Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Spelling and knowhow: the oddest English spellings, part 23

We are so used to the horrors of English spelling that experience no inconvenience at reading the word knowhow. Why don’t know and how rhyme if they look so similar? Because such is life. In addition to the ignominious bow, as in low bow, one can have two strings to one’s bow, and I witnessed an incident at a hockey game, when a certain Mr. Prow kicked up a row, complaining of an inconvenient row, but the crowd pacified him, and, as a result, he had to eat crow. By the way, the man’s family name Prow, as he later told me, is pronounced with the vowel of grow, not of prowess or proud. In return, I explained to him that prow (a ship’s forepart) rhymed with grow for centuries and then changed its pronunciation, perhaps to align itself with bow (which bow? Its synonym of course) or for another equally obscure reason (see below). Such changes are trivial. More surprising is the fact that millions of people who are ready to protest anything on the slightest provocation tolerate English spelling and sometimes even defend it for sentimental reasons. Since when have we become so docile and conservative on both sides of the Atlantic? Answer: Since roughly the late Middle Ages.

You see William Tell, the unbowed Swiss hero. He had another arrow to his bow, but, fortunately, it was not needed.
You see William Tell, the unbowed Swiss hero. He had another arrow to his bow, but, fortunately, it was not needed.

The digraph ou is not very common, but it does occur in soul, foul, ghoul, and Ouida, for example (decades ago, Ouida was one of my favorite authors, and I, naturally, mispronounced her name), and has a different value in each (of course!). Although the number of words with ou is relatively small, it is amusing to compare them with sole, fowl, and mewl (let us pity Ouida and leave her pseudonym mix with rouille or among other weeds in the flowering wilderness of English place and proper names). By contrast, ow is very common and is one of the most confusing orthographic symbols in English. By the same token, the diphthong [ou] can be spelled in several ways. (Signs in brackets designate sounds.) Sometimes all is clear: so, no, ho ho (or just ho: I am sorry)—perfect words in an imperfect world. But then come sow (which sow? Try to guess), oh, hoe, soul ~ sole, bowl, coal, role ~ roll, toll ~ extol, sold, troth (by the way, bowl is one of the most often mispronounced words by foreigners: they associate it with owl and howl—poor benighted foreigners: they are welcome, even though they cannot realize that no English word should ever be pronounced without consulting its transcription in a good dictionary).

Rouille is a kind of French sauce. Have you ever tasted it? Ouida might have liked it.
Rouille is a kind of French sauce. Have you ever tasted it? Ouida might have liked it.

In so far as this is an etymological blog, we may look at the history of a few words with ow. To begin with, Middle English had two o-vowels: open and closed. This type of difference is easy to observe: compare open [e] in Modern Engl. man and closed [e] in men; even half-open [e] can be heard at the beginning of the word air. But the two o’s merged rather early in the history of English, and, as a result, groan, for instance (with the historically open o) became indistinguishable from grown (which had closed o). The same merger happened in moan ~ mown and quite a few other words.

The Old English for bow “to bend” sounded as būgan; g was a fricative, or a spirant, that is, the voiced counterpart of ch in Scottish loch. After a, o, and u, this fricative became w. This leap needn’t surprise us; g is articulated in the back of the mouth, and w needs the lips; both are “peripheral,” as opposed to t, d, etc., which are “central.” Peripheral consonants tend to exchange hostages, and gan yielded wan. Later, long u (ū) became a diphthong by the Great Vowel Shift, as in now, how; hence bow “to bend.” Bow “an archer’s weapon” goes back to Old Engl. boga. I’ll skip the details, but a look at the pair būgan/ boga makes it clear that the stressed vowels in them were different, as their reflexes still are, and it is a misfortune that today both are designated by ow.

