ae, oe, and e

Still making my way through the backlog of queries I've received, and still in March. It must be said that while I'm trying to get through the backlog in chronological order, some luckier souls have their queries answered more immediately. It just depends on what else is going on at the time. Anyhoo (that's an AmE and extremely colloquial, allegedly humorous version of anyhow), the_sybil wrote back then to say:
Had you ever considered writing about the way in which the spelling of words with vowel groups originating from Latin dipthongs (oesophagus/esophagus, oestrogen/estrogen) have been simplified in AmE usage? Don't know whether there's anything of interest to say about them or not.

I got thinking about it because the other day I came across the spelling "Edipal" in an online text about psychology - and being a BrE speaker rather than an AmE speaker, I had to do some googling to be certain it was an error rather than an acceptable alternative spelling.
Let's start with some history. As Oedipal hints, most of these can be traced back to Greek, then to Latin, then to English. Greek oi became Latin œ (with a ligature between the letters) became, more commonly, oe in contemporary (post-typewriter) English. In Latin and English, oe and ae are pronounced as a single sound (which sound is another matter, and can vary from case to case), rather than as two vowel syllables or as diphthongs, i.e. a combined vowel sound. (Still, because they're written as two vowels, many people refer to them as diphthongs--but they should be calling them digraphs instead.) The simplification of ae and oe to e is present in Noah Webster's dictionaries (late 18th/early 19th c.), but I'm not sure whether the shift (like many others) originated with him or not, as it's not mentioned in any of his spelling reform documents that I've found.

It's tempting to believe the kind of advice given below from Ask Oxford's Better Writing guide (as well as other sources on BrE/AmE differences), that:
British English words that are spelled with the double vowels ae or oe (e.g. archaeology, manoeuvre) are just spelled with an e in American English (archeology, maneuver).
But as the_sybil has discovered, there are cases in which ae and oe are not reduced to e in AmE, including:
  • many names and derivatives of them, whether from Greek/Latin or not (Disraeli, Michael, Caedmon, Aelfric, Caesar/Caesarean, Oedipus/Oedipal)
  • a few ae words that are not from Greek/Latin (at least not directly) and in which ae is usually pronounced as a diphthong (maelstrom, maestro)
  • some recent-ish borrowings from French and other languages with oe: oeuvre, hors d'oeuvres, trompe l'oeil
  • the Latin feminine, plural suffix -ae, as in (predominantly AmE) alumnae, lacunae, ulnae, etc.
  • words with aer(o)- as a prefix or root: aerial, aerosol, aerodrome (but, of course, aeroplane is almost always airplane in AmE).
  • some Scottish English words, and words from Gaelic: Gaelic, nae, brae, etc.
  • (Probably not worth mentioning, but words that end in oe like toe and shoe are never reduced to e in AmE, since the vowel sound here is /o/ or /u/or similar. And, of course, the oe that straddles a morpheme boundary in 3rd person verbs and plurals like goes and potatoes are not reduced to e.)
Edward M Carney in A survey of English spelling estimates that the BrE ae is e in AmE in 89% of words and 63% of names. (I was a bit puzzled that the name claim was so high, as I have a hard time thinking of names that are spelt differently in the two dialects. The only one I can come up with is Rachel, which I'd never seen spelt Rachael until I moved to the UK--but now I notice that an American cooking celebrity has that name.)

