A site for spellers, teachers of spelling and reading, and students of english words
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Further sources | Symbols used | a | b | c | d | e | f | g | h | i | j | k | l | m | n | o | p | q | r | s | t | u | v | w | x | y | z

Further sources
The references for further information are limited to three sources: (i) David Crystal's An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Language and Languages (Blackwell, 1992) (hereafter EDLL), (ii) The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. Tom McArthur (Oxford, 1992) (OCEL), and (iii) my American English Spelling (AES). EDLL and OCEL are arranged alphabetically with headings the same as or close to those in this glossary. All three often contain references to sources of further information.
Symbols used
Letters and spellings are enclosed in sharp arrowhead brackets: <a>, <cat>. Sounds and pronunciations are enclosed in square brackets: [a], [kat]. Definitions are enclosed in double quotes. Prefixes are marked with lefthand flat angle brackets: ‹pre, ‹non; suffixes with right-hand: ing›, ed›. The sound schwa is represented with [schwa]. The analyses, or explications, of written words are underlined, with element boundaries marked with plus signs: catfish = cat+fish. A slash indicates that the following letter is deleted, as in flaming = flam/e+ing. In phonetic respellings primary word stress is indicated with a high vertical, secondary with a low vertical, and syllable boundaries that have no stress marks are indicated with mid dots: [|fla·ming], [|big|hed·id].
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In the most general sense, the perception of similarity in the midst of difference. In poetry it underlies metaphor. In spelling and vocabulary analogy leads to users changing the sound or spelling of a word to make it more similar to a more regular or more familiar form—as when French carriole is changed by folk etymology to carryall or Middle English couthe, coude is respelled to could, making it more similar to the parallel forms should and would (in Middle English scholde, wolde). Analogy is perhaps the most important way in which the mind searches for unity in the din and roar of experience, linguistic and otherwise. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 1.4 )
A historical process that simplifies pronunciation by changing one of two adjacent sounds to make it more similar to the other. The spelling often then changes to agree with the changed pronunciation. In English words assimilation is particularly common in consonants at the ends of various Latin prefixes. In full assimilation the two sounds merge into one, though the spelling does not always change: adjust is ‹ad+just› pronounced [schwa |just] with no change in the spelling, but the assimilation is reflected in the spelling of affair ‹a/d+f+fair. A prefix may have different patterns of assimilation in different settings. For instance, the bilabial sound [m] and its spelling <m> in the prefix ‹com- do not change in front of the bilabial sounds [b], [m], and [p], as in combine, commit, and compel. But they assimilate fully before [l], [n], and [r], as in collect, connect, correct. And most of the time they undergo partial assimilation, in which the change is only partial, from [m] and <m> to [n] and <n>: concept, condemn, confess, congest, conjure, etc. Assimilation is still with us: If you listen carefully, the word input is often pronounced not [|in|pdotted ut] but rather [|im|pdotted ut], with assimilation of [n] to [m] before [p]. The OED and Webster's 3rd Unabridged even list the variant spelling imput. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 10.1-10.10)
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A word's base is the element that is its core of meaning, the part that can have prefixes and suffixes added to it: In uncounted the base is count. Bases like count that can stand free as words are called free bases. Bases that cannot stand free as words, like +fect in affect, confection, defective, effective, etc., are called bound bases. (OCEL, AES 2.2.2)
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William Caxton (1422?-1491) established the first printing press in England and printed the first dated book in England in 1477. Although he was concerned with the changeablity and variability of English spelling, he had surprisingly little influence on the development of English orthography. (OCEL)
See Concatenation
Closed syllable
See Syllable
Compound words
A word that contains two or more words, such as popcorn pop+corn, blackbird black+bird, congressman ‹co/m+n+gress+man.
In words, concatenation is the joining together of two elements or of an element and a particle. In the explication of words concatenations are represented by + signs: twin+s›, twin+n+ing›, twin/e+ing›. Strings of consonant letters that are brought together in a concatenation are different from strings called clusters, in which the letters in the string are all in the same element. Thus the <sl> string in sly is a cluster, sly, but the <sl> string in thusly is a concatenation, thus+ly›. (AES 3.2.1)
Consonant sounds
English consonant sounds are usually categorized by place and manner of articulation, as in the chart below. Columns indicate places of articulation in the mouth. Rows indicate manner of articulation. Stops are articulated by stopping the flow of air and releasing it suddenly. Fricatives are articulated with enough closure to produce friction. Affricates start with a stop, end with a fricative: [j] = [dzh], [ch] = [tsh]. Nasals, liquids, and semivowels are articulated smoothly, with no friction. In the chart below, in cases where a single set of square brackets contains two sounds, the first of the two is voiced, the second unvoiced, or voiceless.
  Front Mid Back
Bilabial Labio-dental Inter-dental Alveolar Alveolar-palatal Palatal Velar Glottal
Stops and affricates [b, p]

