In class last week we were looking at pronunciation ... and something caught me out. Why are some words spelt very similar to multiple others, yet pronounced so differently?

Is it because of their origin, or because they are different types of thing (pear and bear are living, the rest aren't), or something else?

Are there any strange rules I could learn to help correctly pronounce a new word?

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    The short answer is that English spelling is largely arbitrary, and does not represent English pronunciation; there are always exceptions, like this, to any spelling rule. In the case of bear and pear, a look at the etymologies in a good dictionary should explain where they came from, if not why they're spelled that way. The important thing is not to expect English spelling to represent pronunciation; because it doesn't. No matter what they told you in school. – jlawler Sep 22 '14 at 13:43
  • We were taught that most words are spelt how they sound, but I've always wondered about bow and bow, row and row etc. So the origin of the word may be a clue - not much use to me, as I won't know that by looking. I could look it up, but then I could look up how to say it too. Thank you very much. – user4830 Sep 22 '14 at 14:38
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    The thing is that every word has its own history, and there is very little generality in how the spellings come about. English spelling has only been fixed since the 17th century; before printing, people spelt words the way they sounded to them, by their own spelling conventions -- much the same way handwriting still works. Spelling doesn't matter as much to native speakers, because they already know the pronunciations and only hafta learn the spellings. Which many don't, especially since spell-correct became general. – jlawler Sep 22 '14 at 14:39
  • Annex robert bytebuster prash - this is not a grammar/usage question. It is a question regarding the orthographic similarity of words that posses different phonetic presentation, looking specifically at why there is such a difference. Funny how several people managed to understand what I was asking (if you look at the answer by michaelyus - not only did they take the time to read and understand, but provided a superb answer - as my old teacher used to say - someone worth emulating!) – user4830 Sep 24 '14 at 20:59

This question isn't just about spelling, because when these spellings were standardised, it is highly likely that all these words ending with "-ear" were pronounced in the same way. However, gradually between the 15th and 17th centuries as standardisation was setting in, the Great Vowel Shift occurred, changing the pronunciation of the vast majority of the vowels in English.

This group rhyming with "ear" is usually called the NEAR lexical set in modern English, and was pronounced /eːr/ in early modern English; in Received Pronunciation this is usually /ɪə̯/, often smoothed to [ɪː]; in the General American standard, it's usually /iɹ/.

A set which was distinct but similar in early modern English was that pronounced with /ɛːr/, as exemplified by the spelling "-are" as in the lexical set SQUARE. This is /ɛə̯/ in Received Pronunciation (smoothed to [ɛː]), whilst in General American it is /ɛɹ/.

If this is what time did to sounds of NEAR, why were words like bear, pear, swear, wear, as well as werewolf, ere, there, where (compare with the spellings of here, sphere and mere) so different, ending up joining the SQUARE set?

In fact, something analogous happened to great, break and steak. Were they to follow the regular pattern set down by eat and meat, they would have merged into the same set as meet /eː/ by the end of the 16th century, and then changed into /iː/, modern lexical set FLEECE by the end of the Great Vowel Shift. Instead, they only went as far as /ɛː/ by the end of 16th century, then went to /eː/ and then to modern /ei/, lexical set FACE.

These are all exceptions to the Great Vowel Shift. Notice that these exceptions represented by bear and by great appear to be closer to their older pronunciations than their lookalikes near and meat. It appears that the former pair resisted the Great Vowel Shift to some degree. But why they were able to resist it, and why they resisted it, are questions as yet unanswered. On a practical level then, these ones should be seen as exceptions and memorised (one particularly relevant one is the dual pronunciation of tear, which splits according to meaning).

One paper from 1962 complains specifically about how divergent the pronunciation of the spelling ea is in modern English, despite the fact that most of the words with this pronunciation are of Anglo-Saxon origin.

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  • Thank you - that was a lot more than in thought I'd get - you folk are great (well, not the ones who decided they didn't like the question :) ) – user4830 Sep 24 '14 at 20:51

Michaelyus has given a good answer to the "why" part of your question. To reply only to the last part of the question: there are not any "strange" rules you could learn to help you to pronounce a new word. There are not even any non-strange rules. You do have to look up new words in a dictionary. Some things in life require effort.

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