Still, there are some Greek/Latin ae/oe words that I learned to spell with the ae/oe back in America, and which are often spelt like that, regardless of the 'rule'. For example, aesthetics is taught in most American university philosophy departments, not esthetics. In fact, aesthetic gets 28.9 million Google hits, while esthetic gets only 3.5 million. (Compare a more reliable AmE/BrE distinction favor/favour in which the AmE form gets 243 million hits and the BrE form only 39.3 million.) Still, in lists of spelling differences, esthetic is frequently cited as the AmE equivalent of BrE aesthetic, with no further qualification. In spite of this AmE strongly prefers anesthetic over (BrE) anaesthetic.This can result in some difficulties in finding information in the Information Age. Last week, I tried to look up haemolysis in the index of the British-i{s/z}ed edition of an originally American book. It wasn't there, and I just couldn't believe it. Only later did I accidentally stumble upon it, and all of the other haemo- words, between HELLP and hepatitis. Once they changed the spelling from hemolysis, they forgot to re-alphabeti{s/z}e that bit of the index, apparently. (They did manage for foetal, though, which comes between fluid and folic acid.) Another problem occurs when I suggest that my students use encyclop(a)edias of linguistics as sources of background material and ideas for their research projects. They come back to me and say that our library is (BrE) crap and no such books are there. I point out that there are, if you remember to use both spellings of encyclop(a)edia as your key words in the electronic catalog(ue) search.

The divide between BrE and AmE spelling may be narrowing, according to some sources:
Even in British English there is a slow trend toward simplification: For example, the form encyclopedia is now much more common than encyclopaedia. (from English Toolbox)

foetus vs fetus: In American English, foetus is usually not used. In British English usage is divided. In academic literature, fetus is preferred. (Wikipedia Manual of Style)
The OED notes that (usually AmE) eon is preferred over (usually BrE) aeon in Geology. So, there seems to be a tendency toward regulari{s/z}ation in international academic fields.

Most AmE/BrE spelling differences reflect no particular differences in pronunciation, and most of the ae/oe cases are the same, but some have come to be pronounced differently. (O)estrogen is one such case. In AmE, the first syllable in estrogen rhymes with west. In BrE, the first syllable of oestrogen typically sounds like east. However, many BrE speakers pronounce (o)esophagus with a short vowel, like the Americans do. [This last claim edited since original post.] Another case is p(a)edophile. In BrE, the first syllable is usually pronounced like peed, and in AmE it more usually (though not exclusively) ped. But both dialects pronounce p(a)ediatrician with a 'peed', regardless of the different spelling.

P.S. Since writing this post, I've written a more in-depth one about the problematic f(o)etus.
Other business

  • I don't know if cross-Atlantic spelling differences will come up, but I'm going up to London this week to appear on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. It seems they'll be doing a spelling challenge and want to be trained by some serious Scrabble players. Should be a (BrE colloq/jovial) larf.


  1. May I make a couple of comments. I have rarely come across anyone in the UK who pronounces oesophagus with a short "e" as in "west", but always as in "east".
    I'd also note how much the ae digraph varies in pronunciation:
    in "maelstrom", as "malestrom"
    in "maestro" as "my-stro"
    in "archaeology" as "arch-ee-ology"
    ans with the same long "e" in anaesthetise, but a short one in anaesthetic.
    I'm curious to know whether these different pronunciations have anything to do with how the spelling changes (or doesn't) in AmE, with which I am less conversant.

  2. To Doug -- in AmE, anesthetize and anesthetic have the same e vowel sounds, although the emphasis is on the 2nd syllable in anesthetize and on the 3rd in anesthetic. I've never heard anyone use a long e in either word.

    I also prounounce maelstrom and maestro with 3 syllables. The second is barely heard, but it's there.

  3. You haven't met Better Half, then, who pronounces oesophagus with a short 'e' or short 'i'. OED lists both pronunciation as BrE. I'll go back and soften the claim about that one.

    AmE has a short 'e' in both anesthetize and anesthetic, but a long one in anesthesia.

    I don't think that there's an absolute, direct relation between the spellings and the pronunciations, since there's not a lot of regularity about them in either population. But there could be an effect. For instance, why do AmE speakers pronounce the 'e' in estrogen with a short vowel, but the 'e' in enology (BrE oenology with a long one? It looks like they're just following general English spelling-pronunciation associations: long 'e' when followed by a single consonant, short 'e' when followed by a double consonant or consonant cluster. Esophagus follows a different pattern because the 'e' there is in a non-stressed syllable.

    But I think that there's a limit to how much of the pronunciation can be blamed on the spelling, since we tend to learn pronunciations from hearing words spoken, rather than from reading them.