bob, pop

  [d, t]

dad, tot

[j, ch]

judge, church

[g, k]

gag, kick

Fricatives   [v, f]

vie, fie

[th, th]

then, thin

[z, s]

zip, sip

[zh, sh]

azure, ashes



Nasals [m]






Liquids   [l], [r]

lull, roar

Semivowels [y]




(EDLL, OCEL, AES 11.1-11.1.2, 11.2.2, 11.3)

Consonant letter
A letter that spells a consonant sound. The nineteen letters that are always consonants are <b, c, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, q, r, s, t, v, x, z>. Three other letters are sometimes consonants, sometimes vowels: <u, w, y>. The letter <u> is usually a vowel, but it is a consonant when it spells the sound [w], as in language, pueblo, queen and whenever it follows <q>, even if it does not spell [w], as in mosquito, unique. Except for its use in the vowel digraphs <aw>, <ew>, and <ow>, the letter <w> is a consonant, including in the digraphs <wh> and <wr>>. And <y> is a consonant when it spells the sound [y], as in year and beyond, always in syllable initial position; in other positions it is a vowel, as in gyp, type, lady, rainy, mainly. (EDLL at Letter, OCEL at Letter, AES 11.2-11.3 )
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Dental sound
A consonant sound articulated with either the lower lip or the tip of the tongue touching the teeth, as the labiodentals [v, f] and the interdentals [th, th]. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 26.1)
Derivation, derived form
A word formed usually by adding a prefix or derivational suffix to a stem word. A derivational suffix is basically any suffix that is not an inflection, though the distinction gets fuzzy. Inflectional suffixes like those that mark verb tense and noun plurals are clear enough. But whether those that mark, say, comparative and superlative adjectives (namely, -er› and -est›) are inflectional or derivational is not so clear. To simplify things, we will treat as inflections only those suffixes that mark noun plurals and verb tenses; all the rest we treat as derivational. Thus the suffixes in paints and painted are inflectional; those in painter and paintable are derivational. Repaint is an example of derivation via a prefix. In a few cases the derivation involves neither prefix nor suffix, but a change in vowel or consonant: the noun song from the verb sing, the noun speech from the verb speak. In dictionaries inflected forms are usually listed towards the beginning of an entry, derived forms towards the end. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 2.2.2)
Two letters working together to spell a single consonant sound or vowel sound or diphthong. The most common consonant digraphs are doublets like <bb> in cabbage, <pp> in hippo, <tt> in lettuce, etc., doublet equivalents like <ck> in stick and <dg> as in bridge, and the digraphs with <h>: <ch, gh, ph, sh, th, wh>. Vowel digraphs are even more common: <ae, ai, au, aw, ay, ea, ee, ei, ey>, etc. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 3.2.1, 11.2.2)
Two merged vowel sounds that are perceived as a single sound. Though in Old and Middle English there were several diphthongs, today we normally recognize only two: [adotted u] as in howl and cow, and [dotted oi] as in boil and coy. Dictionaries sometimes represent them as [ou] and [oi]. Technically, long [a], long [e], and long [o] are sometimes pronounced as diphthongs, [ei], [ai], [odotted u]. A different kind of diphthong is the long [yu] as in cute, contrasting with the simple long [u] in coot. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 24.1-24.3.2)
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Early Modern English
English as it was spoken and written between roughly 1500 and 1700, the language of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton. (OCEL)
The smallest parts of written words that contribute meaning to the words. There are four kinds of elements: prefixes, bound and free bases, and suffixes. Elements are the written language's equivalent of the spoken language's morphemes. (AES 2.1 - 2.5.2 )
The analysis of written words into their elements, particles, and orthographic procedures such as twinning and silent final <e> deletion, and processes such as assimilation and palatalization. (AES 2.1 - 2.8)
