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 ptomainetau taupeteau plateauteaux Saulteauxtho Thomismto potatotoa toadtoe toetoh butohtot Pitottow towtto ditto
“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 cabercai caimancay decaycca occasioncei ceilidhcha chaosk KOka kaolinkay okayke keakei keiretsukey Keynesiankka Akkadianqa qadiqué appliquéque quesadillaquet bouquet
Seventeen??!! Surely there (not “their” or “they're”) can't be more for “SEE”!
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 pastesciu prosciuttoshoe shoeshoo shooshu Shuswapsu sensualtu punctualxu sexual
Jai thee to a nunnery:
ha'i Baha'ihai Haidahay Haydnesquehei heinieheigh heighthi hihie hiehigh highhy hyacinthjai jai alai
(10 spellings, 11 if we also count chai in l'chaim)
Heaving a sci:
ci citecy cyanpsi psipsy psychsai saigasay sayonarasci sciaticscy scythesi sitesig signsigh sighssai assaissi Messiahsy prophesyxi xi
For a small phoe:
fae faecesfe febrilefea featfee feeffee coffeeffei caffeineffi graffitiffy taffyfi fiascofie fieffil filsfille fille de joiefilles filles du roifit confitfj fjordfoe foetusfy salsifyghie toughieghy roughyphae nymphaephe phenolphee biographeephi morphinephoe phoebephy 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:
cae Caesarce cedecea ceasecee Sadduceecei receivecey Ceyloneseci calciumcie policiescoe coelomcy icysce scenesci hyoscinese sebumsea seasee seesei seizesey curtseysi Tutsisie siegesse Tennesseanssee lesseessey odysseyssi lassissie lassiessy sissysy hypocrisyxe tuxedoxi taxixie pixiexy 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). It would be a weekday morning or afternoon in Toronto (let me know which days and times suit you best). 9 weeks, $280.