    I wasn't trying to claim that the 'ae' is pronounced the same in the various examples given--just that not all 'ae's are missing in AmE. They all have in common that they're standing for front vowels/diphthongs (ones that are pronounced by making the tongue higher in the front of the mouth).

    1. (Just a meagre word to the wise, as an aside: re. "anyhoo," in the northern midwest U.S. (specifically Wisconsin) "anyhoo" is "anywho," used as an interrogative synonym for "anyhow" but with ref. to a person as in "anyone."

    2. (Just a meagre word to the wise, as an aside: re. "anyhoo," in the northern midwest U.S. (specifically Wisconsin) "anyhoo" is "anywho," used as an interrogative synonym for "anyhow" but with ref. to a person as in "anyone."

  4. Oops, I said something wrong in the last comment--but too lazy to try to right it in there. The long 'e' in anesthesia is not the one that is written 'ae' in BrE, but the second one, which is irrelevant to this discussion. So, ignore that. The 'e' in AmE anesth- is always short.

  5. Oh, and just noticed something else about (o)esophagus. The entry that I was looking at was the draft entry from 2004, in which a short-voweled first syllable is listed first for BrE, in which the first syllable rhymes with kiss. After that, it lists the long-voweled variant.

    But if you look at the previous entry--i.e. the one in the second print edition--it only lists the long 'e' pronunciation (and offers no AmE pronunciation either). Of course, this doesn't mean that a change has just taken place since 1989, but it probably does indicate that the tide is turning for (o)esophagus.

  6. Some more words with ae/oe in American:
    aegis, paeon, phaeton, subpoena, phoenix, coelacanth.

    Perhaps the only word with ae in AmE but not BrE is aerie (eagle's nest: British eyrie).

    My only candidate for a name with ae in Britain an e in America is Judaea.

    There are plenty of words where British English has simplified the digraph: the following are all obsolete spellings: aera, aether, Aetna, anapaest, chamaeleon, fraenulum, hyaena, maeander, paederast, paeony, anacaea, perinaeum, praesidium, primaeval, paramoecium, oeconomy, oecumenical

    Biologists retain the Latin names; thus a chimaera is a type of fish, while a chimera is a Greek monster.

    Words not from Greek (or Greek-influenced Latin and French) are red herrings:
    Norse aegir aesir maelstrom oersted; Anglo-Saxon Aelfric Caedmon woe toe throe shoe roe does;
    Gaelic Aengus Gaelic;
    German baedeker eisenstaedt haeckel jaeger laemmergeyer maeterlinck rensselaer saengerfest schroeder roentgen goethe froebel foehn boehmite;
    Scots blaeberry;
    French caen;
    Welsh caerphilly;
    Korean chaebol;
    Hebrew Ishmael Israel Michael Nathanael Preraphaelite;
    Italian maestro;
    Spanish paella faena;
    Dutch groenendael;
    Hawaiian pahoehoe;
    Portuguese capoeira;
    Miscellaneous baez pekoe loess hoopoe floe felloe chloe arapahoe;
    Non-diphthong aedes poet noel dostoevsky arsinoe (aerial aerosol historically come from this category)

  7. I think your rules (as opposed to lexical exceptions) can be boiled down to these:

    1) Change ae, oe to e in Greco-Latin and Latin words only, never in those from other languages.

    2) Do not change final ae.

    3) Initial oe is far more likely to be changed than initial ae.

    On the lexical exceptions, I note that the adjective esthetic is very common (Google can't be trusted on this, due to stemming and remapping effects), probably more so than the noun esthetics relatively to the corresponding ae forms. The form cesarean section, with neither capital nor diphthong, is also now very common in technical AE -- its connection with the Caesar family is doubtful at best, anyway.

  8. But as mollymooly's impressive list of exceptions indicates, it's certainly not all Greek/Latin ae/oe that reduce to 'e'.

