It is said that donkey may have been from "dun" /ˈdʌn/ (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/donkey )

If that were true, I was wondering why donkey's pronunciation has changed from /ˈdʌŋki/ to /ˈdɒŋki/ while monkey is different.

I had a few hypotheses:

  1. The pronunciation of 'donkey' was affected by 'don'/dɒn/. But why hasn't 'monkey' been affected by 'mon' /mɔːn/, which is also a word. Maybe word frequency matters?

  2. Distinctive features-- somehow [d] makes [ɒ] a better choice for the following vowel while [m] prefers [ʌ]. However, I can't find a reasonable explanation along this route.

  3. It's just random. Like Ghoti.

Anyone has any thoughts? Preferably the distinctive feature method.

  • 2
    If the etymology from "dun" is true, I would guess the current pronunciation is either random or a spelling pronunciation, not a regular sound change. I'm not familiar with any word spelled 'mon' and pronounced /mɔːn/; what word are you talking about? Jun 17, 2016 at 23:25
  • 2
    I vote for spelling pronunciation: the pronunciation of "monkey" is odd for the spelling. Cf. honky, wonky, plonk, wonk, honk, conk. Though note monk.
    – user6726
    Jun 17, 2016 at 23:54
  • 1
    Spelling pronunciation seems like the obvious explanation.
    – TKR
    Jun 18, 2016 at 2:32
  • Onomatopoeia: "Hawww - Hee".
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 21, 2017 at 11:24
  • Jane Doe just a little heads up , check out Ghoti in a real Linguistics text, you will find that it's not really possible to join different sounds to form a word, without phonological rules, so yeah it's good for entertainment but is not a serious word. Sep 25, 2017 at 23:59

1 Answer 1


If the etymology from "dun" is true, I would guess the current pronunciation is either random or a spelling pronunciation, not a regular sound change.

Here's some evidence that some people think of the pronunciation "dunkey" as sounding uneducated due to the apparent mismatch between the spelling and the pronunciation: http://deepsouthmag.com/2013/04/25/not-our-kind-of-folks-southern-soundscapes-in-to-kill-a-mockingbird/, http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=516740 This perception could provide social pressure towards changing the pronunciation from /ˈdʌŋki/ to /ˈdɒŋki/ even though there was no general phonological reason for the vowel to change.

I'm not sure why similar pressures did not cause "monkey" to be pronounced with /ɒ/. One thing I notice is that the word "monkey" is older and so it may have had more time to get an established upper-class pronunciation that people were widely aware of. In contrast, "donkey" is more recent, and seems to have started out as a slang or lower-class word (the formal term used to be "ass") so when it started to be more widely used, it may have been easy to assume that the pronunciation with /ʌ/ was just some kind of lazy pronunciation or lower-class corruption of /ɒ/.

The ideas that spelling should indicate proper pronunciation, or that there are such things as "corrupt" or "lazy" pronunciations (that people of lower social classes or lower educational levels are particularly prone to use), are meaningless from an objective linguistic viewpoint, but nevertheless common. The existence of these ideas in literate societies means that spelling can have very real effects on spoken language, despite the common insistence among linguists that spoken language is the "real" thing and writing just an unimportant side-effect that allows us to record spoken language. (In fact, I think the idea that "real language = spoken language" is pushed so hard by some linguists because they're trying to combat the erroneous idea floating around in many cultures that the written word is primary).

  • 2
    Note that <onC> (C=a consonant) is usually /ɒn/. as pointed out by user6726 - except after <m>: User6726 mentions "monk", but there's also "month", "mongrel", "-monger". Actually the C may not be relevant: consider "among", and "amongst". This is not universal ("monster" is a counterexamples) but it is quite widespread.
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 21, 2017 at 18:44

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