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Thursday, November 14

The "Esh" Phoneme

When one faithfully keeps a journal for over twenty years, it’s odd how remembered events and thoughts can disappear into the sea of words. I recently mentioned one of my pet English language anomalies—the many different spellings we have for the “esh” phoneme. I know I wrote an essay about it, listing all the words that exemplify the various “esh” spellings. Can I find it? No way. It’s somewhere, but I don’t know where. I’d have to wade through four or five thousand journal pages to find it, and though I’m fond of my own words, I’m not four or five thousand pages fond.

Here it is again, with most of the examples, but not all. It serves my purpose for showing how agonizingly complex English spelling and pronunciation is.
1. “sh” – devilish. So far, so good, the obvious choice for our “esh” spelling.
2. “s” – sugar, sure. Okay, does the “u” after the “s” cause it to come out as “esh”? What about “nauseous?” Is the “s” acting alone or is it working with the “e”? (This word can be pronounced three ways, but the preferred way is with the “esh.”)
3. “se” – nauseous. One way or the other, “s” alone or “se.”
4. “si” – compulsion, expulsion
5. “sc” – fascist
6. “sch” – (Most borrowed from German, but many also from Yiddish) schist, schilling, schmaltz, schmo, schnooze, schnapps, schmuck (Careful who you call a schmuck; in Yiddish it basically means “penis.”), and a double example, schottische (an “esh” on both ends)
7. “sche” – schottische
8. “ss” – fissure, issue
9. “ssi” – mission. Is the “i’ working with the “ss”? What happens when the “i” is removed? You get “misson,” which loses the “esh”; therefore, the “i” must be working with the “ss” to make the “esh.”
10. “c” – commercial, racial, facial, delicious, atrocious
11. “ch” – chute, chartreuse, champagne, chamois (mostly borrowed from French), , Chinook (an oddity which can be pronounced with hard “ch” when it signifies a native American tribe or as an “esh” when it means a warm wind)
12. “t” – novitiate, Horatio, fellatio
13. “ti” – confidential, exemption, motion, palatial (But isn’t it odd that in “palatial” the “c” from “palace” has changed to a “t”?)
14. “xi” – anxious (But odd that the “x” changes to a “z” sound in “anxiety.”)
15. “chs” – fuchsia (a lone oddity in that it derives from Leonhard Fuchs, a 16th century German botanist)
16. “psh" - pshaw (often mispronounced as “pishaw”)

A few more examples of the way English can mystify people seeking to learn our language. “Sew” and “few” look like they should be pronounced with the same vowel quality, “oo.” But “sew” is like “so” and “few” is with a diphthong that sounds like “eee-uw,” that sound of disgust when we see something yucky. And “gone” and “dawn” rhyme, but their spellings are dramatically different. Then there’s the “mb” problem, words that use this spelling but which choose to make the “b” silent, and each time, the “o” that’s trapped in front of it changes color: “bomb”- “ comb”-“tomb.” How’s that for inconsistency?
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