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Why is it spelled...?

Why does the vowel digraph <ea> sometimes spell [a] as in break, sometimes [e] as in breach, sometimes [e] as in bread?

The <ea> spelling comes from a number of different sources, both native and foreign, which spelled several different sounds. So the three sounds that it spells today, represent several convergences of sounds. Since spoken language changes faster than written, some of these spellings represent the way things sounded in the past. The result is that the story cannot be told clearly, cleanly, and simply.

The normal development is for <ea> to spell [e] (as in breach), far and away the most common case. The next most common correspondence, <ea> spells [e] (as in bread), occurs less than half as often as it does [e]. The <ea> spelling of [a] (as in break) is the least common correspondence, occurring only in break, great, steak, and yea.

The words in which <ea> spells [e] indicate the way things used to sound, for, though the spelling remained the same, its originally long vowel sounds or diphthongs shortened to [e]. This shortening occurred usually before dental consonants consonants: bread, sweat, deaf, leaven, death, weather, and before consonant clusters or concatenations: breast, cleanse (cf. clean), health (cf. heal), leapt (cf. leap), realm (AES, 13.3.2, 18.3.3, 19.2.4)

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