96: How 'women' could have been 'wimmen'

Noah Webster did his best to make spelling easier, but his ideas weren't always accepted.


Hi everyone, and welcome back to Seattle Learning Academy's American English Pronunciation Podcast. My name is Mandy, and this is our 96th episode.

Noah Webster, of the famed Merriam Webster's Dictionary published his American Dictionary of the English Language way back in 1828. It was the first dictionary of word usage specifically for the United States. Webster's second claim to fame was his bold desire to simplify spelling and make it more phonetic. In other words, he wanted spelling and pronunciation to match more closely. For those of us born in the United States, Webster did simplify things somewhat. For non-native English speakers, however, it really only made learning English spelling more complex. Yes, you can blame Noah Webster for the fact that Americans have different spellings from the rest of the world.

Many of Webster's more audacious spellings never made it into the mainstream. One word that kept its Old English roots is the word women, the plural of woman. Webster adamantly suggested changing the w-o-m-e-n spelling to a more phonetic w-i-m-m-e-n.

As a teacher of English to non-native speakers, I find myself sometimes wishing the w-i-m-m-e-n spelling had stuck. Wimmen, so clearly pronounced with a short i sound as the first vowel. Women.

I don't know of any spelling Webster wished for the singular of women though. The other u sound (other u) of the word woman has no simple phonetic pattern in English. That (other u) sound is the same vowel sound as the words put, p-u-t, and good, g-o-o-d. I'm not sure people would really guess that sound, however, even if the word woman were spelled w-u-m-a-n or w-o-o-m-a-n. Both of those spellings could have just as much confusion as the w-o-m-a-n spelling. It would be helpful, however, to get rid of the letter a in the word woman. If you understand schwa, though, you should be expecting that a to get reduced.

Maybe, if woman weren't such an odd word phonetically, the w-i-m-m-e-n spelling of women could have become the norm. However, I imagine it would still have been quite difficult to convince the rest of the English-speaking world that it is a good idea. For the most part, they didn't like even the most sensible of Webster's ideas.

For a little quick practice, repeat woman and women after me:


woman women


Once the vowel sounds are understood for these words, then the only other trick is making sure your w sound isn't replaced with a v sound. Listen and repeat again, making sure your w sound is not vibrating against you top front teeth.


woman women


You can find the transcripts for this, and all of our podcast episodes, at www.pronuncian.com/podcast. I'll also add a link with this week's episode for other examples of Noah Webster's spelling reform. Also, don't forget, for all Pronuncian.com updates, you can follow us on Twitter at Pronuncian, p-r-o-n-u-n-c-i-a-n.

That's all for today everyone. Thanks for listening.

This has been a Seattle Learning Academy digital publication. Seattle Learning Academy is where the world comes to learn.