Here's why the English language can be illogical.
"Colonel" is pronounced "ker-nel."
That is crazy. Do you see an "r" anywhere in there?
The explanation of this is muddled. The American Heritage and other dictionaries say that the word has French and Italian roots. The obsolete French word was "coronel." The Old Italian word was "colonello."
Somewhere down a circuitous path, it was decided that the word would retain the Italian spelling but use the French pronunciation.
The word "quay," as one reader recently reminded me, followed a similarly irksome course. Its roots were Middle English, "key" and Old North French, "cai." It came to be pronounced "key," even though the spelling made it look like it should be pronounced "kway."
On to other adversaries, the silent "k," "g" and "w."
Knight, knee, knock, knot, knit, knob.
Gnarled, gnat, gnome. Even design, assign and benign.
Wrack, wrong, write, wrestle, wren, answer.
The roots of these words are Germanic. The letters that are now silent were pronounced before the 1600s. Even though people dropped the letters when the words were spoken, the spelling retained them.
"H" is fickle, too. It's pronounced in "hero," "hurry" and "heinous."
It's silent in "honor," "hour" and "honest." The words with the silent h come from the French, who don't pronounce h at the start of words. English speakers retained this spelling.
To add to the confusion, though, English speakers do pronounce the h in some words that have French roots: "host," "human," "hospital."
I'm not sure whether this pronunciation thing was enforced by committee or by one guy with a menacing glare.
"Elision" is another reason some letters aren't pronounced, no matter which language they came from. Elision is removing a sound from a spoken word even though that letter is in the spelling. For example, "shepherd" and "exhibit."
The utility players of the alphabet are the letters "gh."
In "ghost," gh is a hard g, as in "gut."
In "though," the gh is silent.
In "tough," gh is pronounced with an "f" sound.
The silent "b" is all over the place: bomb, climb, lamb, aplomb, subtle, doubt.
Again, these stray letters were once pronounced and were kept in the spelling even after the letters stopped being said.
Words beginning with the letters "ph" start with an "f" sound. This is a nod to the Greek roots of the words:
philosopher, phrase, phone
The "ed" ending is either an added syllable or isn't.
Take "liked." I wonder why it isn't "lik-ed," as it is in "added"?
When we're kids learning to read, we may be told to "sound it out." Think about that next time you try to sound out these words:
aisle, island, talk, should, blackguard, licorice, phlegm
I can remember as a teenager reading a book with a character named "Chloe." I thought her name was pronounced "cha-lo," rhyming with "hello." But, no, it was "klo-ee."
I can only conclude that letters are as different and as moody as people. Some letters demand to be heard; some prefer to stay quiet. But not all the time. It just depends on the day.
Sources: American Heritage Dictionary, The Guardian, bbc.co.uk, teachinghistory.org, oxforddictionaries.com, www.ego4u.com, m-w.com
Reach Bernadette at
ActiveStyle on 11/13/2017
Print Headline: Sounding words out unreliable