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French influence
The French language has influenced English in various ways. After the Norman Conquest in the 11th century the official language in England for centuries was Norman French. During that time hundreds of French words were adopted into English, and Norman scribes changed the spelling of several English words, making them more similar to French. Ever since, English has continued to adopt French words, to change traditional spellings to make them more like French, and to retain French spellings and pronunciations in certain words, especially those dealing with high fashion, gourmet cooking, art, and wine. (OCEL)
Frequentative verbs
Verbs that indicate frequent, iterative, or repeated action. In English the most common markers of frequentatives are the suffixes -le›1 (crumble, jiggle, twinkle) and -er›3 (bicker, flutter, shatter). (EDLL at Iterative, OCEL at Iterative)
A class of consonant sounds pronounced with enough friction to create a sibilant, hissing, or buzzing quality. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 29.1 -, 30.1 - 30.5.3)
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Inflection, inflected forms
Words that have inflectional suffixes—that is, suffixes that mark noun plurals (-s› as in cats, -es› as in the noun kisses, -en› as in oxen, children) and verb tense and number (-s› and -es› as in the 3rd person singular verbs counts and wishes, -ed› in the past tense verb or past participle counted, and the present participle -ing› in counting). Cf. Derivation. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 2.2.2)
A word or element that heightens the meaning of a word. The most common intensifier is the adverb very. But the adverb in verb-adverb phrases is also often an intensifier. For instance, to tear up something, or to tear it down, is more intense than simply to tear it. To burn something down or up is more intense than simply to burn it. Some Latinate prefixes serve an intensifying function—for example, ‹re- in resent and reward and more often ‹com-, as in accomplish, complete, comfort, combustion, command, etc. The native English prefix ‹be- also often has an intensive force, as in begrudge, besmirch, bemuse. (EDLL, OCEL)
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The process whereby short vowels develop into long vowels. In their development into Middle English, certain Old English short vowels lengthened before certain consonants, especially <i> and <o> before <mb>, <ld>, and <nd>, thus comb, climb, gold, wild, bind, grind with long vowels. Also, Old English short vowels in open syllables tended to lengthen, which underlies the modern VCV/VCCV contrast: In the VCV string the first syllable will be open and have a long vowel (cater [|ka·tschwar]), while in the VCCV string it will be closed with a short vowel (canter [|kan·tschwar]). (AES 4.3.2)
Long vowels
In Old and Middle English the distinction between long and short vowels was based on quantity not quality—that is, long vowels had the same sound quality as did their short partner, but they were sustained. That is, they were literally longer. In Modern English, however, the distinction is no longer simply a matter of phonology; it is also an orthographic distinction. It has become a distinction of quality rather than quantity. So short [a] is not literally shorter than long [a]; it just has a different sound quality. The short and long vowel pairs usually recognized in Modern English are the following:
Short Vowels    Long Vowels

[a], pat

[e], pet

[i], pit

[o], pot

[u], puck

[dotted u], push


[a], bait

[e], beet

[i], bite

[o], boat

[u], coot

[yu], cute

There are two other vowels very similar in quality to short [o]: the dotted <o> sound, [dotted o], that is exemplified in some dialects by words such as caught and stalk, in contrast with the [o] in cot and stock, and the [ä] in father. In general, dictionaries do not always agree in their treatment of low back vowels like [o], [dotted o], and [ä], and there tends to be considerable differences among different dialects of American English. (EDLL at Vowel, Length; OCEL at Vowel, Vowel Quantity, Long and Short; AES 11.1.1 - 11.1.2, 11.3)

