest is more with the pronunciation.
I remain unconvinced that fetus is the correct pronunciation for fœtus. It seems such a waste of two good vowels.
And how did Phœnicia escape the dreaded "E" sound? ;-))

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'English is the worldwide language of business' - I know because that's how I 'tout' my trade, and I have seen enough business correspondence done in exercises and real life to know that grammar is a far bigger problem than spelling. If you really want to help foreign learners, it's the grammar you need to overhaul, not the spelling.

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@HS - In the case of foetus, in the original Latin it was fetus, without a ligature. Presumably the addition of the ligature is down to a mistaken scholar. In the system used in the following definition ē is pronounced as in bee, so it looks as though modern pronunciation is in line with the original Latin.

fētus (not foet-), adj.
FEV-, filled with young, pregnant, breeding, with young : Lenta salix feto pecori, V.: volpes, H.— Fruitful, productive : terra frugibus: loca palustribus undis, O.— Filled, full : machina armis, V.— That has brought forth, newly delivered, nursing : lupa, V.: Uxor, Iu.—Plur f . as subst: temptabunt pabula fetas, mothers of the flock , V

(Lewis, Charlton, T. An Elementary Latin Dictionary. New York, Cincinnati, and Chicago. American Book Company. 1890) - http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Pe...

But more generally, I repeat - what is 'correct' pronunciation? If you heard Shakespeare spoken in the pronunciation of the day, you probably wouldn't understand much. Do we take vowels as pronounced before or after the Great Vowel Shift as correct? And in what regional or national variation? If you're talking about the original Latin, do you take Classical Latin or the Demotic (which no doubt had a far greater impact on English) as correct. Which, as I've already shown, is important in the case of æ, as it was seemingly pronounced differently in Classical and Demotic Latin.

What, for example, is the 'correct' pronunciation of historic, hotel? With an aspirated H (as in the nineteenth century) or without? I don't think you like the American pronunciation of ballet, yet it's certainly nearer the original French, so does that make it more correct?

For me, do as the Romans do (but not necessarily did), in other words the correct pronunciation is simply whatever the standard pronunciation of the day is for your variety of the family of English.

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@HS - It seems that the pronunciation of both ligatures had changed to single vowel sounds in Latin before they reached English:

In Latin, the combination denotes a diphthong, pronounced [oi̯], that had a value similar to English oi as in coil. It was used in borrowings from Greek words having the diphthong OI (ΟΙ, οι). Both classical and modern practice is to write the letters separately, but the ligature was used in medieval and early modern writings, in part because œ was reduced to a simple vowel ([e]) in late Latin.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%92

In Classical Latin, the combination AE denotes the diphthong [ai̯], which had a value similar to the long i in fine as pronounced in most dialects of modern English. Both classical and present practice is to write the letters separately, but the ligature was used in medieval and early modern writings in part because æ was reduced to the simple vowel [ɛ] in the imperial period. In some medieval scripts, the ligature was simplified to ę, small letter e with ogonek, the e caudata. This form further simplified into a plain e, which may have influenced or been influenced by the pronunciation change. However, the ligature is still relatively common in liturgical books and musical scores.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86

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"daemon" is often used with this spelling when referring to a piece of software that is permanently running on the server, for instance as a channel to a database. Spelt without the lig here:
http://www.heliohost.org/home/features/database...

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More often than not, when a vowel is follow'd by an 'e', it shows that the first vowel is long ... foe, Gaelic, maelstrom ... when it doesn't (as in does), it can be befuddling to anyone who doesn't know the word.

I see not reason for the 'o' in the British way of spelling maneuver (Br: manoeuver). It does nothing. The 'eu' shows the 'oo' sound məˈno͞ovər. What does the 'o' do for it?

@WW, I hav to disagree without about foreigners not having trouble with English spelling. I think that you're likely seeing the ones who hav spent years and hav been willing to put in the time for the rote memorization of oddball English spellings. As an expat living in non-English speaking land, I can tell you that I see many, many beginners who are more than frustrated by the spelling of English. There are many here who hav spent four and five years studying English yet will not speak English to me for that they are unsure of how to say the words! They also make many spelling mistakes if they are bold enuff to write in English.

