Our Treacherous Alphabet

English is infamous for being hard to pronounce. In many other languages, like Spanish, Russian, and Japanese, each vowel makes pretty much one sound always, and that’s the end of it. In English, each vowel has a short sound and a long sound at a minimum: for example, “e” has a short sound in “net” and a long sound in “bleed.” And the short and long sounds don’t even half cover it. You’ve got the silent “e” (in “mime”), the schwa “e” (in “concatenation”), the long-A “e” (in “fiance”), and countless other sounds.

Our vowels are so rebellious, we can’t even decide which letters are vowels. What’s the formula we memorize? “A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y.” Chalk one up for consistency.

Our consonants, on the other hand, are pretty well-behaved. “A” may be all over the map, but “B” is solid and dependable.

Right?

It turns out, our language is even more rebellious than you might imagine. About a month ago, I was reading The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, and I came across this astonishing claim: not a single letter in the English alphabet can be relied upon for a consistent pronunciation.

Because I’m the nerdy OCD sort, I decided to test this out. On my own at first, and then enlisting Google for help, I went through all twenty-six letters. For each one, I tried to find two different words that showcase an inconsistent pronunciation for that letter. Which, by the way, was a lot harder than it might sound. For example, without looking at the list, see if you can think of an answer for “Z.”

Here’s what I came up with:

A – happy, maybe
B – ball, debt
C – cat, fleece
D – dog, Wednesday
E – net, bleed
F – fluffy, of
G – great, generous
H – hippo, honor
I – igloo, rite
J – judge, marijuana
K – kill, knowledge
L – log, quesadilla
M – mace, mnemonic
N – near, column
O – brood, office
P – papa, photo
Q – inquire, clique
R – rope, sommelier
S – sale, shift
T – tussle, thimble
U – umbrella, used
V – ???
W – wide, wry
X – fox, xylophone
Y – yellow, cry
Z – zoo, rendezvous

I came up with something for every letter but V. That’s not to say that V is consistent either, just that I couldn’t seem to find a counterexample.

In many cases (like “debt” and “Wednesday”) the alternate pronunciation was simply silence. That’s certainly a form of inconsistency.

You might be tempted to complain that some of these words (“quesadilla,” “sommelier”) don’t really count, because they’re foreign words borrowed into English. As you complain, though, remember that “complain” was itself borrowed from the Old French “complaindre.” Most of our language is borrowed, in fact. No reason to be hard on the new recruits – regardless of origin, it’s all English now.

We just don’t know how to pronounce it.

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2 responses to “Our Treacherous Alphabet

  1. I’m so relieved you posted the list because it saved my OCD nerdiness from needing to do this too. Awesome.

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