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3 Reasons for Syllabically Ambiguous Words

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Do you say car-a-mel or car-mel? Is your “fire” closer to fah-yer or fayr? There is a group of words in English that can be pronounced with two different syllable structures, depending on dialect, personal preference, or context of use. While many will insist that one or the other is incontrovertibly correct, there is usually no real basis for pronouncements on the one true syllable structure. Sometimes two things can both be correct. If you need a better authority than me on that, lots of dictionaries accept both pronunciations for all the words discussed below (e.g., Merriam-Webster). What’s more interesting than fighting about who’s right is understanding why these differences arise. There are three processes that result in syllabically ambiguous words.

1. Diphthongs, r’s, and l’s

One or Two Syllables: fire, tire, hour, liar, buyer, flower, drawer, layer, loyal, royal, file

All of these words have one- and two-syllable pronunciations. What do they have in common? They all have a diphthong followed by an r or l.

At least in their one-syllable versions. A diphthong is a glide from one vowel to another that takes place within one syllable. For example, the vowel sound in “hour” glides from “ah” to “oo.” A diphthong is not always represented in the spelling of a word. The vowel sound in “fire” glides from “ah” to “ee.”

The sounds that make up the second part of the diphthongs “oo” and “ee” can also serve as consonants when they start a syllable. “Win” starts in the “oo” position, but there, it is the consonant w. “Yes” starts in the “ee” position, but there, it is a y. (In technical terms, w and y are semivowels whose vowel/consonant status depends on whether they are in the nucleus of the syllable or at the edge of it.)

Sometimes the end of the diphthong becomes w or y, forming a second syllable. Hour becomes ah-wer and fire becomes fa-yer. This process also works in reverse. Sometimes a w or y moves over to join the vowel before it. Flo-wer becomes flour.

This kind of indeterminacy is all over the place. Think about “mower,” “shower,” “oil,” “hair,” “while,” or any other diphthong followed by l or r. Think of a one or two syllable pronunciation for each of them. Even if you think one of them sounds totally weird, you can imagine someone saying it.

2. Syncope

One or Two Syllables: orange, poem, crayon
Two or Three Syllables: caramel, mayonnaise, family, chocolate, camera, different, separate, favorite
Three or Four Syllables: interesting, comfortable
Four or Five Syllables: laboratory

These words all have a syllable which is often left out of the pronunciation. When we cut a sound out of the middle of a word, it’s called syncope (a three syllable word, sin-ko-pee). O-range becomes ornge, car-a-mel becomes car-mel, in-ter-es-ting becomes in-tres-ting. This pruning of syllables doesn’t happen in some random, haphazard fashion. If a vowel gets chucked, it will be before an r or l (those guys again!) or in some cases a nasal (m or n). It will also be from an unstressed syllable. So the American LA-buh-ra-to-ry becomes lab-ra-to-ry, while the British la-BO-ra-to-ry become la-bo-ra-try.

3. Epenthesis

Two or Three Syllables: realtor
Three or Four Syllables: mischievous

When we stick a sound into the middle of word, it’s called epenthesis. A few words gain extra syllables this way. Do you say mis-chi-vous or mis-chee-vee-ous? Real-tor or real-a-tor? Epenthesis usually happens in order to make something easier to pronounce—because some words can be as tricky as a mischievous realtor.

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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The Early 20th Century Society That Tried to Make English Spelling More Intuitive
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The English language is notorious for complex spelling rules—and the many words that break them. We all know i comes before e, except, of course, in certain weird words like, well, weird. We pronounce the letter i like eye if the word ends in an e—except in words like give. Unsurprisingly, even native English speakers get fed up with the inanity of the language’s complicated spelling conventions, and there have been several pushes to replace them with something a little more intuitive over the centuries, as The Public Domain Review highlights.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the London-based Simplified Speling Soesiety was one of the groups pushing for a more logical system of English spelling. Its journal, first published in 1912, refers to standard English spelling as "in sum waiz unreezonabl and retrograid.” So the group went about coming up with new ways to spell common words itself, hoping its alternate approach would catch on.

The Pioneer ov Simplified Speling contained a pronunciation guide, but many of its alternative spellings can be deciphered fairly easily. As long as you peruse carefully, that is. Reading through the publication feels like stumbling through an archaic text from hundreds of years ago, rather than something written during the 20th century.

A pronunciation guide from the 'Pioneer of Simplified Speling'
The Pioneer of Simplified Speling

Go ahead and wade into how the group, founded in 1908, explained its mission in the first edition of The Pioneer:

The aim ov the Soesiety nou iz tu plais befor the public cleer staitments ov the cais against the curent speling, tu sho hou seerius ar the consecwensez ov yuezing it, and hou much wood be gaind, if sum such sceem az that ov the Soesiety wer adopted.

Did you get all that?

The debut edition of the quirky journal, which you can read on the Internet Archive, includes not just the group’s mission statement and goals, but birthday congratulations to the Society’s founding president, aggregated updates about spelling in the news (like that in an interview, British chemist Sir William Ramsay mentioned a German child never making a spelling mistake), the announcement of the group’s annual meeting (at which members would submit new simplified spellings for discussion), and other minor spelling-related notes.

The whole thing is truly a treasure.

Fed-up readers and writers have been trying to wrangle English spelling conventions into something more manageable for essentially as long as there have been standardized spellings. Benjamin Franklin was a spelling reformer during his lifetime, as was Theodore Roosevelt. Soesiety member George Bernard Shaw went so far as to leave his estate in a trust dedicated to reforming the English alphabet when he died.

Though the spelling reformers of yore didn't find much mainstream acceptance for their ideas, there are still modern orthography obsessives who want to revamp the English spelling system to make it easier to learn. And they have a point: For English-speaking children, learning to read and write takes years longer than it does for kids learning to read in languages with easier spelling rules, like Finnish. Considering that one study of 7000 different English words found that 60 percent of them had irregularly used letters, it’s a wonder any of us English speakers have learned to read at all. If only the Simplified Speling Soesiety had gotten its way back in the early 1900s, maybe we would have an easier time of it.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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