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Middle English
English as it was spoken and written from roughly 1100 to 1500, the language of Chaucer. It differs significantly from Old English in its syntax and vocabulary, including its spelling, in large part because of French influence. It also differs significantly from Modern English, enough so that the typical reader of Chaucer must spend much time amidst the footnotes. (EDLL at English, OCEL at Middle English)
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Norman Conquest
The defeat of the English by the Normans in 1066. The Norman French descended from Norsemen who earlier had invaded and settled northern France, adopting the French language and much of its culture. The Conquest led to centuries of French dominance in England—politically, legally, culturally, and linguistically. (OCEL at Norman and Norman French)
Norman scribes
The scribes and clerks who did most of the writing of English after the Norman Conquest. Very few of them were native speakers of English. All were trained in French and Latin. They introduced several Continental spelling practices into English: for instance, the use of <qu> to spell [kw], thus changing native English cwen to queen; the use of <v> to spell [v], thus changing earlier cnifas to knives. (OCEL at Scribe, AES passim)
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The Oxford English Dictionary (originally called The New English Dictionary on Historical Principles), the most extensive dictionary of English and probably of any language. It traces the changing spellings and meanings of words from 1000 A.D., or their earliest known appearance in English, to the present. Work on it started in the mid 19th century. Its 1st edition (1928) was 12 large volumes plus supplements; its 2nd edition (1989) is 20 large volumes. It is also available on CD-ROM and on-line at oed.com. (OCEL)
Old English
English as it was spoken and written from roughly the mid 5th to the early 12th century. Also called Anglo-Saxon, it developed from the languages of the Germanic Angles and Saxons, who migrated to Britain from northern Europe. It is the language of Beowulf and of King Alfred and is for the most part quite unintelligible to speakers of Modern English. (EDLL at English, OCEL at Old English)
Open syllable
See Syllable
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A consonant sound pronounced entirely or partially back against the hard palate. Used loosely, palatal can include the alveolar-palatals [j, ch, zh, sh] and the palatals [g, k, ng, y]. (EDLL at Palate and Palato-alveolar, OCEL at Palate, AES 30.1 - 30.5.3)
A process that occurs when a consonant sound normally articulated towards the front of the mouth is moved back to the palate. For instance, in the word native the <t> spells the alveolar sound [t]; in the related nation it spells the alveolar-palatal [sh]. Palatalization accounts for several different spellings of [sh], [zh], [ch], and [j]: [sh] in nation, dimension, passion, conscience, ancient; [zh] in collision, usual, seizure, equation; [ch] in mutual, fortune, century; [j] in graduate, schedule. The subpatterns are complex but most often a palatalized spelling occurs before two unstressed vowels, the first of which is most often <i>, less often <u>. Palatalization is sometimes called assibilation since it results in a sibilant, or hissing, sound. (EDLL at Palate and Palato-alveolar, OCEL at Palate, AES 30.1 - 30.5.3)
A word part, usually a single letter, that does not add meaning to the word but does perform other functions. The two main types are (i) the linking <o>'s and <i>'s in words that are entirely or partially from Greek and Latin (speedometer speed+o+meter, philosophy phil+o+soph+y, biology bi+o+log+y, agriculture agr+i+cult+ure, architect arch+i+tect, and (ii) the consonants inserted in cases of twinning, like the second <n> in twinning twin+n+ing. (AES 2.4 - 2.4.1)
Eric Partridge (1894-1979), a New Zealander who moved to England and spent most of his adult life writing books and dictionaries of English slang, usage, and etymology. His Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary (1958) is particularly useful. (OCEL)
A bound element that is affixed in front of bases. The most clear-cut prefixes carry a prepositional or negative meaning. Among the prepositional are ‹anti-, ‹ad- "to, toward," ‹epi-, ‹ex-, ‹in-2 "in", ‹ob-,‹ pre-, etc. Among the negatives are ‹a-1, ‹in-2, ‹non-, ‹un-. The distinction between prefixes and bound bases is a fuzzy one: Many elements are classified as prefixes in some dictionaries and as bound bases in others. (EDLL at Affix, OCEL, AES 2.2.2)
Actions taken when elements combine to form words. The most common procedure is simple addition, by which elements simply add together with no change in spelling, as in ‹re+paint+ed› and ‹un+stead+y›. Two other common procedures are twinning and silent final <e> deletion.
Historical changes in pronunciation that affect modern sound-to-spelling correspondences. The two most important are assimilation and palatalization.
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The unstressed, reduced vowel [schwa] that sounds like an unstressed short <u>. Most American English unstressed vowels reduce to schwa or to a weak [i] or to something in between. The Merriam-Webster dictionaries use a dotted schwa to represent this range of reductions. Schwa is particularly difficult for spellers because of all of the different ways it can be spelled, as shown by the boldface spellings below:





















