Series: Get To Know English

Multiple choice: in the title of this piece, ‘The Past Pronounced’, how many /t/ sounds are there?

a) 1
b) 2
c) 3

We’ll come back to this in a moment.

If you’re familiar with how to pronounce William Ollier Jr’s contribution to the English language, ‘ghoti’, you might be aware of just how absurd the English language is when it comes to spelling and pronunciation.

Ghoti is another way to spell the word ‘fish’ if we acknowledge special instances of English spelling:

enou(gh) + w(o)men + na(ti)on = gh-o-ti — or, fish! (NB Don’t use this spelling in exams.)

So how many /t/ sounds can you spot in ‘The Past Pronounced’? Don’t look at the letters, listen to yourself.

Too often English speakers think they are making one sound when really they’re making another. How do you say the word ‘water’?

Across different accents, the /t/ sound can be as clear as a whack on a high hat, or muddied to the point of being a /d/. But we haven’t changed the spelling for regional accents mostly because it would make things even more confusing: the word ‘wader’ already exists and we follow different pronunciation rules to pronounce it.

The point is: a letter doesn’t always sound the same in every word. In ‘The Past Pronounced’ there are two ‘t’s and two /t/ sounds, but neither correspond with the other. The ‘t’ in ‘the’ is not pronounced (unless you happen to be from Dublin), while the ‘t’ in ‘past’ is. The second /t/ sound comes at the end of ‘pronounced’. Do you hear it now?

When learning English, students regularly approach these ‘ed’ words (the preterite [or 2nd form], and participle [or 3rd form] of a verb — ie pronounce; [2nd] pronounced; [3rd] pronounced) with trepidation. If the student’s mother tongue reads the same as it’s said — that is, the written form of the words reflects pronunciation consistently — the word ‘pronounced’ would be said like ‘pro-noun-sed’. ‘Fished’ would be ‘fish-shed’, ‘confused’ would be ‘con-foo-sed’. 
Let’s look at the ‘ed’ in three more examples. Listen to how it changes:




English has three sounds for the letter combination ‘ed’, and nothing in the spelling concretely gives an English learner a clue about how it should be pronounced. Instead, the final sounds of the root word dictate how that ‘ed’ will sound.

‘Realise’ ends in a /z/ sound. Can you feel your vocal chords vibrate? This is called a ‘voiced’ consonant. Voiced consonants will make ‘ed’ sound like /d/. ‘Realised’ ends in /zd/.

‘Silence’ ends in a /ts/ sound. It hisses out between your teeth, not down in your throat, and so is called ‘unvoiced’. Unvoiced consonants will make ‘ed’ sound like /t/. Unvoiced sounds dance around the mouth loosely without activating our vocal chords. ‘Silenced’ ends in /tst/.

‘Complicate’ ends in a /t/ sound. Verbs that end in /t/ or /d/ sounds force us to insert a short vowel sound to separate these ‘alveolar stop’ consonants from the ‘d’ at the end of the word. So while ‘realised’ and ‘silenced’ contain the same number of syllables as their root word, ‘complicated’ adds another: we say /təd/. All of this occurs in the mouth of native English speakers without thought. Really, the ‘ed’ is symbolic. It tells us that to make the word indicate the past (‘It excited me’) or an adjective (‘I am excited’) we give it an ‘alveolar stop’ sound (the /t/ or /d/) in the easiest way possible. To put it another way, the sound that changes the form of the word in these cases is a pointed explosion of sound, like a ‘badum-tsh!’. We have learned to listen out for it to understand the context of what someone is saying.

But not all is straightforward in English (…obviously). The language has almost 200 irregular verbs that kept their 2nd and 3rd forms from Old German like Oktoberfest hangovers. Or they tried to fit a mould but ended up deformed cousins of the ‘ed’ words. The former verbs change letters within themselves, following a ‘strong verb’ transformation process that is shared by languages with Proto-Indo-European roots. So instead of the additional ‘ed’, the word gets an upset stomach: ‘sing’ becomes ‘sang’ then ‘sung’; ‘drive’ to ‘drove’ to ‘driven’; ‘fall’ to ‘fell’ to ‘fallen’; ‘grow’, ‘grew’, grown’; not to forget the even-more-irregular ‘be’, ‘was/were’, ‘been’ and ‘go’, ‘went’, ‘gone’. In the case of the deformed cousins, English slapped on that familiar ‘alveolar stop’ sound at the end, while the middle fell victim to a vowel change: for example, ‘keep’, ‘creep’, ‘weep’, ‘leap’, and ‘leave’ become ‘kept’, ‘crept’, ‘wept’, ‘leapt’, and ‘left’, respectively; ‘buy’ becomes ‘bought’ and ‘catch’ becomes ‘caught’. In addition, English has verbs that — in the face of all this — are frankly quite drunk: ‘build’ exchanges one ‘alveolar stop’ for another so we get ‘built’; ‘come’ becomes ‘came’ then regresses back to ‘come’; ‘read’ changes pronunciation but not spelling; and ‘cut’ ‘cut’ ‘cut’ is happy to stay as is, thank you very much.

In conclusion, you can see why we have both the ‘dreamed’ and ‘dreamt’, ‘learned’ and ‘learnt’ spellings: the sound we make to pronounce the past is more important than the letters we put there.

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