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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How wacky is English spelling?


Here's a challenge for you: how many ways can the syllable that sounds like “SEE” be spelled in English? Can you think of an example word to illustrate each of those spellings? Keep thinking! All will be revealed at the end of this article. Don't cheat by looking!


Because English speakers have been such enthusiastic borrowers from other languages throughout our history, our spelling is notoriously non-phonetic. It causes grief to both native speakers and second-language learners. But its sheer quirkiness has contributed to what we can only call a “language as parlour game” phenomenon: English speakers love to test their linguistic mettle (or is that “metal”, or “meddle”, or “medal”?) in games like spelling bees, and our many homophones make the language a fertile source for punsters.



(How are you doing on those “SEE” spellings? Are you up to 10 yet? There are more!)



English is a wacky language. Lunatic, even. Consider how many ways we can write the sound “TOE”.



In a sensible language, it would be written “to”. But no, not for us. The digraph “to” is pronounced “TOE” in some words, but when to is a word unto itself, it is pronounced “TOO”, not of course to be confused with two or too, dear me I am feeling faint.


pto ptomaine
tau taupe
teau plateau
teaux Saulteaux
tho Thomism
to potato
toa toad
toe toe
toh butoh
tot Pitot
tow tow
tto ditto
(12 spellings)

Twelve spellings,” you think, “But that's ridiculous!” (By the way, how are those “SEE” spellings coming along? There are more than twelve!)

Okay, then. Or should I say, “Oqué!” Because, for the sound in “okay” we have:


ca caber
cai caiman
cay decay
cca occasion
cei ceilidh
cha chaos
k KO
ka kaolin
kay okay
ke kea
kei keiretsu
key Keynesian
kka Akkadian
qa qadi
qué appliqué
que quesadilla
quet bouquet
(17 spellings)

Seventeen??!! Surely there (not “their” or “they're”) can't be more for “SEE”!

Think again!

And while you're mulling on that, let's talk about homophones some more. Our old confusable friends affect/effect, desert/dessert, and principal/principle are problems for all English speakers. But what are homophones for Canadians are not necessarily homophones in other varieties of English.

For instance, khat (an Arabian shrub the leaves of which are chewed as a stimulant), cot, and caught are all pronounced the same in Canadian English but differently in Southern Standard British English (where, what's more, caught is a homophone of court, and khat is a homophone of cart).

A particularly interesting phenomenon occurs when a vowel precedes the letter “r”. For most Canadians the words harry and hairy are perfect homophones. Dictionaries from other countries would fail to warn you about this.

It's not just the vowels that are a problem, though. In North America we tend to pronounce the letter “t” between two vowels or before a syllabic “l” as “d”; hence it is possible to confuse tutor and Tudor or hurtle and hurdle. I once was very confused by a discussion with a lawyer where he seemed to be referring to the company infringing someone else's trademark as a "traitor". "That's a bit harsh," I thought, till I realized the word he was using was "trader"!

You might think, “Well, really, who would ever confuse tootsie and Tutsi?” But bear in mind that in a spelling bee, a contestant is given the word orally out of context, so they have no way of knowing, when they hear the sound “TOOT see” (there, I've just given you two spellings of “SEE”!), whether piggies going to market or African peoples are meant. There are many more homophones than you probably suspect: we identified 1800 of them in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.

To keep you entertained while you're still working on your “SEE” list, here are some other syllables in English with wildly variant spellings:

The choux is on the other foot:

choux choux paste
sciu prosciutto
shoe shoe
shoo shoo
shu Shuswap
su sensual
tu punctual
xu sexual
(8 spellings)

Jai thee to a nunnery:

ha'i Baha'i
hai Haida
hay Haydnesque
hei heinie
heigh height
hi hi
hie hie
high high
hy hyacinth
jai jai alai
(10 spellings, 11 if we also count chai in l'chaim)

Heaving a sci:

ci cite
cy cyan
psi psi
psy psych
sai saiga
say sayonara
sci sciatic
scy scythe
si site
sig sign
sigh sigh
ssai assai
ssi Messiah
sy prophesy
xi xi
(15 spellings)

For a small phoe:

fae faeces
fe febrile
fea feat
fee fee
ffee coffee
ffei caffeine
ffi graffiti
ffy taffy
fi fiasco
fie fief
fil fils
fille fille de joie
filles filles du roi
fit confit
fj fjord
foe foetus
fy salsify
ghie toughie
ghy roughy
phae nymphae
phe phenol
phee biographee
phi morphine
phoe phoebe
phy philosophy
(a whopping 25 spellings)

But “SEE” trumps them all. This is your last chance. Exhausted all the possibilities you can think of?

There are THIRTY-ONE different spellings of SEE” in English!

From cey to coe:


c C-section

cae Caesar
ce cede
cea cease
cee Sadducee
cei receive
cey Ceylonese
ci calcium
cie policies
coe coelom
cy icy
sce scene
sci hyoscine
se sebum
sea sea
see see
sei seize
sey curtsey
si Tutsi
sie siege
sse Tennessean
ssee lessee
ssey odyssey
ssi lassi
ssie lassie
ssy sissy
sy hypocrisy
xe tuxedo
xi taxi
xie pixie
xy boxy



I can only conclude that all of us who have to write English, especially those of us who make our livings in the language industries, deserve a meddle, dammit, I mean medal for putting up with this chaos.

If you would be interested in taking my Rollicking Story of English course in January and February, please let me know (wordlady.barber@gmail.com). It would be a weekday morning or afternoon in Toronto (let me know which days and times suit you best). 9 weeks, $280. 






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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.