    I'm tempted to say that legal jargon (e.g. subpoena, aegrotat--which isn't really legalese, but it's 'academic legalese'--i.e. it's part of degree-giving rules at universities) is more likely to keep the digraph than medical jargon is (e.g. h(a)emoglobin) in the US...but that's just an impression. Too late in the evening to try to back it up!

  9. BrE also has the short e in anaesthesia. It's only in the verb it seems to be lengthened. Thanks for an interesting post and the comments. I do enjoy your blog.

  10. I have noticed a transatlantic pronunciation difference in an(a)esthetic which has nothing to do with the ae. I had a friend from New York when I was living in Munich, and she pronounced it "anestetic" and "anestetize", in other words with a t sound rather than th as in "thing." Is this common? Is it just New York? Was it just her? My Texan wife doesn't do it.

  11. Definitely not a general AmE feature, Cameron, but likely to be a feature of some idiolects and possibly dialects. It's a bit of a tongue-twister to put 'th' and 's' together, which is why a lot of people also say 'twelfs' instead of 'twelfths'.

  12. The champion for THAT, I think, is asthma. It is almost always pronounced either athsma or just plain azzma. That must be a spelling change in its early stages. Like the "respi(ra)tory" and "vet(er)inary" I hear a lot on KSHN. And possibly "lib(ra)ry", wihch I don't. Libry, I think, is more common here, while respitory and vetinary appear to be more AmE.

    1. It’s not vetinary, it’s vetrinary. The r is still there, just not the e and corresponding syllable.

  13. I don't think arch(a)eology consistently loses its second "a" in AmE - I remember in elementary school when it was on my spelling list, using "archaic" as a memory device to put that second "a" in!

  14. When considering ae, oe, and ue in various forms of English, you need to watch out for transliterated forms of umlauted vowels: Zweibruecken, when Zweibrücken is too difficult.

    I suspect this is a factor in borrowings from languages that use the umlaut.

  15. In case anyone cares, anacaea should read panacaea in my previous post.

  16. ans with the same long "e" in anaesthetise, but a short one in anaesthetic.

    All to do with the stress. Most unstressed vowels in BrE are reduced to a schwa or an i.

  17. mollymooly, I never want to play Scrabble against you.

    Speaking of (A)Etna, there's a huge insurance company in the U.S. called Aetna. According to its website, the name was "inspired" by the volcano, Mt. Etna. "Awed by the strength of the mountain, [the founders] named their fledgling venture Aetna Insurance Company" in 1850.

  18. Thanks for the Ant&Dec warning. I probably would have caught it anyway, but now I'm sure to!

  19. Speaking as someone who orders rather a lot of library books, I certainly haven't noticed 'fetus' being preferred over 'foetus' in British titles

  20. Isn't "anyhoo" dismissive, as in a third person joins a conversation, late, spouts all sorts of non-rlevent fac-pinion. when they pause, one of the original parties to the conversation remarks "anyhoo" and returns to the real topic.
    Also useful if someone has just put their foot in their mouth in front of others. "anyhoo" from one of the audience will break the embarsing silence and the discussion can continue.

  21. I don't think anyhoo is any more/less dismissive than anyhow--it's just a matter of context. When you're using either, it's usually to change the topic of conversation, so you can see that as 'dismissing' the last topic, if you like--but it's not necessarily a bad thing.

    1. Anyhoo is more tongue and cheek to make it less offensive to the person being dismissed. It’s a wink and a nod.

  22. Lynne,

    Damn...didn't know about Ant & Dec in time to watch last Saturday. That's what I get for staying constantly behind in my blog reading...


  23. Lynne,

    Strike that last note -- I can't even get my mental calendar straight! We'll be tuning in THIS COMING Saturday!


  24. The word which I see increasingly being used with its American spelling in the UK in this category is medi(a)eval. Someone even tried to correct my usage of the British spelling with the 'a' in place - though I soon put them right!

  25. foetus is also a latin form, at least in Renaissance period latin:

    The author is flemish.

