A is for Apple

[Editor’s note: this post was written for the TLG blog, but the bureaucratic gears ground to a halt before it got published, so I’m bringing it to you here. Enjoy!]

If you know English, you’ve probably heard “A is for Apple”, or something close to it, before. Assuming the words are all pronounced correctly, the thing that should jump out at you is that the sound that we use to say the letter “A” does not appear at all in the word “apple”. The question is, do we do this to confuse children, or is there some kind of reason behind it?

In traditional English instruction, the sound the vowel letters make when you say their name is known as the “long” version – so the letter “a” is pronounced by just making the “long a” sound, the letter “e” sounds like a “long e”, etc. The sound that the letter “a” makes in “apple” is called a “short” vowel sound.

One benefit of a decent “A is for Apple” alphabet is that it teaches children two sounds for every vowel – the long sound and the short sound. For example, if we have “A is for apple, E is for elephant, I is for insect, O is for octopus, U is for umbrella” – and if children hear these pronounced a lot and learn them – then children learn both the long vowel sound, the short vowel sound, the letter that commonly represents these sounds, and the association between the three. “A is for apple” is like a two-for-one deal on vowel pronunciations.

I mentioned that children learn the association between long and short versions of vowels. You might be wondering if this is a good thing. After all, long vowels and short vowels sound nothing like each other; aside from being written with the same letter (sometimes), they have nothing in common. Why would we want our students to associate the sound in “apple” with the sound in “gate”?

Well, it turns out the relationship between short and long vowels not only has a long history, but still holds up in modern English. Originally, “long” vowels were just that: they sounded like short vowels, just pronounced for a longer duration. The “length” of a vowel was often determined by things like stress or by the number and structure of syllables in the word – for instance, you might have a vowel that was long in a two syllable word, but that shortened if you added a third syllable.

Then, English long vowels underwent a series of changes called the Great Vowel Shift, while short vowels remained largely the same. The result is that in modern English, long vowels and short vowels no longer sound anything alike.

However, remember those words I mentioned above – the ones that changed vowel length in certain situations? Yeah, they’re still around, and they’re all over the English language.

Take a word like “nation” – the “a” is long – and turn it into an adjective, like “national”. Now, the “a” is short. Many of my students have a tendency to get this wrong, and pronounce “national” with a long a. Here are a few more examples:

profane, profanity
grateful, gratitude
staves, staff

serene, serenity
impede, impediment
experiment, experiment
concede, concession
sincere, sincerity
brief, brevity
keep, kept
meet, met
read, read
lead, led

divine, divinity
divide, division
derive, derivative
light, lit
wide, width
child, children

provoke, provocative
vocal, vocative
sole, solitude
cone, conic

deduce, deduction
consume, consumption
punitive, punish
moon, month

Other pairs hint at the older pronunciations of words that have shifted over time. For instance, “school, scholarly” and “lose, loss” seem to be undergoing shortening, but are mismatched: long u is becoming short o. Since, as noted above, the short vowels were historically more stable, it is likely that “school” and “lose” were once pronounced with a long o – and the etymology offers support for this theory. In fact, it is unclear why “lose” is pronounced with a long u sound in modern English, as this is a highly irregular pronunciation for that spelling.

The same holds for pairs like “profound, profundity”, “pronounce, pronunciation”, and “south, southern”. The modern “ou” sound must have once been pronounced as a long u, and again, the etymology bolsters this claim.

Linguists have lots of names for these relationships, depending on where they occur – there’s “trisyllabic shortening” and “closed-syllable shortening” and “open-syllable lengthening” and “pre-cluster shortening” – although some scholars argue that these are all reflections of the same underlying rules of syllable realization in English words and that calling them by different names obscures that fact.

In any case, the linguistic and historical side of things isn’t likely to be too much help to a class of first through sixth graders – but if there’s anything this background story should tell us, it’s that the traditional system of short and long vowels is still very much alive (alive, living) in modern English and that choosing the right materials to teach phonics can set the stage for a much broader and deeper understanding of English at the intermediate and advanced levels. English can be very messy, but a lot of the things that seem arbitrary are actually quite systematic, and if we are aware of how that system works, we can prepare our students (student, study) to use that system by teaching it to them, in very basic little bits and pieces, from the first day of class.

Starting with, “A is for apple.”

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