The Grammarphobia Blog

Speech therapy

Q: Why is “speak” spelled with “ea” and “speech” with “ee”?

A: In Old English, the noun “speech” was originally spraec, which was in use before 800. The verb “speak” was originally sprecan, which was first recorded in 725 (and which has echoes in the modern German sprechen).

Both can be traced to the days before we had writing, “speak” to a Proto-Germanic root reconstructed as sprekanan and “speech” to another Proto-Germanic root, spreakjo.

The “spr-” spellings for both the noun and the verb didn’t survive past the 12th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. But to get to your question: Why is the identical vowel sound now spelled “ee” in the noun and “ea” in the verb?

In fact, the vowel sound in “speech” has at times in the past been spelled with an “a” in the mix.

Since the 13th century, the OED says, its spellings have included “spaec,” “spec,” “spece,” “spaeche,” “spache,” “spiche,” “speche,” “spieche,” “spech,” “speach,” “speache,” and finally “speech.”

The spelling that won out, “speech,” was first used in the 16th century. But for many years it competed with “speach” and “speache.”

The vowel sound in “speak,” meanwhile, also had a long and winding journey. Since the 13th century, its spellings have included “speke,” “spek,” “spec,” “speck,” “speike,” “speik,” “speake,” “spake,” and finally “speak.”

One would think that both words eventually would have ended up with “ea.” But it didn’t happen.

Over the years, advocates of spelling reform have pointed to “speak” and “speech” as examples of the “viciousness” (as one 19th-century zealot called it) of English spellings.

In general, I’m not in their camp and I’m not a supporter of spelling reform. But I have to admit that there seems to be no explanation why the two aren’t spelled alike – why “speak” isn’t “speek” or (more likely) why “speech” isn’t “speach.”

The fact is that this is how the words have come down to us and we’re stuck with them. The good news is that most of us are used to them by now.

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