‘Give’ – Why it is not an Exception to Anything

We may have all seen some word wall or another which contains words that have to be memorized or learned by heart because they are irregular.  Some of the supposed irregular words include: have, give, said, they, come, their, and one.  They are considered irregular because there appears to be a mismatch between their spellings and pronunciations.  I have seen so many students struggle with either the reading or spelling of some of these words.  There is a reason for the spelling of each of the irregular words and we can help students master their spellings once we understand what the reason is. 

I want to tackle the word <give> in this blog.  So what is so irregular about the spelling or pronunciation of <give>?   The first problem is the pronunciation of the <g>.  One of the first rules that children learn is that the grapheme <g> is pronounced is /ʤ/ (as in germ, ginger, gym, giant) when it is followed by any of the letters <i, e, y>.  However, the <g> in <give> pronounced as /g/ even though it is followed by <i>.  This is considered an exception to the rule cited above.  There is, however, a large number of words which follow the pattern of <g> followed by either <i> or <e> and pronounced as /g/ instead of /ʤ/.  These include <give, girl, gird, get, geese, gift, gear, gild, gills (relating to fish), giggle> where <g> is in initial positions.  There are other words which have <g> in medial positions followed by <e> and the <g> still corresponds to /g/.  These include <finger, anger, hunger, monger, eager, meager, tiger, begin, together>. So, is it appropriate to consider all these words as exceptions to the above cited rule? All these words cannot possibly be exceptions to a single rule; if that were the case, the rule itself would be questionable. 

So, what is going on here? What principles are governing the spelling and pronunciation patterns in the above-cited words?

Historically, the pronunciation of <g> was always /g/ in all the Germanic languages (including Old English) and Latin.  Then certain pronunciation changes started taking place in both Old English and in the Latin-derived languages (including French). Old English started softening (palatalizing) the final /g/ to /ʤ/ before front vowels <e> and <y>.  So words which had been pronounced with final /g/ started to be pronounced with /ʤ/.  Examples of words affected by that change include <bridge, edge, ridge, wedge>.  However, it is important to note that this change occurred only at the back (in word-final positions).

I am going to focus on French here in this discussion.  French also started palatalizing /g/ to /ʤ/ before front vowels <e, i, y>, except this change occurred in all positions: initial, medial, and final.  Notice the contrast:  in Old English the change from /g/ to /ʤ/ occurred only in final positions whereas in French, it occurred in all positions.  It is important to understand this distinction. 

After the French conquered England in 1066 a lot French words started pouring into English:  these included words which had been affected by the pronunciations changes in French.  The French scribes (in England) started applying French rules to the spelling of both French and English words. French words with <g> pronounced as /ʤ/ entered English and the rule – <g> before <e, i, y> is pronounced as /ʤ/ appeared. However, there were English words (both Old English and Old Norse) which continued to be pronounced with hard /g/ before <e, i, y>.  Old Norse (language of the Vikings who had invaded parts of England earlier) had not experienced any of the pronunciation changes we have discussed at all.  So, now there were words pronounced with either /ʤ/ or /g/ when followed by front vowels <e, i, y> and that was confusing.

The French scribes tried to sort out the confusion by respelling some of the Old English words. Words with <g> followed by <i> or <e> pronounced as /g/ were spelled with <gu> to signal a hard /g/ pronunciation. Some of the affected words included: <guess, guest, guide, guilt>. The problem was that because Old Norse had not experienced any of the pronunciation changes (the phoneme /ʤ/ did not exist in Old Norse), Old Norse words were not respelled and continued the trend of <g> –> /g/ pronunciation.  Many Old English words also assimilated to that practiced so many Germanic words continue to have the correspondences of <g> –> /g/ even when followed by <e, i, y>.

So, rather than being exceptions to a rule, they are examples of the etymological principle in English – word which have the <g> –> /g/ pronunciation when followed <e, i, y> tend not to be of classical or French origin:  they are often Germanic or recent borrowings which entered English with their /g/ pronunciations from their source languages.  This tells you that <ginger, giant, germ, gentle, gel> and <give, gift, girl, geese, gear> are from different languages.  It is important to understand the etymological principle of English spelling because it helps to explain so many of the seeming irregularities in English grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

The spelling convention concerning of final /v/ as <-ve>

Let us turn our attention to the other part of the spelling of <give>: the pronunciation of the vowel <i>. One of the major rules of English spelling is this:  the final “silent e” often signals the ‘long pronunciation of a preceding single vowel grapheme’.  This gives us the differences in the pronunciation of such word pairs: hat / hate; hop / hope; kit / kitemet / mete; cut / cute. However, this is just one of the many functions of the final <e> in English. 

There is a convention which governs the spelling of final /v/ in English.  It is simply this: English words do not have to written with final <v>, always write <ve>.  Consequently, the final /v/ is always written as <ve> regardless of the pronunciation of the preceding vowel.  So, in words like <give, have, live, love, dove, glove> the final is <e> is there because of the <v> and has nothing to do with the vowel pronunciations of the words. The final <-ve> convention still applies even when the preceding long vowel is written as a digraph: for example, <leave, sleeve, achieve, grieve, sieve, groove>.

Therefore, we learn that the spelling of <give> is the result of both etymology and spelling conventions.  There are several different principles and conventions that govern the spelling of English words which we need to know and understand.  Understanding these conventions make our work as literacy instructors or even students a lot easier. From my experience, students find it easier to muster the spelling or reading or words if they understand the reasons behind their spellings.   People have the tendency to call words affected by conventions they do not understand “exceptions”.

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