150: Common spellings and non-phonetic words

How do we choose which spellings are common and which words are non-phonetic?


Hi again, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English pronunciation podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 150th episode.

This episode is a little complex in topic, so I'd recommend following along with the transcripts if you are not an advanced English learner or a native speaker. You can find the transcripts at www.pronuncian.com/podcast. Just click the link to Episode 150.

I was recently asked why the lesson on Pronuncian.com and the new Pronunciation Pages book say that the long a sound is commonly spelled eigh (as in the word eight), but not ey (as in the word they). This is a good question, and one worth explaining. I included the eigh spelling, but not the ey spelling because of the predictability of the phonetics involved. Phonetics is the term used when spellings and pronunciations match, or correspond, in a language. English is considered a phonetic language overall, though there are many exceptions to the phonetic patterns. Deciding what is a pattern and what is an exception can seem arbitrary at times, and in some ways, it is. I have seen texts that do include the ey spelling for the long a sound, but don't include the eigh spelling. As I said a bit ago, I base the patterns on predictability.

First, I look at how many total words use a specific spelling. For the eigh spelling, there are approximately 200 different words. That is a surprisingly high number, but it includes all closed compound nouns and derivations of a word. For instance, for just the main word neighbor, there are ten variations of that word, including the words: neighbored, neighborhood, neighborhoods, neighboring, neighborless, neighborliness, neighborlinesses, neighborly, and neighbors.

Then, to choose which spellings are most predictable, I see how many variations of pronunciation exist for a specific spelling. Of the original list of over 200 words that include the eigh spelling, relatively few are not pronounced with a long a sound, and most of those are variations of the word height, including, more commonly, heights and heighten. Those words are pronounced with a long i sound. The rest of the words that are spelled eigh are pronounced with a long a. Because the percentage of words pronounced with a long a is so high, that spelling is added to the common spellings section of the lesson.

The ey spelling is far more complex and common than the eigh spelling. When I checked for that spelling anywhere in a word, I found more than 1,300 words. However, all the words that I know that have the long a pronunciation spelled ey use that spelling at the end of the word. So I searched for the ey spelling at the end of a word, and I found just over 350 words. When scanning the list, I could see that the majority of the words that end in ey are pronounced with the long e sound. Many of these are related to words that originally end in the letter e and then have the -y ending added to it, making a noun into an adjective, such as the words smile and smiley. The -y spelling alone is already included in the long e common spellings list.

Only six of the more than 350 words that end in the letters ey end in the long a sound. Those words are: grey, hey, prey, survey, they, and obey. Only the words grey and they are common words. That is too low of a percentage of corresponding spellings and pronunciations for me to consider it common.

So, to decide whether to include a spelling in the common spelling list or to just list the higher frequency words in the non-phonetic portion of each lesson, I check the predictability of the pronunciation. If the pronunciation is highly predictable, such as it is for the eigh spelling and the long a pronunciation, I will include the spelling in the common spelling list. If the percentage of words with a specific spelling that is pronounced with a certain sound is quite low, I will pick the most common words and include them in the non-phonetic words section of the lesson. My goal is to provide learners with some idea of how likely a pronunciation will be.

To practice the long a/eigh spelling, here are some of the more common words with that spelling. I'll leave time for you to repeat after me:


And here are a few words that are spelled ey that are also pronounced with with long a sound:


I'll link to the free long a lesson from the transcripts for this show. The lesson is also included in our book, Pronunciation Pages 2, Sounds of American English and our Vowels eBooklet. You can find information about both of those on our products page.

Let me know what you think of our approach of classifying spellings. Does it work for you? Is there some other way that the material could be presented to make it more clear to you as a learner or teacher? Perhaps I could change the heading of Common Spellings to Predictable Spellings to make it a little more accurate. Do you think the ey spelling should be added to the long a common spellings list? I've started a forum post on this topic in the EnglishAssembly.com forums so you can give me your opinion.

Thanks to Akrum in Saudi Arabia for originally asking me the question, giving me the opportunity to explain some of the processes behind the lessons on Pronuncian.com and in Pronunciation Pages.

That's all for today everyone. This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. SLA is where the world comes to learn.

Thanks for listening.