When we see a Modern English word with ow, its phonetic history will usually resemble either bow “to bend” or bow “a weapon.” But there is a chapter that can be called “Spelling strikes back.” The Old English form of low “not high” was lāh (with the inflected form lāge), while low “to moo” was hlōwan. Today they should not have been homophones, but they are, seemingly under the influence of the verb’s written image. At the end of the eighteenth century, many people still rhymed low “to moo” with how. Prowl rhymed with role. Here, [au] is pronounced instead of the expected [ou].  Moult ~ molt has a crystal-clear etymology: it goes back to Latin mūtare “to change,” whose long u was expected to become the same diphthong as in now and how.  Even its l is partly mysterious, but it won’t concern us today. Incidentally, the infamous bowl should also have ended up with the diphthong [au], but this did not happen, perhaps for no weightier reason than to bewilder foreigners. Mow “to cut down grass,” from Old Engl. māwan, has only one pronunciation, but mow “grimace,” possibly from French, has two. The variation prow [ou] ~ prow [au] has already been noted. Why this word’s pronunciation changed some two centuries ago is anybody’s guess.

Above, troth turned up in a list of words with the diphthong [ou]. This noun has the suffix –th, as in length, breadth, width. The related verb is trow, now archaic (I trow “I believe, I suppose”). Its pronunciation vacillated for quite some time, so that the word rhymed alternately with now and with no. In the rare cases in which troth still occurs, it rhymes with oath. Sloth has a similar history; it is, naturally, akin to slow. Dictionaries compiled around the middle of the twentieth century were unanimous: British sloth rhymes with oath, American sloth rhymes with cloth (if pronounced with a short vowel). Though all the modern sources give two variants for the American word, it seems that one of them predominates. Troth and sloth should have been spelled trowth and slowth, but who expects logic in this business?

This is a sewer, a proper image for modern English spelling.
This is a sewer, a proper image for modern English spelling.

Many of us must have seen the spelling shew for show. George B. Shaw, for instance, used only the variant shew, and so did Skeat. I have no idea how they pronounced this word. Perhaps an explanation is in order. The Old English verb scēawian belonged to the class in which stress alternated between ē and the following vowel, so that scéawian coexisted with sceáwian. One variant yielded shew (still common in British dialects), while the other became show. The variant shew is misleading for most speakers of Standard English (if such a variety of English exists). Much less common than shew is strow for strew, but then, unlike show, strew goes back to the form with éo. The difference between show and shew is mirrored by the etymological doublets troth and truth. Finally, let us not miss the horror of sew and sewer. Unlike shew, which strikes most as exotic, sew (“to stitch together”) is the only spelling we have, even though it rhymes with sow (the verb sow “to scatter seed,” not the noun sow “female swine”).

We just wanted to shew you a familiar face.
We just wanted to shew you a familiar face.

When we look at the Old and Middle English forms of the words, discussed in this post, a reasonable explanation for their spelling usually (not always) emerges, but the picture history handed down to us is frightening: different ways of designating the same vowel and different vowels designated by the same letters or digraphs. Weepers of the world unite!

Image credits: (1) William Tell, Public Domain via Project Gutenberg (2 and Featured image) “Almogrote2” by sao mai, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (3) “sewer” by Greg Hayter, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (4) “George Bernard Shaw” by  Davart Company, New York City, USA, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    ouch!

  2. Masha Bell

    Was the adoption of ‘ow’ for ‘ou’ in some words not simply another case of the many silly random spelling changes introduced by scribes and early printers (see History on my EnglishSpellingProblems blog)? They were all fond of adding extra letters willy-nilly. Did they not simply change Chaucer’s ‘broun, doun, toun’, with a single u, as still used in ‘thou’, to a ‘double u’?

  3. Anne

    Real shame the spelling wasn’t standardized back in the 19th century. I’m not really why it wasn’t.

    Of course there were big variations in the spoken language between the UK and North America.

    Still, much could have been done.

    Perhaps you have already written about why efforts failed. Other European languages were standardized.

    If you have not already written about this, maybe you would consider it as a topic.

  4. stephen hugh-jones

    Oh, come along. The OU in the name Ouida is pronounced exactly the same as the OU in ‘ghoul’

  5. Norman Paterson

    Let’s not forget “bowsprit” – a spar running out from a ship’s bow, to which the forestays are fastened. And which is pronounced here as [b@UsprIt] (using Sampa). That doesn’t quite fit with the story about “bow” and “prow” in para 1.

  6. Michael

    ‘ow’ is definitely one of the most frustrating spellings, for natives and foreigners alike. It’s such a waste of learning time when it could easily be fixed by some kind of simple spelling change, but I (or we all) digress.

    Also, strow is exceedingly common here in the southern United States, maybe even more than strew.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *