I am sure that you all have asked yourself why English spelling is so complicated sometimes. Why on earth is that word spelled like that? It just doesn’t make any sense. Well, it doesn’t make any sense simply because the pronunciation of the words changed but the spelling remained the same.
This brings me to a puzzle about a word pair piece and peace? We all know that these two words are pronounced the same. The question remains: why are they spelled in this particular way? This puzzle is going to be cracked in just a few minutes.
The vowel in piece was pronounced with the sound similar to the modern long vowel /e/ (since there is no long /e/ in the Modern English, the sound was the long version of the vowel we hear in the word pay). The vowel in peace was pronounced with the sound similar to the modern long schwa (this is the vowel we hear in the word fur). One of the earliest recorded spellings of these two words was peece. You see a problem? How should I know the difference?
But, firstly, I should mention something else. In the Old English, vowels were spelled in the same way without any distinction between long and short sounds. During the Middle English period, the scribes found a clever solution. In order to mark the length of the vowel, they doubled it. In both cases, the simplest spelling of these two sounds would be /e/. That’s way the recorded spelling has doubled e in both cases.
To continue our story, we need turn to phonetics a little bit. The long /e/ sound is the front vowel. Because of that, it is similar to another front vowel, which is /i: / (the vowel in the word keep). On the other hand, the long schwa is the central vowel and it is similar to the sound found in man, which is pronounced lower in the mouth just as the long schwa. This sound was spelled with the letter a.
To cut a long story short, we come across another clever solution the scribes come up with. One letter e in peece was replaced by the letter i and that’s how we’ve got piece and one letter e in other peece was replaced by the letter a and that’s how we’ve got peace.
And voila! “ Everything is perfect. Now, we can make a distinction between those two words. Everybody is happy”, the scribes must have thought. Well, everyone except the speakers of the modern English…
For further information concerning this topic, I warmly recommend the book Spell it out by David Crystal. The book is absolutely wonderful!
Chrystal D. (2013). Spell it out. PROFILE BOOKS LTD, London