28 July 2015


How do you pronounce gaol? If you are in Brunei, you might not know this spelling; but it occurs in the UK. Here is a street sign in Hereford:

In fact, it should be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/, and it is an alternative pronunciation for jail.

The problem with gaol is that it starts with 'ga', and when 'g' is followed by 'a', it is nearly always pronounced as /g/ (e.g. in gas, gap, gastric, gallant, gander, gain, gate, ...). Although 'g' can be pronounced as /dʒ/, this is only when it is followed by 'e', 'i', or 'y' (e.g. gender, generation, gel, gene; ginger, gin, Giles; gym, gyrate, gyroscope ...). Although most speakers of English are unable to state this rule explicitly, they subconsciously know it, which is why they do not expect gaol to be pronounced as /dʒeɪl/.

Although there are no residential properties on Gaol Street in Hereford, there are some offices in addition to the police station, and I was told that when people in those offices need to give their address, they often pronounce it as /gaʊl/, as saying /dʒeɪl/ is unlikely to be understood.

I suspect that the spelling jail may be a pronunciation spelling (in which the spelling of a word changes to reflect its pronunciation), but I need to check that. It is possible that gaol and jail have always been alternative spellings of the word.

20 July 2015


I saw this headline in the Times of 4 July 2015.

When I first read it, I could not understand the final word on the first word: chicest. I thought for a moment that it must be a typo for choiciest.

In fact, it means 'most chic' (where chic, pronounced /ʃi:k/, means 'fashionable'); it is just the use of the superlative suffix -est added to a fairly common adjective chic. So what's the problem? The -est suffix is fairly productive, so it should not be a problem to add it to an existing adjective.

The problem is this: in English spelling, 'c' followed by 'e' is always pronounced as /s/: cell, ceiling, centre, certain, certificate, ceremony, celestial; receive, deceive, incentive, recent, etc. So when I read the word, I initially imagined that it must be pronounced as /tʃaɪsɪst/.

In most cases, if a word ends with 'c' and then a suffix starting with 'e' is added, then 'k' is inserted: e.g. panicked, picnicked. However, in the case of chic, this is not an option, as chickest would look like something else. As a result, there is no alternative but to have 'c' followed by 'e' in chicest.

The only exceptions to the rule by which 'c' followed by 'e' is pronounced as /s/ that I can think of are: cello, in which the 'c' is pronounced as /tʃ/; and celtic, which starts with /k/ if it refers to a language (but /s/ if it is a football club). So now we seem to have one more: chicest.