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I'm a non-native speaker who started using English about a decade ago.

The problem is sometimes when I first encounter a new word, I fail to predict its correct prononciation. So, I check the dictionary to avoid learning it the wrong way. I like to tell myself that sometimes the pronunciation of some vowels is arbitrary; sometimes I just can't predict the exact pronunciation of words I've never seen, so I say.

Recently, I came across the word 'flaky'. I thought the 'a' could either be as in 'flashy' or as in 'flamy', meaning it is completely up to convention.

Is my interpretation correct? Could 'flaky' have been similar to 'flashy'? In other words, am I right in thinking there is no English phonological rule determining its pronunciation? Thank you.

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    There's no English phonological rule forbidding /flæki/. Macky, snacky, hacky, Blackie, lackey, and Jackie are all perfectly good English words. But they are all spelled with ACK, which is a spelling rule and therefore no more than a clue to be followed, since there are no correct spelling rules in English.
    – jlawler
    Jun 9 '18 at 17:46
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    Even worse, one could argue there is a word '[flæki]' that one could spell 'flaky', namely a (rather jocular) adjective derived from 'flak' as in 'he got a lot of flak for that'. However, flak is originally an acronym imported from German (Flugabwehrkanone) and you'd probably spell it 'flak-y' exactly to avoid the misreading [fleiki]. Jun 9 '18 at 18:53
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    See also linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/27472/… and its answers Jun 11 '18 at 14:28
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If the modern word had an /æ/, you would see it written "flacky", since historically the lengths of vowels changed when followed by a single consonant versus a long consonant or cluster before certain suffixes (including -y, -ing, -ed). And after the Great Vowel Shift, the difference has been quality rather than quantity.

This sounds complicated, but it's the rule every English-speaker learns in school, in its simplest form: when you have a vowel, one consonant, and an E, the vowel becomes "long". Consider the pairs rat/rate, pet/Pete, sit/site, rot/rote, cut/cute. Historically these pairs had actual long versus short vowels, but the Great Vowel Shift mixed them up spectacularly.

Nowadays <ck> and <k> are pronounced the same (just like <p> versus <pp> etc) and are only used to show the qualities of the surrounding vowels. This is why the borrowed verb "to picnic" has present participle "picnicking": to show that it should be pronounced with /ɪ/ (historically /i/) rather than /aj/ (historically /iː/).

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  • Also to prevent it from looking like it ought to rhyme with "icing", with /s/, but that's another story.
    – hobbs
    Jun 9 '18 at 19:50
  • @hobbs Indeed, <ci> typically became /si/, but the consonant doubling happens with other consonants too: consider "flapy" versus "flappy".
    – Draconis
    Jun 9 '18 at 20:06
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Predicting the pronunciation of an English word from its spelling is fairly tricky, especially when you’re dealing with vowels. The “short vowel before a double consonant” rule is a lot more reliable than a supposed “double consonant after a short vowel” rule—many words, such as “body”, “copy” and “Spanish”, are pronounced with “short” vowels despite being spelled with single consonant letters between vowel letters. Usually, you do have to look up a word like this in the dictionary to be complete sure about its pronunciation.

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