How Came We to Spell Thus

Part of our Spelling Series:

How Came We to Spell Thus?

Something to keep in mind in the midst of the “exception” frustration with English spelling is the fact that “way back when” (not to be too specific) there were no silent letters.  All of the letters are there because they were pronounced at some time or other. Weird, huh?  So, no silent e?  


Each vowel generally had one sound:

a = ah, as in father
e = ay, as in day
i = ee, as in see
o = ah, as in tot
u = ooh, as in boot

I’m saying “generally” here, because we could argue this depending on which century we’re talking about, or certain authors, poetry or prose, etc.  And probably regions and the education level of the speakers.  (I think I see crowds with torches in the distance.)

Accompanying vowels (diphthongs) were an attempt to indicate a slight schwa (ə) sound, “uh”, after the initial vowel.

So, boat isn’t just spelled like that to confuse little kids.  It was pronounced something like, bah-ut.  

Bait would be something like, bah-eet.  

If you repeat these over and over, running the sounds together more and more quickly, you may be able to see how the sounds could have come to be pronounced as they are today.

Ate would be ah-tuh.  We’ve completely lost that one, which is why we now explain this word by saying that the e makes the a say its name.    

We’ll talk about our silent e rules another time.  

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Now, for some of the really tough ones.  I ended the last installment with this smart-aleck comment on “rules.”  

“I before E, except in a heist on a weird, feisty, beige, foreign neighbor.”  

First, let me eliminate the words that are not in need of defending


Heist is a slang word that, interestingly (to me, anyway) isn’t even in my 1946 two-volume dictionary.  I wonder if it was made popular by way of movies.  My next best dictionary says that it is a form of hoist, which is itself an alteration of a dialect word, hoise.  It doesn’t say which dialect, but imagine a Cockney cat burglar concocting a hoise, then gently add the t because you didn’t understand him correctly, and take it from there.  

Beige and foreign are actually both foreign, originally from Old French. Which often explains a lot of the confusion.  When we get to some of the more strange words in our spelling lessons, I will often say to my class, “Guess why this word is spelled so weird.”  The typical correct answer is, “It’s French!”  So, again, not English’s fault.  

Feisty is also missing from my 1946 dictionary, but I’ll paraphrase the etymology from my next-best for you.  It is a form of the word feist, which is a variation of the obsolete fist, short for fisting dog, from the Middle English fist, a foul smell, from the word fisten, which means to break wind.  So there!

Which leaves us with weird.  For which there is a logical explanation based on the above vowel explanations.  Way-ird, or something like.  The pronunciation of which most likely explains the settling on the spelling of the other words in question.   

A couple of other things to note before closing:

The phonogram ough has six possible sounds.  Again, this is not the result of a conspiracy. In older English pronunciations, gh was a guttural sound, as in German even now.  Take our basic vowels above and you have:

tough = tah-uh-gh (Not three separate syllables. I separate them to avoid this uhgh)
cough = cah-uh-gh
plough = plah-ug-gh
dough = dah-uh-gh
through = thrah-uh-gh
ought = ah-uh-ght

They all sounded much the same.  

Right, night, tight, etc.  Reeght, neeght, teeght, et cetera.  

Does that help?


Spelling Series Articles:

A Severely Abbreviated History of English

How Came We to Spell Thus

Let’s Get Started

The Next Step: Blended Families


-ible, -able Endings