And Jayles is right ... Most folks will spell the way the spellchecker tells them too. Before the days of spellcheckers, I had to fix the spellings of many college students (nativ speakers) when proofreading. If you note OpenOffice, it will auto-fix many wrong spellings on the fly! So you don't even need to get them right the first time, the software will fix the word as you type.

Do we need 'oe' and 'ae' for the long ē sound? No, we don't. As you pointed out, most of these are alreddy gone in American spellings. And, btw, the 'e' in archeology is long ˌärkēˈäləjē. There's no diphthong there so the 'o' is not needed.

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@AnWulf - as for foreign students, I can only speak for my twelve years or so teaching full-time in Poland. In my experience, grammar poses far more problems than spelling, especially the sort of grammar native speakers don't even think about, like tenses, articles and phrasal verbs. In fact professional translators here still make some of these fundamental grammar mistakes, yet you will rarely see them making a spelling mistake.

You say that students won't say the words because they don't know how to pronounce them. I don't quite understand this, as we teach orally as much as from texts, especially at beginner level. Students are likely to hear words well before they read them in a text. On my teaching course we had beginners classes in Greek which were totally oral (and totally in L2) in the beginning - we didn't see the words printed until well after we had learnt them.

So I guess we'll just have to agree to differ on that one.

As for archaeology, on checking I find that my dictionary does indeed give it without a diphthong in British English - /ɑːkiˈɒlədʒi/ - and in American English - /ɑːrkiˈɑːlədʒi/ . I was thinking we pronounced it as ay, but obviously we don't. But I think you mean the a is not needed - we certainly need the o, in British English at least (/ɒ/).

As I said earlier, some of us Brits simply like our spellings for things like manoeuvre (not manoeuver, incidentally) - and some of us like it this particular one because it reminds us of its French roots, which you don't like of course. Language is about so much more than just things being needed; it is also about identity (which you of all people should recognise; your delight in breaking the standard conventions of spelling is obviously part of your own identity). And British spelling is part of my identity and is what I'm used to, like and am comfortable with. Chacun à son goût.

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Actually I probably exaggerated a bit about beginners and oral learning a bit - but even teaching beginners using a course book, speaking, listening are totally integrated (there is less emphasis on writing at this stage) and I can't remember students having problems speaking because they didn't know how to pronounce a word. Shyness, yes, problems with grammar, yes. But admittedly my students are all adults, and if they don't know, they ask.

However I think your experience is mainly with Spanish speakers, and they seem to have particular problems with English (perhaps because they basically only have one sound for each vowel). In Europe, Spain is probably the most developed English language 'market', (it's nearly always Number 1 on the list of visitors to my EFL blog) yet in this year's English First Proficiency Ratings, it comes in at only 23. Meanwhile, Poland, where English teaching in schools really only started with the fall of communism, has pulled itself up to Number 9. It's also notable that Latin American countries come in rather low in the list, so as I said, it could be that Spanish speakers have particular problems, and perhaps especially with pronunciation. On the other hand, Spanish has both articles and a present perfect / past simple distinction, so grammar may be less problematic for them than for Poles, who have neither of these in their own language.

http://www.ef.co.uk/epi/

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That started off a bit shakily - I should have said that speaking, listening and reading (conversations and very short texts) are totally integrated, so that students see, hear and repeat new words at the same time.

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I agree that spelling is not the major issue for non-native speakers; after all, the common end-use writing situations (business emails, reports, and academic essays) are all covered by spell-checkers. On the other hand, business telephone conversations put enormous pressure on clear-enough pronunciation (and listening and everything else too).
Like Russian, English stress is hard to predict (although often last-but-two on longer words). Aural learning the only way to go.

EF= Entertainment First ??

