In the five years since my serious spelling work began, I’ve traveled to France and Canada, and all over the U.S., to peddle my understanding. Scholars have attended my workshops from around the U.S. (the West Coast, the South, the Northeast, the Midwest) and from three other continents (Australia, Asia, and Europe). My LEX Grapheme Decks are in use in classrooms and clinics all over the world, including Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. My TED-Ed videos have been seen and enjoyed by speakers of many languages in many corners of the Earth.
It is said that a prophet is not without honor except in her own hometown, but it’s time to put that perspective to the test. While I’ve offered trainings and workshops close to home in the past, this month marks my very first one in the town I live in (see flyer at the end of this post). It’s offered on short notice, and space is limited, but it’s time for spelling to come home.
Why do those two works look so much alike, but we pronounce them so differently? The International Phonetic Alphabet gives us this way to represent the different pronunciations:
/kʌm/ and /hoʊm/
The initial and final phonemes — the /k/, /h/, and /m/ — are unsurprising; it’s the vowels that differ, of course. The pronunciation of <home> is largely unsurprising as well; we’re typically taught that a final, non-syllabic <e> marks the preceding vowel as ‘long.’ So what’s up with <come> then? It turns out that this is a question I get from time to time; after all, <come> is one of those words that’s regularly branded as ‘irregular’ or ‘non-phonetic.’ Of course, no writing system concerns itself with phonetics; it’s phonemes, not phones, that are represented in spelling.
The <c> and the <m> in <come> are not problematic for spellers; it’s the <o> and that final, non-syllabic <e>, which clearly is not marking a long vowel. Now, there’s nothing wrong with <o> spelling /ʌ/ — it does so in the words son, mother, love, tough, won, and a whole host of other words. The letter <o> is the orthographic choice when a <u> can’t be used; this occurs to avoid proscribed letter sequences like <uu> or <uv> or <wu>, as in love or won or tough. It also happens to differentiate homophones, as in son/sun. An <o> is often selected when the vowel is next to a letter like <n> or <m>, which has a lot of up-and-down strokes (called ‘minims’) that might be confused with an adjacent <u> — this same concern with all the minims in script is why <i> has a dot (called a ‘tittle’).
Okay, so the <o> makes sense. Not only can it spell /ʌ/, but using the <o> instead of a <u> also differentiates <come> from the Latin preposition we use to describe things with a dual nature or function (a model-cum-actor, the den-cum-extra-bedroom).
But what about the <e>?
Well, remember, we never learn much from looking at a single word in isolation — let’s consider our four questions: What does it mean? How is it built? What are its relatives? and finally, What aspects of its pronunciation must we consider? Come is verb, both the present-tense and the past participle (she has come . . .). It’s a free base element — nothing to peel off. As far as relatives go, there aren’t many, but the one we do have is very telling: came, the preterite (past-tense) form. That <e> in <come> marks a connection to the other member of the verbal paradigm, <came>, which couldn’t be written without its <e>, given its long vowel. The words <come> and <came> look like relatives, whereas <com> and <came> may not. It also makes sense that the <e> in <come> lexicalizes it — marks its wordiness — as opposed to the <com-> prefix we find in words like compare or combine. As far as the pronunciation goes, since the final <e> has multiple jobs, not least of which is lexicalizing the words its found on (someday I’ll write more about this), the pronunciation of come as /kʌm/ is fully and meaningfully represented in its spelling, <come>.
Some have asked the same thing about, well, <some>. I’ll leave that word’s mysteries for you to discover — after all, I’ve got a workshop to prepare for! Won’t you come?