The Four Sounds of the Spelling OU
In response to the post on “all a rouse,” Paul Wilkins wrote
I am wondering why people are misusing rouse to mean ruse.
What other spellings of common words are there that would cause them to think that rouse is pronounced in the same was as ruse? The only only one that comes to mind is the -use word ending for words such as hypotenuse.
Actually, there are several English words in which the spelling ou represents the /oo/ sound: you, your, tour, crouton, group, coup
The reference on which I most rely for discussing the sounds and spelling of English is Romalda Spalding’s The Writing Road to Reading.
Spalding based the teaching guidelines in her book on the work of Samuel Orton and his student Anne Gillingham. Both the Spalding Method and the Orton-Gillingham Method organize the sounds and symbols of English into 46 sounds (phonemes) and 70 written symbols (phonograms).
In the Spalding method phonograms that represent more than one sound are presented in order of frequency. That is, if a letter or letter combination can represent more than one sound, the first sound is the most common, the second less common, and so on. When encountering an unfamiliar word, the beginning reader is taught to try the first sound first. If that doesn’t produce a recognizable word, then the second sound is to be tried.
In Spalding the four sounds of the phonogram ou are presented in this order:
1. /ow/ as in found
about, house, shout, mouse, count, loud, sound, hound
2. long o as in four
pour, course, court, gourd, mourn, fourth
3. /oo/ as in you
your, tour, crouton, group, coup
4. /uh/ as in country
As one might expect, American pronunciation has undergone changes since Orton and his students did their research back in the 1920s and 1930s. Television has spread many pronunciations and words that were once considered regional rather than standard. For example, the word tour [tʊr] is often heard pronounced to rhyme with “chore.”
In answer to the reader’s question, the bloggers who spell the word ruse with the phonogram ou have never seen the word in print. They are associating the spelling ou with its third sound and not its most common sound.
As the writing population continues to read less, many conventional spellings will be lost. They will be replaced by forms that “look right” to writers who are not used to seeing them in print.