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@WW, you're right. I do liv in Latin America and the 15 or so vowel sounds for English and 40 or so ways to write them drives them up the wall. For byspel, they hav trouble with the 'flat' a as in Larry.

I get emails fill'd with spelling mistakes ... not all are from Spanish speaking friends but most are. Their spell checkers don't check English spelling.

Likely. as professional teachers, y'all are dealing with the more dedicated students whereas I often run across the ones who are taking it only to fulfill a requirement.

Moreover, every study that I'v seen shows that English speaking lands hav higher illiteracy rates and that nativ English speaking students are often behind their counterparts from other more fonetically written tungs.

Most other tungs shift the spelling to fit their spelling way ... leader in Spanish becomes líder. There's not good reason why English shouldn't do the same to borrow'd words. That we'v taken many of the oddball French spelling ways like the Old French -our and -ue and stuck them to an Anglo-rooted word like OE tung to get tongue and is our own mistake.

Let's look at maneuver:

From Middle French manœuvre, from Old French manovre, from Medieval Latin manopera, manuopera (“work done by hand, handwork”), from manu (“by hand”) + operari (“to work”). First recorded in the Capitularies of Charlemagne (800 CE) to mean "chore, manual task", likely as a calque of the Frankish *handwerc (“hand-work”).

So you can see that even the French spelling wasn't settl'd. BTW, while you are right that the preferr'd Br spelling is manoeuvre ... However, it seems that it is such a baffling word to spelling that the Guardian spell'd it manoeuver:

the "job of the organiser is to manoeuver and bait the establishment ... " http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-net...

So you can see, non-fonetic spellings can catch even the careful ...

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@AnWulf English spelling just grew like topsy and lacks a close-knit underpinning framework. Attempts to tidy it up mostly failed. For practical purposes using the right spell-checker is for non-native speakers the best option. However, my own email-spell-checker is stuck in Hungarian and despite googling around, I still can't find the button to change it back to English!

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@AnWulf - On the pronunciation of vowels, Standard British English has 20 sounds: 12 monophthongs and 8 diphthongs.

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/p/sound...

Perhaps I should point out that British EFL teaching materials make extensive use of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), especially at lower levels, although not always by all teachers (although it doesn't take long to learn).

Low level course books will nearly always include an IPA phonetic chart, and at low levels new words will be introduced together with their IPA symbols. Learner's dictionaries, indeed nearly all British dictionaries use IPA to show pronunciation, and good online dictionaries (for example Oxford Advanced Learner's) have sound files for both British and American English.

At the moment British and American written English are pretty well mutually intelligible, but if we 'go phonemic' we are likely to lose that. I bought a Spanish pronunciation tape once, and in the introduction it said "A - like O in dog". I thought there was a misprint till I discovered it was an American cassette. BrE /dɒɡ/, AmE /dɔːɡ /.

Or take bath - /bɑːθ / in Standard (Southern and Scottish) British English, but /bæθ/ in American English and Northern England.

Are we going to have two or more phonemic spelling systems?

How do you deal with soft and and hard S in 3rd person singular, possessives and plurals - at the moment they have grammatical consistency, but if they were shown phonetically, you'd lose this - the same with preterite -ed endings, which have three possible pronunciations- does phonetics outweigh grammar?

And if new readers can only read things like 'hav' and 'enuff'', won't the huge canon of English literature of the Modern English period simply become like reading Chaucer? Phonetics is only one part of language: native speakers of English have to learn far less word forms than in other languages, we hardly have any cases or verb conjugation to worry about, and we don't have gender. So one thing probably balances out another.

Arguments like that, together with other arguments that have been gone over previously in these pages, together with continued public resistance by the majority of native speakers (including me, obviously), make spelling reform very unlikely, whether we like it or not.

Personally I'd prefer to concentrate on the real world we live in and on giving students (foreign, or native-speaker for that matter) the tools to master existing conventions, than to waste my time worrying about something over which I have absolutely no control, and is unlikely to change.

On my own blog, I have pronunciation games using IPA (and pronunciation poems) and an IPA keyboard for people to learn how to use IPA symbols.

http://random-idea-english.blogspot.com/2012/09...

