Spelling pronunciation

From Academic Kids

A spelling pronunciation is a pronunciation that, instead of reflecting the way the word was pronounced by previous generations of speakers, is a rendering in sound of the word's spelling. Spelling pronunciations compete, often effectively, with the older traditional pronunciation.


Examples of English words with common spelling pronunciations

  • forte the noun, pronounced by many the same as forte the adverb
  • salmon, occasionally pronounced with [l]
  • comptroller, often pronounced with [mp]; accepted pronunciation is "controller"
  • ye the article, pronounced as if spelled with a Y instead of the printers' mark for the letter thorn
  • tortilla and other words from Spanish with the double-L
  • teat, pronounced (and now often spelled) "tit"
  • victuals, sometimes pronounced with [kt], or respelled "vittles"
  • The pronunciation of waistcoat as spelled is now more common than the previous pronunciation "weskit"

Spelling pronunciations and history

Spelling pronunciations often restore ancient pronunciation patterns. For example, centuries ago, the word often did have a [t], heard elsewhere in oft. The [t] dropped by a regular process before the ending -en, as elsewhere in soften, moisten, fasten. After the [t] fell, often continued to be spelled with t. The current tendency to pronounce the [t] thus restores an ancient rendition.

The word palm (in the sense, 'palm of the hand') was originally Latin, and had an [l] in that language. The word was inherited into French, where it lost the [l]: paume. From the French it was borrowed into Middle English, still without [l]: paume. Scholars, aware of its Latin origin, then introduced a (then-silent) 'l' into the spelling. The rendering of this l in pronunciation is apparently a fairly recent phenomenon.

Spelling pronunciation vs. analogical pronunciation

In some cases, we cannot tell if a pronunciation is a true spelling pronunciation. The alternative is that a word is being pronounced analogically, in essence as the "sum of its parts". Thus, forehead is commonly pronounced as a sequence of fore plus head, instead of the historically earlier "forrid"; and waistcoat is commonly pronounced as a sequence of waist and coat, instead of the historically earlier "westkit".

Analogical pronunciations can arise even when not supported by spelling. For example, inmost comes from Old English innemest, which contained the ordinary superlative suffix -est. The later switch to in + most was an analogical pronunciation.

Many cases are ambiguous between spelling pronunciation and analogical pronunciation, and indeed may perhaps arise as a result of both factors operating simultaneously. The only unambiguous cases of spelling pronunciation are those in which the irregular spelling was introduced by idiosyncratic scribal practice, as in the "palm" example above.

Opinions about spelling pronunciation

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.

Spelling pronunciations in children and foreigners

Children who read a great deal often produce spelling pronunciations, since they have no way of knowing, other than the spelling, how the rare words they encounter are correctly pronounced. Thoughtful parents usually try to correct such children's errors gently. Well-read second language learners are likewise vulnerable to producing spelling pronunciations.

See also


  • See the index entries under "spelling pronunciation" from Leonard Bloomfield, Language (originally published 1933; current edition 1984, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; ISBN 812081195X).
  • Most of the etymologies and spelling histories above are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

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