(EDLL at Shwa, OCEL)

Short vowels
See Long Vowels
Shortening rules
A set of rules that explain why first vowels in some VCV strings are short. The most important of these are the following:

(i) The Third Syllable (or Vowel) Rule: The vowel in the third or fourth syllable from the end of a word, if stressed, will be short, as in general, solitude, holiday, etc.

(ii) The Suffix -ity› Rule: The vowel preceding the suffix -ity› will regularly be stressed and short, as in sanity, sublimity, timidity, etc.

(iii) The Suffix-ic› Rule: The vowel preceding the suffix -ic› will regularly be stressed and short, as in athletic, theatric, cosmetic, melodic, tonic, etc. (AES 5.1 - 5.8, 6.4.1 -, 7.1 - 7.5)

Silent final <e> deletion
A procedure affecting the treatment of silent final <e> when adding suffixes. In words with silent final <e>'s that mark a soft <c> or <g>, the final <e>'s are regularly deleted only when adding suffixes that start with <e>, <i>, or <y>. Thus, we have ice, ic/e+ed›, ic/e+ing›, ic/e+y› and sponge, spong/e+ed›, spong/e+ing›, spong/e+y›. However, we also have manage man4+age›, man4+ag/e›+ed›, man4+ag/e›+ing›, but man4+age›+able›, and efface ‹e/x+f+face1, ‹e/x+f+fac/e1+ed›, ‹e/x+f+fac/e1+ing› but ‹e/x+f+face1+able›. All other silent final <e>'s are regularly deleted when adding suffixes that start with any vowel. In words ending with a vowel followed by a final <e>, the final <e> is usually deleted: bluest, canoed, subduing, etc. But in the following very few cases there is no deletion: Words ending <ee> taking suffixes that start with <i> or <a> (as in seeing, agreeable); words ending with <oe> taking suffixes that start with <i> (as in toeing, canoeist); words ending with <ue> taking suffixes that start with <y> (gluey, but notice gluier). (AES 8.1 - 8.5)
Simple addition
See Procedures
Soft and hard <c> and <g>
The letter <c> is soft—that is, spells the sound [s]—before <e>, <i>, and <y>, as in laced, lacing, lacy. Before any other vowel or consonant it is hard, spelling the sound [k], as in cad, cod, cup, clamp, cramp. Less reliably, the letter <g> is usually soft, spelling the sound [j] before <e>, <i>, and <y>, as in gem, giblet, gypsum. Before any other vowel or consonant it is hard, spelling the sound [g], as in gap, gob, gum, glue, agree. In some common words from Scandinavian, such as give and get the <g> is hard where we would expect it to be soft.
Spelling pronunciation
Changing an earlier pronunciation to one that comes closer to representing the current spelling: for instance, pronouncing often with a [t], again with a long [a], burial with [dotted ur] rather than [er], forehead with [h]. (EDLL, OCEL, AES
A bound element that comes after a base. Cf. Derivation and Inflection. (EDLL at Affix, OCEL, AES 2.2.2)
Suffix -ic› Rule
See Shortening Rules
Suffix -ity› Rule
See Shortening Rules
Syllabic Consonant
A consonant that can form the peak of sound within a syllable. The syllabic consonants are [l], [m], [n], [r]. Syllabic consonants usually occur at the end of words, as in button [|but·n], gentle [|jen·tl]. In some cases dictionaries show a schwa sound, though often, especially in informal speech, the only sound is that of the consonant, as in rhythm [|rith·schwam] or [|rith·schwam] or even [|rith·m]. (OCEL, AES )
