Prickly Pronunciations

These words all rhyme:

New
Cue
Lieu
Woo
Do

So how do you spell the “oo” sound in English?  Um, it depends. 

The English language represents a mixing of cultures because it has borrowed words from many other tongues and pronunciation has evolved.  Often, this leads to confusion about pronouncing words in general because there aren’t standard rules for many letter combinations.  We grabbed words from everywhere, so the word may have been anglicized or the spelling from the original source might remain in some form. 

I have often been glad that English is my first language because learning it later in life would probably feel like picking grains of rice out of pile of mud – tedious to say the least.  I read a poem to this effect a long time ago and saved it in my files.  It’s a brilliant summary of the difficulties of pronunciation in our English language.  Take a look. 

Recovering Sounds from Orthography

Brush Up Your English 

I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough.

Others may stumble but not you,

On hiccough, through, plough and through.

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps. 

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead – it’s said like bed, not bead.

For goodness’s sake, don’t call it deed!

Watch out for meat and great and threat:

They rhyme with suite and straight and debt. 

A moth is not a moth in mother,

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there,

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there’s dose and rose and lose –

Just look them up – and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart.

Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start. 

A dreadful language? Man alive,

I’d mastered it when I was five. 

The funny thing is that most people do master English – more or less.  We’re not all great spellers, and we have to scratch our heads now and then to think about which letters to use.  But we mostly get it. 

So how do you make the /ee/ sound now?

Why is that?  First, we typically learn the sound of a word before its spelling.  So while the spelling may strike us as unusual, we still know that [throo] is a word which we now associate with “through.”

Second, although we are often taught as children to sound things out, it is better to memorize whole words.  And what’s the best way to memorize words?  Well, if you read a lot (whether novels, comic books, magazines, online, etc.) and practice writing words correctly, pronouncing and spelling them becomes second nature. 

What pronunciations do you find particularly quirky in the English language?  What amazes you about our ability to master our native tongue?  If English is your second language, has pronouncing words tripped you up at times?

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13 thoughts on “Prickly Pronunciations

  1. Atrocities and atrocious gave me a hard time. The "o" sound is not the same. Vermouth. For a long time, I thought the "mouth" part was the same as the one on your face. That's all I can think of for now. Fun post.

  2. Ooh, those are good ones, Catie. It is curious how sounds don't always carry across parts of speech – like atrocities and atrocious – even if the stem is the same.

  3. Or plural versions of words that DO sound alike. Like house and mouse. It's houses and mice. Not hice and mice. Or houses and mouses. Another is with the words moose and goose. Plural, they are moose and geese. Not meese and geese. Or moose and goose. Or mooses and gooses. It's all very maddening :).

  4. And kudos to all the teachers out there! I've been working with my kinder on his sight words, maddening is an understatement. My challenge growing up was with Canadian parents spelling things with extra an 'u' and my American teachers saying it was wrong, LOL. Almost like a second language 🙂 But your post (and the comments) remind me of the Gallagher language skits http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWN9rTc08GU

  5. Definitely maddening, Erin! And it will be really fun when your kids are learning to read. ;)@raelynbarclay – I don't know if it's only Canadians: -our (colour, favour) looks right to me too, but I think that's because I've read so many British novels. By the way, I love Gallagher and enjoyed the clip!

  6. It wasn't my problem, LOL. I've always read a lot of British published books, too, and both spellings look correct to me. But man was it interesting in school. I even had one teacher (middle school) argue that I didn't know proper English. He had to swallow his words when my very English grandmother put him straight after a particularly bad incident. Fond memory that 🙂

  7. Could someone please tell me how to pronounce "draught" (it's "draft" right?) and "doughty" (???). I too read lots of British books and words like this drive me batty. Yet I love our language!Fun post, Julie!

  8. According to dictionary.com, draught is pronounced draft and doughty is dow-tee. I use that resource from time to time and like the voice feature. Hope that helps!@Tiffany – I think if more teachers conveyed the quirky side of English, more kids would be interested in grammar and language. My kids loved the children's book by Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves).

  9. This was one of the best posts I've ever read and I'm going to forward it to others, if you don't mind. That poem was fantastic and exemplifies how very difficult it would be to learn the English language if it is NOT your native tongue. Thanks so much, Julie.Patti

  10. This is a great post. Draught is a tough one for me. And I can't think of any words right now that give me trouble, but I know there are ones. I have spelling issues. Definitely always trips me up!

  11. OMG, I must need coffee – I had a hard time finding the comments and this is a great blog!I have a hard time pronouncing words sometimes because I read them and don't say them. I know there's words I can add (once I've had coffee) so I might have to come back. :-)I'm printing that poem.

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