Variations in the pronunciation of “ea”

Perhaps this is more of a Linguistics question, so I apologize if this is not posted in the right place.

Why is it that these words in English sound so different?

  1. earth   = /ɜrθ/     “urth”
  2. hearth = /hɑrθ/   “harth”
  3. heart   = /hɑrt/    “hart”
  4. hear    = /hir/      “heer”
  5. ear      = /ir/        “eer”
  6. heath   = /hiθ/     “heeth”

Looking at the first two examples, the only difference is the preceding h, which makes me think that’s the reason for the change. The second and third together sound the same, despite the removal of the trailing h, which supports that — for now. Then the last three examples sound still different from those already mentioned; however, the differences in spelling are not consistent.

My assumption is that there is some linguistic property of both the h and the rt, which I will describe like this:

  • A trailing rt (not simply r or t) will have an effect — let’s call it “Effect A” — on the sound of ea.
  • A leading h will have an effect — let’s call it “Effect B” — on the sound of ear, but only if already modified by Effect A.

If this is more or less correct, what are these two Effects A and B, and what are they called? And if this is not more or less correct, please tell me what is.

An alternative thought is that this really has nothing to do with phonology and instead more to do with orthography, and that the difference is just because someone at some point decided to transcribe a given word in one particular way instead of in some other way, such as through vs. threw (or even the non-standard thru).

Any evidence to support either possibility, or supporting some alternative I haven’t thought of here, would be appreciated.


All these words were spoken before they were written, so I do not think that the spelling affects the pronunciation. It probably has more to do with the pronunciation of the words from which they evolved. For example, “earth” is derived from words which did not contain the letter “a” when written down. In German, the word is “Erde”. “Hearth” is etymologically related to “carbon” (burning etc), which might explain why the “ea” is pronounced differently in that word.

Source : Link , Question Author : Gaffi , Answer Author : JamesHH

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