When I was a child, we had several Dr Seuss books, but they weren’t a particular feature of my early reading. Over the past few years, I have returned to some of his books to find material for lessons and for general linguistic interest. ‘Let’s start at the very beginning … when you read you begin with A, B, C’, so the first book I’ll look at here (though I haven’t used it in class) is ‘Dr Seuss’ ABC’. In particular, I am looking at the differences between spelling and pronunciation. I use < > to mean ‘spelling’ and / / to mean ‘pronunciation’. I have split the alphabet into two – it’s well over a thousand words already.
Aunt Annie’s alligator
For me, there are three different vowels here. ‘Aunt’ has /a:/ (‘long a’ or ‘ah’) and the other two have /æ/ (‘short a’). Dr Seuss probably spoke standard US English and probably pronounced all three as /æ/. (But see the note at the end about this.) The third sound is in the middle of ‘alligator’, and is /eɪ/ (the same sound as ‘ay’). Thus, <a> commonly makes three different sounds (and uncommonly makes several more).
Barber baby bubbles and a bumblebee
<b> is usually /b/ and <bb> is always /b/. Here we have <b> at the beginning and in the middle of words, and in the middle. <b> (commonly) and <bb> (uncommonly) can also come at the end of words.
Camel on the ceiling
<c> is really strange. All <c>s are pronounced either /k/ (like ‘camel’) or /s/ (like ‘ceiling’). We could probably spell these two words ‘kamel’ and ‘seiling’ (but we don’t). <ce>, <ci> and <cy> are usually /s/ and every other possible combination is usually /k/.
David Donald Doo dreamed a dozen doughnuts and a duck-dog, too
<d> is usually /d/. Here we have <d> /d/ at the beginning and end of words (it can also come in the middle). (We can also have <dd> (which is always /d/), which can come in the middle (commonly) and end (uncommonly) of words.) One very common use of <d> is in the simple past and past participle of regular verbs. Here, we have ‘dreamed’. Some people spell it ‘dreamt’ and pronounce it /drɛmt/. (Many other words are written with <ed>, but are automatically pronounced with /t/. This depends on the sound before: compare ‘logged’ (which has /gd/) and ‘locked’ (which has /kt/ if you listen very carefully).)
ear egg elephant
For me, there are three different vowels here. ‘egg’ and the first syllable of ‘elephant’ have /ɛ/. ‘ear’ for me has /ɪə/. Dr Seuss probably pronounced this /ɪə˞/ – that is, with a little ‘r’ sound on the end. I don’t pronounce the ‘r’, unless I am joining it to another syllable, for example ‘earache’. For me, the second <e> and the <a> of ‘elephant’ both have a ‘schwa’ /ə/, the very light, neutral ‘uh’ sound which is often used in unstressed syllables and which is, as a result, the most common sound in English, even though it doesn’t have a letter of its own. Like <a>, <e> commonly makes several different sounds.
Four fluffy feathers on a Fiffer-feffer-feff
<f> is usually /f/ and <ff> is always /f/. Here we have <f> at the beginning of words (it can also come in the middle and at the end) and <ff> in the middle and end . Note that Dr Seuss can invent a new word and fully expect us to be able to pronounce it.
Goat girl googoo goggles
<g> is usually /g/and <gg> is always /g/. Here we have <g> at the beginning and in the middle of words (it can also come at the end) and in <gg> the middle (it can also come at the end). (Similarly to <c>, <ge>, <gi> and <gy> are usually /dʒ/ (which is otherwise written <j>; the girl’s name ‘Georgia’ is sometimes (horrendously, in my opinion) written as ‘Jorja’. ‘girl’ is not an exception to this; this rule is based on the *sound* and not the spelling.)
Hungry horse. Hay. Hen in a hat. Hooray!
<h> is usually /h/. Here we have it at the beginning of words (it can also come in the middle, and at the end of the spelling of a word, but not at the end of its pronunciation.)
Ichabod is itchy. So am I.
<i> is usually /ɪ/. Here we have <i> at the beginning of words (it can also come in the middle). (<i> can come at the end of the spelling of a word, but not at the end of the pronunciation. For example, ‘ski’ is /ski:/, with a ‘long “ee”’ sound.) The other very important word is ‘I’, which is always written (formally, at least) with a capital letter, and is always pronounced /aɪ/. Like <a> and <e>, <i> commonly makes several different sounds.
Jerry Jordan’s jelly jar and jam
<j> is usually /dʒ/. It starts like /d/ and ends like /ʒ/ (the sound in the middle of ‘vision’) but we put them together so closely that we don’t think of it as two sounds. Here we have it at the beginning of words (it can also come in the middle). (The only words with <j> /dʒ/ at the end have been imported into English from other languages, for example ‘raj’ (from Sanskrit) and (uniquely) ‘hajj’ (from Arabic). Otherwise, /dʒ/ at the end of the a word is spelled <ge> (see above).) (In the course of my research, I found that pre-Dr Seuss Theodor Geisel wrote a comic strip named ‘Hejji’.)
Kitten. Kangaroo. Kick a kettle. Kite and a king’s kerchoo.
<k> is usually /k/. It often combines <ck> as to also make /k/. Here we have <k> at the beginning of words (it can also come in the middle or at the end) and <ck> at the end (it can also come in the middle, but not at the beginning.) (<kk> is possible, but comes only in words imported into English from other languages, for example, ‘pukka’ (from Hindi/Urdu) or in compound words, for example, ‘bookkeeper’. In either case, it only comes in the middle of words.)
Little Lola Lopp. Left leg. Lazy lion licks a lollipop.
<l> is usually /l/ and <ll> is always /l/. Here we have <l> at the beginning and in the middle of words (it can also come at the end) and <ll> in the middle (in can also come at the end, but not at the beginning).
Many mumbling mice are making midnight music in the moonlight … mighty nice.
<m> is usually /m/. Here we have it at the beginning and in the middle of words (it can also go at the end). (<mm> is also possible in the middle or at the end of words, but not at the beginning).
I have made two guesses as to Dr Suess’s pronunciation, on the assumption that he spoke standard US English. This may not be the case. He was born and grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and attended Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. (He later lived in New York and California.) New England (USA) English has several features which distinguish it from general US English, including the TRAP/BATH split (so Dr Seuss may well have said /a:nt/ for ‘aunt’), and non-rhoticity (so he may also have said ‘/ɪə/’ for ‘ear’).
[Dr Seuss’ ABC, Dr Suess Enterprises L.P. and Random House Inc., New York
Oscar Hammerstein II, The Sound of Music]