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@WW by "practical purposes" I meant outside the classroom, like submitting your CV in English or answering business emails.

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@jayles - OK, but I'd still be very wary of getting too dependent on them, which is no doubt what a lot of people do nowadays. Much better that somebody has a good grounding in spelling. Their best use, as far as I'm concerned, is catching typos. And they won't correct you if you use a wrong but correctly spelt word, for example. According to standard spell checkers the following is absolutely OK:

I have a spelling checker
It came with my PC
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye knot sea

Eye ran this poem threw it
Your sure reel glad two no
Its vary polished in it's weigh
My checker tolled me sew

Even Google Docs, which has contextual checking, only suggests one change. Spell checkers have their uses, but I'd be very suspicious of relying on them. Especially for a non-native speaker. Much, much better use a dictionary.

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Sorry for the late ... and long ... answer but I'v been offline. The guidelines of English spelling, such as they are, do work for about 85% of the words. But given the HUGE number of words in English, 15% is a lot of words that don't fit it and many of those words are among the most common.

"Secondly, English is the most successful second language ever, with native speakers outnumbered three to one" ... in world of seven billion folks, this is a meaningless stat. There are a lot of folks here who would be counted among that number but they won't speak English to me for that they are baffl'd by the how the words are said. Only today I had two ladies ask me to help them. They both tell me that they can read and understand but they can't speak it or understand it when spoken! I think you're seeing the cream, I'm seeing the dregs ... and I don't mean that in a bad way.

BTW, the 'o' in 'dog' is not said like the Spanish 'a' in the US ... tho in the South you do hear 'dawg' but otherwise 'dog' rimes with 'log'.

As to the -ed ... that was one of the "correctness of usage" reforms that overrode the older and more fonetic spellings like 'mixt' with 'mixed'. Was that better? I would say no as it has led to a further split. Now there are many words with both spellings that has often led to another way to say the word ... spelt/spelled, burnt, burned, knelt/kneeled, asf. It has led to craziness such as leapt (said as lept) and leaped (said as leapt!).

Spelling is not and never has been 100% nor fixt ... that is not shifting. However, that doesn't mean that we shood stick our fingers in our ears and babbl from the mouth. I don't think we can make it perfect but we can do much better!

From OE thru ME and even today, spelling has often shifted ... and not always for the better (the "correctness of usage" as alreddy said). With the coming of wordbooks and printing, it did settl down as the printers became editors and gatekeepers ... and many still are today. But then who wrote the wordbooks? One of the first was Johnson who was among the first to set standards and who, in the forward in his wordbook, openly preferr'd the French spellings of word owing to that many of the words came to us thru French. No other reason!

In 1876, the American Philological Association began touting 11 new spellings: ar, catalog, definit, gard, giv, hav, infinit, liv, tho, thru, and wisht. Two years later the Philological Society of England joind in the work. By 1886, the list had grown to 3500 words.

In 1879, the British Spelling Reform Association was founded.

In 1898, the (American) National Education Association began touting a list of 12 spellings: tho, altho, thru, thruout, thoro, thoroly, thorofare, program, prolog, catalog, decalog, and pedagog … all of which are still found today.

I'll giv you a few outtakes of a rather long blog that I'v been working on (yes, much longer than this post):

Why do we do it? — Snobbery

So why do we hang on to unfonetic spellings when, in bygone days, they were spelt more fonetically? Snobbery. It's a kind of "elite speak" or rather, "elite write". That's hwat (OE hwæt) it comes down to.

Research into the social aspects of linguistics givs more background. One is that hard spelling splits the "learnd n leisurely" from the rest of society. In other words, it makes sum folks feel abuv others after they hav wasted a lot of time to lern unfonetic spellings. And since they hav wasted their time, then they think the everyone should acknowledg this wastefulness.