In the spoken language a peak of sound, consisting of either a vowel or a syllabic consonant, plus any preceding or following consonants that are attached to it. Open syllables end in a vowel sound, closed syllables in a consonant sound. Spoken syllables are represented in a dictionary's phonetic respellings. But dictionaries also divide entry words into written syllables to indicate preferred points of division on the printed page. These written and spoken syllables may agree with one another, but not always, as in loutish: lout·ish vs. [|la dotted u·tish]. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 2.7.3 -
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Third Syllable (or Vowel) Rule
See Shortening Rules
The procedure in which the final consonants of words that end with a single vowel letter followed by a final single consonant letter double, or twin, the final consonant when adding a suffix that starts with a vowel, as in twinning twin+n+ing›. Twinning occurs only if stress is on the syllable with the final consonant both before and after the suffix is added—thus, referred with twinning, but reference without. Twinning avoids a VCV string that would cause the first vowel to look long: via simple addition twin+ing would produce <twining>, as if the word were derived from twine with long [i] rather than from twin with short [i]. Instead, twinning produces a VCCV string, thus marking the first <i> as short. (AES 9.1-9.6)
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VCV vs. VCCV strings
A VCV string consists of a single vowel letter spelling a stressed vowel sound, followed by a single consonant letter and another single vowel letter; a VCCV string consists of a single vowel letter spelling a stressed vowel sound followed by two consonant letters and a single vowel letter. The first vowels in VCV strings are regularly long, coming as they do in open syllables, while those in a VCCV string, coming in a closed syllable, are regularly short. (AES 4.1 -
A consonant sound articulated with the back of the tongue against the soft palate, or velum. In English the velars are [g], [k], and [ng]. (EDLL, OCEL at Velum, AES 27.1 -, 31.4 - 31.4.4)
Voiced vs. voiceless (unvoiced) sounds
Voiced sounds are pronounced with the vocal chords vibrating; voiceless, or unvoiced, sounds are pronounced with no vibration. Vowel sounds are always voiced, as are the consonant sounds [m], [n], [ng], [l], [r], [w], and [y]. The other ten consonant sounds come in five voiced-voiceless pairs—that is, two sounds that are exactly the same except that one is voiced, the other voiceless. In the following sets the first is voiced, the second voiceless: [b, p], [d, t], [g, k], [sh, zh], [ch, j]. (EDLL at Voicing, OCEL at Voice, AES 3.2.2 -
Vowel letter
A letter that spells a vowel sound. In English <a>, <e>, <i>, and <o> are always vowels. But <u>, <w>, and <y> have historically served, and still serve, double duty—sometimes vowel, sometimes consonant. For details see Consonant letters. (OCEL, AES 11.2 - 11.3)
Vowel sounds
English vowels are usually displayed on a chart whose rows indicate the tongue's position relative to the roof of the mouth (high, mid, low) and whose columns indicate the part of the tongue that is raised (front, central, back). The simple vowels recognized in our analysis are as follows:
Front Central Back

[i] beet

[i] bit

[u] boot

[dotted u] book


[a] bait

[e] bet

[u] but

[schwa] a(vove)

[o] boat
Low [a] bat

[ä] bother

[o] cot

[dotted o] caught

There is a second long <u> recognized in our analysis: [yu], as in cute, contrasting with [u] in coot. It is essentially a diphthong. (EDLL, OCEL, AES 11.1 - 11.1.2, 11.3 )

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