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Notes from Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber

What's New? by Katherine Barber

Ptoing the line for a small phoe

Here's a challenge for you: How many ways can the syllable that sounds like "SEE" be spelled in English? Can you think of an example word to illustrate each of those spellings? Keep thinking! All will be revealed at the end of this article.

Because English speakers have been such enthusiastic borrowers from other languages throughout our history, our spelling is notoriously non-phonetic. It causes grief to both native speakers and second-language learners. But its sheer quirkiness has contributed to what we can only call a "language as parlour game" phenomenon: English speakers love to test their linguistic mettle (or is that "metal", or "meddle", or "medal"?) in games like spelling bees, and our many homophones make the language a fertile source for punsters.

(How are you doing on those "SEE" spellings? Are you up to 10 yet? There are more!)

For the last year, my fellow lexicographers and I have been working on a new dictionary that focuses on the words that are hard to spell in English. There is an honourable tradition of such "hard words" dictionaries in English; indeed, the first dictionaries were this kind, but they have fallen out of favour somewhat, replaced by the all-inclusive dictionaries. However, the dramatic rise in the popularity of spelling bees has led (not lead) us to think that the time is ripe again for such a book, and thus Oxford's Canadian Spelling Bee Dictionary was born (not borne). It may surprise you to know that, even taking out the easy-to-spell words from the big Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we are still left with over 36,000 problem words.

So, for the last several months, we have thought about little else than spelling and pronunciation, and we have come to a radical conclusion. English is a wacky language. Lunatic, even. Consider how many ways we can write the sound "TOE". In a sensible language, it would be written "to". But no, not for us. The digraph "to" is pronounced "TOE" in some words, but when "to" is a word unto itself, it is pronounced "TOO", not of course to be confused with "two" or "too", dear me I am feeling faint.

pto ptomaine
tau taupe
teau plateau
teaux Saulteaux
tho Thomism
to potato
toa toad
toe toe
toh butoh
tot Pitot
tow tow
tto ditto
12 spellings

"Twelve spellings," you think, "But that's ridiculous!" (By the way, how are those "SEE" spellings coming along? There are more than twelve!)

Okay, then. Or should I say, "Oqué!" Because, for the sound in "okay" we have:

ca caber
cai caiman
cay decay
cca occasion
cei ceilidh
cha chaos
k KO
ka kaolin
kay okay
ke kea
kei keiretsu
key Keynesian
kka Akkadian
qa qadi
qué appliqué
que quesadilla
quet bouquet
(17 spellings)

Seventeen??!! Surely there (not "their" or "they're") can't be more for "SEE"!

Think again!

And while you're mulling on that, let's talk about homophones some more. Our new dictionary lists all possible homophones of the words that are included. So our old confusable friends affect/effect, desert/dessert, and principal/principle are there. These are problems for all English speakers. But because our dictionaries are Canadian, we reflect Canadian pronunciation, and what are homophones for us are not necessarily homophones in other varieties of English. For instance, "khat" (an Arabian shrub the leaves of which are chewed as a stimulant), "cot", and "caught" are all pronounced the same in Canadian English but differently in Southern Standard British English (where, what's more, "caught" is a homophone of "court", and "khat" is a homophone of "cart"). A particularly interesting phenomenon occurs when a vowel precedes the letter "r". For most Canadians the words "harry" and "hairy" are perfect homophones. Dictionaries from other countries would fail to warn you about this. It's not just the vowels that are a problem, though. In North American English we tend to pronounce the letter "t" between two vowels or before a syllabic "l" as "d"; hence it is possible to confuse "tutor" and "Tudor" or "hurtle" and "hurdle". On looking at our almost 1,800 homophone warnings, you might think, "Well, really, who would ever confuse tootsie and Tutsi??" But bear in mind that in a spelling bee, a contestant is given the word orally out of context, so they have no way of knowing, when they hear the sound "TOOT see" (there, I've just given you two spellings of SEE!), whether piggies going to market or African peoples are meant. There are many more homophones than you probably suspect.

To keep you entertained while you're still working on your "SEE" list, here are some other syllables in English with wildly variant spellings:

The choux is on the other foot:

choux choux paste
sciu prosciutto
shoe shoe
shoo shoo
shu Shuswap
su sensual
tu punctual
xu sexual
(8 spellings)

Jai thee to a nunnery

ha'i Baha'i
hai Haida
hay Haydnesque
hei heinie
heigh height
hi hi
hie hie
high high
hy hyacinth
jai jai alai
(10 spellings, 11 if we also count chai in l'chaim)

Heaving a sci:

ci cite
cy cyan
psi psi
psy psych
sai saiga
say sayonara
sci sciatic
scy scythe
si site
sig sign
sigh sigh
ssai assai
ssi Messiah
sy prophesy
xi xi
(15 spellings)

For a small phoe:

fae faeces
fe febrile
fea feat
fee fee
ffee coffee
ffei caffeine
ffi graffiti
ffy taffy
fi fiasco
fie fief
fil fils
fille fille de joie
filles filles du roi
fit confit
fj fjord
foe foetus
fy salsify
ghie toughie
ghy roughy
phae nymphae
phe phenol
phee biographee
phi morphine
phoe phoebe
phy philosophy
(a whopping 25 spellings)

But "SEE" trumps them all. This is your last chance. Exhausted all the possibilities you can think of? See below for the surprising answer.

I can only conclude that all of us who have to write English, especially those of us who make our livings in the language industries, deserve a meddle, dammit, I mean medal for putting up with this chaos.

From Cey to coe:
There are THIRTY different spellings of "SEE" in English!

cae Caesar
ce cede
cea cease
cee Sadducee
cei receive
cey Ceylonese
ci calcium
cie species
coe coelom
cy pharmacy
sce scene
sci hyoscine
se sebum
sea sea
see see
sei seize
sey curtsey
si si
sie siege
sse Tennessean
ssee lessee
ssey odyssey
ssi lassi
ssie lassie
ssy sissy
sy hypocrisy
xe tuxedo
xi taxi
xie pixie
xy boxy
(30 spellings)