Another is the rise of the doctrin of "correctness in usage" (see Sumner qwote below), hwich involves elitism, class snobbishness, and authoritarian teaching. Again, it is the same ol' story. "By God I lernt it this way and so can yu!" It must be the student's fault that he has trouble learning such a kaotic system.

Why change?

There are 561 spellings in an abridgd dictionary for the 40 common sounds of English, or about 14 per sound. If we take only the 10,000 most common words, as found in a sample of 100,000, there are still 361 different spellings, or 9 per sound. … In an abridgd dictionary there are 43 spellings for "schwa". (Dewey, 971; 8, 110-1)

But this snobbery comes at a cost. Over 40 years ago, back in the 70s, it was estimated that the MINIMUM cost was $1 for each one of us … man, woman, and child per year for school tax funds that was the straight cost of keeping archaic spelling in our schools. That's a lot of money that could be spent on teaching sumthin' more fremful like math or science.

Way back in 1925, a study likend the reading ability of Puerto Rican children lerning to read in Spanish, a fairly fonetically written tung, with New York City children lerning to read in English. Puerto Rican children were about a year ahed in the content of their reading than English speaking American children! Hence one observer (Wijk, 1969; 55-6) notes:

If an orthographic system for English could be devised which would be just as simple, regular and logical as those found in most other European languages, it would be possible for all English-speaking school children to save at least one year's work.

See that he said "most" other European tungs … French is far from fonetic.

Here we are, nearly 100 years later and still stuck on stupid; still noting unfonetic "stupid spellings".

In 2003 a sample of adults in the U.S. were given a reading proficiency test and only 13% were rated proficient (that's 87% NOT proficient). Amazingly, only 30% of adult college graduates scored as proficient in literacy on the test. http://www.americanliteracy.com/publications.html

Though the rough cough and hiccough plough me through,
O'er life's dark lough I ought my way pursue.
— 1842, Horace Mann, first Commissioner of Education of Massachusetts/ He publisht this to show the problems of spellings the -ough sounds in English.

By changing the way of saying the 8 "-ough" words noting their own analogies, the cupplet can be said in 8 to the 8th power (16,777,216) nother ways! … Only ONE of hwich is right!

Care to take a guess (ME gess) as to how to say clough and slough? (There are two ways to say slough hanging on the meaning!)

Taxpayers are paying more and kids are taking longer to lern only for that pedants and snobs not only refuse to giv up the archaic and downright stupid spellings, but hav the gall to ridicule those whu try! … Or I should say, they hav the gall to try. It doesn't work well with me since they cannot defend the "stupid spellings" with anything more than: that's they way they were taught and had it beaten into them.

Back in 1887, William Graham Sumner, a sociologist, put the problem in more personal terms when he wrote:

I have two boys who are learning to spell. They often try to spell by analogy, thus using their brains and learning to think. Then I have to arrest them, turning them back from a rational procedure, and impose tradition and authority.

They ask me, 'Why?'

I answer, 'Because your father and others who have lived before you have never had the courage and energy to correct a ridiculous old abuse, and you are now inheriting it with all the intellectual injury, loss of time, and wasted labor which it occasions. I am ashamed that it should be so.
(Robertson and Cassidy, 1954; 363) *doctrin of "correctness in usage" see abuv.

To wrap up and bring it back to this thred ... Do we need 'oe' or 'œ' and 'ae' or 'æ' for the long ē sound? No, we don't. We shood let them go the way of spelling 'asterisk' … as 'asterique' (written asterique in 1674).

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@jayles - exactly, they are symbols with rather more information than just the sound.

AnWulf casts some doubts on the historical reasons I give for the anomalies in English spelling, and the size of the problem. He seems to avoid all mention, however, of the Great Vowel Shift, one of the biggest reasons for the anomalies, but then it's much more fun to blame it on Johnson.

So here are some of my sources, so that others can judge for themselves:

"By the mid-seventeenth century printers followed general principles of spelling much like the present ones." OED

http://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/englis...

"By the late 1500s, under the impetus of printing the tremendous variety of spellings in written English had shaken down into a far smaller set of variants, and a great part of the outlines of the modern orthography was in place. Changes in orthographic norms slowed considerably, and Modern English was left with a spelling system from an earlier period of its history: essentially it is a normalized Middle English system. The result is a set of letter-to-sound mismatches [due to the Great Vowel Shift, WW] greater than those of elsewhere in Europe, even in some respects greater than those of French, whose spelling was codified a little later. " The History of English, Rice University

http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelli...

"as David Crystal points out, there are only around 400 everyday words with totally irregular spelling – and it is precisely the fact that they are so frequently encountered that is the origin of the myth. One particular computer analysis of 17,000 words showed that 84% were spelled according to a regular pattern – and only 3% were so irregular that they have to be learned by heart." - Teflpedia (and because they're high frequency, people tend to know them - WW) - http://teflpedia.com/Spelling

"Today, most of out regular sound-symbol correspondences come from the Anglo-Saxon layer of language (for example, almost all consonant spellings). Ironically, most of our irregular spellings come from Anglo-Saxon as well" - How Spelling Supports Reading, Louisa Moats, American Federation of Teachers - excellent paper with specifics on how to teach children spelling - what and when.

http://www.aft.org%2Fpdfs%2Famericaneducator%2F... (pdf)

"To summarize to this point, English is not as chaotic as it seems at first glance.
Skilled spellers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to better understand and reduce the variability in written English. Knowledge about conservatism, loan-words, and how English spellings represent more than just pronunciation helps spellers understand why certain words are spelled in seemingly irregular ways. In addition, spellers can use information about position and context to help limit the many possible
alternative spellings that English provides for each sound."

English Spelling: Making Sense of a Seemingly Chaotic Writing System, by Heather Hayes, Brett Kessler, and Rebecca Treiman

Another quite detailed study, from Washington University in St. Louis

http://www.ldanh.org/docs/spellingenglish.pdf (pdf)

Their recommendations seem similar to those of Davis Crystal: not to teach children to spell, but rather how to spell - http://books.google.coml/books?id=XBZKMSX8MggC

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@jayles - exactly, they are symbols with rather more information than just the sound.

AnWulf casts some doubts on the historical reasons I give for the anomalies in English spelling, and the size of the problem. He seems to avoid all mention, however, of the Great Vowel Shift, one of the biggest reasons for the anomalies, but then it's much more fun to blame it on Johnson.

So here are some of my sources, so that others can judge for themselves:

"By the mid-seventeenth century printers followed general principles of spelling much like the present ones." OED

http://public.oed.com/aspects-of-english/englis...

"By the late 1500s, under the impetus of printing the tremendous variety of spellings in written English had shaken down into a far smaller set of variants, and a great part of the outlines of the modern orthography was in place. Changes in orthographic norms slowed considerably, and Modern English was left with a spelling system from an earlier period of its history: essentially it is a normalized Middle English system. The result is a set of letter-to-sound mismatches [due to the Great Vowel Shift, WW] greater than those of elsewhere in Europe, even in some respects greater than those of French, whose spelling was codified a little later. " The History of English, Rice University

http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelli...

"as David Crystal points out, there are only around 400 everyday words with totally irregular spelling – and it is precisely the fact that they are so frequently encountered that is the origin of the myth. One particular computer analysis of 17,000 words showed that 84% were spelled according to a regular pattern – and only 3% were so irregular that they have to be learned by heart." - Teflpedia (and because they're high frequency, people tend to know them - WW) - http://teflpedia.com/Spelling

"Today, most of out regular sound-symbol correspondences come from the Anglo-Saxon layer of language (for example, almost all consonant spellings). Ironically, most of our irregular spellings come from Anglo-Saxon as well" - How Spelling Supports Reading, Louisa Moats, American Federation of Teachers - excellent paper with specifics on how to teach children spelling - what and when.

http://www.aft.org%2Fpdfs%2Famericaneducator%2F... (pdf)

"To summarize to this point, English is not as chaotic as it seems at first glance.
Skilled spellers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to better understand and reduce the variability in written English. Knowledge about conservatism, loan-words, and how English spellings represent more than just pronunciation helps spellers understand why certain words are spelled in seemingly irregular ways. In addition, spellers can use information about position and context to help limit the many possible
alternative spellings that English provides for each sound."

English Spelling: Making Sense of a Seemingly Chaotic Writing System, by Heather Hayes, Brett Kessler, and Rebecca Treiman

Another quite detailed study, from Washington University in St. Louis

http://www.ldanh.org/docs/spellingenglish.pdf (pdf)

Their recommendations seem similar to those of Davis Crystal: not to teach children to spell, but rather how to spell - http://books.google.coml/books?id=XBZKMSX8MggC

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Some thoughts on the dreaded 'ough' words. This is one of those areas where it is very easy to make a mountain out of a molehill. Morewords.com (they list words for Scrabble (r) etc), list 290 words including the cluster 'ough', but if you take away all the derivatives, you're left with less than 40. This is what AnWulf's 8 to the 8th power (16,777,216) boils down to:

When 'ough' doesn't come at the end of the syllable (usually being followed by t) it is invariably pronounced 'aw' - bought, ought, thought, brougham

Apart from a couple of exceptions, where 'ough' comes at the end of the syllable there are basically six possible sounds. I've listed the words roughly as to how common they are:

'oh' - though, although, dough, furlough
'uff' - enough, rough, tough, chough, clough, slough (1)
'off' - cough, trough
'ow' - bough, plough (BrE), slough (2)
'er (the schwa)' - borough, thorough
'oo' - through, breakthrough etc

exceptions - hiccoughs (usually hiccups nowadays), lough (Irish - like Scottish loch), and the very rare sough, which has two possible pronunciations.

Some of these words are very high frequency, so students see them often and learn them quickly, eg: though, enough, rough, tough, through

A few are middle to low frequency, and can give students problems the first time they see them - dough, bough, plough (AmE - plow), trough, borough, thorough (more commonly thoroughly) - that last one my students do find difficult the first time they come across it, but soon get the hang of it.

The rest are so low-frequency that they don't really matter - none of them are in the top 10,000 most frequently used words, and students can always check with a dictionary if they need to.

Some sounds, for example 'off' and 'er' really only have a couple of words each. If you take that into consideration, you can more or less ignore them as a possibility when looking at new words. One, 'oo', really only has 'through' and its derivatives.

So what about those rarer ones. Those of us who've ever done any birdwatching (a particularly British pastime) will know how to pronounce chough, which more or less leaves clough and the two versions of slough (plus Slough, for Brits). Has anyone reading this ever had the occasion to use either of these words (apart from the place name)? Does their spelling really pose any threat to anyone's literacy? I doubt it. But it always looks good when you choose an extreme example.

On the other hand, if you take a positive and more realistic approach, even 'ough' becomes rather less daunting.

But back to slough or rather to Slough. Slough (pronounced like 'ow') is a rather characterless town to the west of London. It was the setting for the (original) British mockumentary series 'The Office' and in his eponymous poem, John Betjeman wrote "Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough, It isn't fit for humans now.".

AnWulf's remark reminded me of an old Punch joke - a chauffeur (apparently a Cockney) is driving a rather posh young lady through Slough, on the way somewhere else, Reading or Henley, perhaps. I's rush hour and there's rather a lot of traffic. The young lady says to the chauffeur, "This is Slough, isn't it?", and the chauffeur replies, "Yes Miss, very."

(In broad Cockney, the 'oh' sound - /əʊ/ (as in 'slow') is/was often pronounced 'ow' - /aʊ/, as in Slough)

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@WW
Your Slough joke reminded me of the one about the young Geordie (native of Newcastle upon Tyne for our non-UK readers) corporal at Yorkes Drift.
On being awakened by a distant drumming noise he exclaimed, "What is that?!"
The young lieutenant replied, "They have war drums."
To which the corporal replied, "Thievin' bastards!"

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