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Why do we pronounce the ‘o’ in ‘woman‘ as /oo/ like in ‘book’, whereas the ‘o’ in ‘women‘ in pronounced /i/ like in ‘insect’?

According to Crystal (2012), in Old English the word for ‘woman’ was ‘wifman’ (literally wife-man, but pronounced as /w/-/i/-/f/) and ‘women’ was ‘wifmen’. Over time, the /f/ disappeared and, with changes to vowel pronunciation, the /i/ became /oo/. However, because the stress was on the first syllable, the vowel sound in the second syllable (man/men) became unclear (schwa). Think of ‘policeman’ and ‘policemen’. In everyday conversation, it is impossible to determine whether you are referring to the singular (policeman) or the plural (policemen).
[box]Say: “The policeman went home.” Now compare this to: “The policemen went home.”[/box]Due to the difficulty of distinguishing between ‘woman” and ‘women’, the ‘o’ in the plural form gradually came to be pronounced as /i/. In fact, by the end of the Middle English period is was apparently not uncommon to see ‘women’ written as ‘wimmen’ or ‘wymmen’. (It is also interesting to note the double consonant after the short vowel pattern occurring in these Middle English spellings of the word.)

Crystal suggests that this change in pronunciation occurred because it followed other plural words which were formed by changing the vowel sound (e.g., foot-feet, tooth-teeth, mouse-mice). In all these examples, the vowel sound in the plural form for the word is positioned higher up in the mouth.
[box]Say: /oo/ as in ‘foot’ and /ow/ like in ‘mouse’ and compare the position of your mouth when you are saying these sounds to when you say /ie/ as in ‘mice’ or /ee/ as in ‘feet’. You should notice that your mouth is more rounded when saying the first two sounds and more stretched when saying the last two sounds.[/box] Yet interestingly, you don’t see the same change in pronunciation of other compound words containing men/man (policemen/policeman, chairmen/chairman, firemen/fireman, etc.).

From a teaching perspective:

• Teach the two words at the same time.

• Ask students to identify the sounds in each word and map these to the graphemes (letter or letter combinations) representing each of the sounds.

• Discuss the meaning and history behind the two words.

• Draw your students’ attention to the fact that ‘woman’ and ‘women’ are spelled the same, except ‘woman’ ends with ‘man’ and ‘women’ ends with ‘men. This might seem obvious, but many poor spellers don’t focus on the internal structure of words and therefore don’t notices these similarities and differences.

• These words are also rule breakers as according to the rule, you should double the ‘m’ to keep the vowel short (as in the Middle English spelling).

• Some students may also find it useful to pronounce the words as /woa-man/ and /woa-men/ because the ‘o’ is more commonly pronounced as the long vowel sound /oa/ (no, most, protest) than the /oo/ sound like in ‘wolf’, and it is extremely rare for the ‘o’ to be pronounced as /i/.

Crystal, D. (2013). Spell it out: The singular story of English: Profile Books.