Words whose spelling has influenced their pronunciation
by Mark Israel
[This is a fast-access FAQ excerpt.]
"Cocaine" used to be pronounced /'coU cA: in/ (3 syllables).
"Waistcoat" used to be pronounced /'wEskIt/. "Humble" and "human"
were borrowed from French with no [h] in their pronunciation.
"Forte" in the sense "strong point" comes from French fort=
"strong, strong point"; the English spelling is what the OED calls
an "ignorant" substitution of the feminine form of the adjective
for the masculine noun. But even in the French feminine form
forte, the "e" is not pronounced.
"Zoo" is an abbreviation of "zoological garden". The (popular
but stigmatized) pronunciation of "zoological" as /zu:@'[email protected]/
(as opposed to /[email protected]'[email protected]/) is due to the influence of "zoo".
"Elephant" was "olifaunt" in Middle English, but its spelling was
restored to reflect the Latin "elephantus". Similarly, "crocodile"
"Golf" is Scots. The traditional Scots pronunciation is /gof/.
"Ralph" was traditionally pronounced /reIf/ in Britain -- Gilbert
and Sullivan rhymed it with "waif" in H.M.S. Pinafore; that's how
the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams pronounced his name; and even
today actor Ralph Fiennes (of Schindler's List fame) is said to
pronounce his name /reIf faInz/.
[Joe Carl White submitted the following comment:
To be specific, Gilbert is the one who rhymed it with "waif";
Sullivan provided the music for Little Buttercup to tell us
all about it:
In time each little waif
Forsook his foster-mother,
The well born babe was Ralph--
Your captain was the other!!!"]
"Medicine" and "regiment" were two-syllable words in the 19th
century: /'mEdsIn/ and /'[email protected]/. /'mEdsIn/ can still be heard
in RP. In 19th-century England, "university" was pronounced
/,ju:nIv'A:sItI/ and "laundry" was pronounced /'lA:ndrI/.
King Arthur would have pronounced his name /'artur/. The h's in
"Arthur" (now universally reflected in the pronunciation) and
"Anthony" (reflected in the U.S. pronunciation) were added in the
15th century -- ornamentally or, in the case of "Anthony", because
of a false connection with Greek anthos="flower".
The new pronunciations in such cases are called "spelling
pronunciations". The "speak-as-you-spell movement" is described in
the MEU2 article on "pronunciation".