  26. "Edward M Carney in A survey of English spelling estimates that the BrE ae is e in AmE in 89% of words and 63% of names. (I was a bit puzzled that the name claim was so high, as I have a hard time thinking of names that are spelt differently in the two dialects. The only one I can come up with is Rachel, which I'd never seen spelt Rachael until I moved to the UK--but now I notice that an American cooking celebrity has that name.)"

    I would not have been puzzled, for two reasons: The first is the practice, with familiar names, of valuing unique, inventive, and/or 'traditional' spellings. (This has strong historical roots among African-Americans, being an extension of the slave practice which allowed some hope of later contact should a child be sold "down the river". This practice has also gained traction among whites, for various reasons, in recent decades.) The second is the stubborn persistence of archaic pronunciations among Yankee and Scots-Irish families, almost into the present day. (As late as the seventies, I encountered several native speakers, through the Carolina border area SE of Asheville, whose speech was quite archaic, even Elizabethan.)

  27. Lynneguist, in the case of enology, that's almost certainly more a matter of affectation. Consider the role of wine in middle class American social settings; it's treated as a class differentiator. Were I unkind, I might say that snobbery is their motivation. (Apologies to those who enjoy words for their own sake, as well as those whose genuine erudition is offended by the deliberate attempts of self-appointed 'reformers' of the language whose richness they know well enough to appreciate.)

  28. My favorite pair of pronunciations in this vein is caesarean/Caesarean. I recall old British movies, at least two of them, in which someone presumedly erudite pronounced Caesarean as chezz' a ree un. Is this/was this a class thing, a boffin thing, or what? In any case, it tickles me even more than pronouncing Caesar as Kaiser.

  29. scp1957

    someone presumedly erudite pronounced Caesarean as chezz' a ree un. Is this/was this a class thing, a boffin thing, or what?

    I don't think it could possibly be a matter of class or specialisation. The only source for such a pronunciation is the Italian Giulio Cesare. Since the speaker was a fictional character, not an Italian speaking English, I can only conclude that it was meant as a joke.

    I have to imagine two characters who find the American spelling cesarean amusingly ignorant. Most likely, these characters are (in my imagination) well-to-do professionals with holiday homes in the part of Tuscany often called Chiantishire because of all the Brits of that type holidaying there. Even without that detail, there's a habit — in comic fiction, if not in real life — for snobbish people to assume Italian speech habits.

    I wouldn't be surprised if the screenwriter intended the audience not to share the character's joke — to laugh not with him but at him.


  30. It is my feeling that reducing æ and œ to and e sound is an oversimplification that misrepresents and distorts the true pronunciation of the words containing those combinations.
    Surely the e was added to moderate or modulate the pronunciation of the other vowels rather than replace them?
    I wonder how Phoenicia escaped this.

  31. Hairy Scot

    The spellings AE and OE were regularised in Classical Latin to represent 'diphthong' sound which started with one vowel quality (a-like or o-like) and shifted to something approaching a Y-sound. Greek had similar sounds but spelled them with an I rather than an E. So Αισχυλος (Aiskhulos) and Οιδιπους (Oidipus) became Aeschylus and Oedipus in Latin.

    The two sounds were something like the English diphthongs in PRICE and CHOICE.

    However, the pronunciation of Latin changed, so that AE sounded the same as short E and OE the same as long E. This was when Latin was still a language which people learned at birth and spoke all the time.

    Then the Roman Empire disintegrated and what people learned at birth and spoke all the time was one or another dialect of Latin. These dialects became French, Italian, Spanish etc. Those knew learnt 'proper' Latin learned it as adults and read it far more often than they spoke it. So they read AE- and OE-spellings as E-spellings — with the pronunciation of E-sound which was used in the region where they lived.

    Nobody made different sounds for AE, OE and E for more than a thousand years. Late in the nineteenth century, scholars worked out what the pronunciation had been in Classical Latin. But in all that time, scholars preserved the spelling of Classical Latin by watching closely for mistakes in the copying of manuscripts, and by reading the unchangeable spellings carved in stone.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)