Mona Voelkel

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SWI Inquiry: Spelling “Hear” vs “Heard”

My friend, Q., had a question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?” Hmm. I don’t know why! What an interesting question, Q. !!! What we do know is that “heard” is the past of “hear” and we know that it is not spelled hear + ed-> *heared.

What is the reasoning behind the spelling of <heard>?

First, let’s look at both words:



We note that although <hear> appears in both words, there is a stem vowel shift as we say the words aloud: “hear”/”heard” although they both contain the letter strings <hear>; the words are pronounced differently.

Might this signal that these words come from Old English? I know from my class with Rebecca Loveless that there are Old English-derived strong (showing an action or state of being or feeling) verbs that mark the past tense with a stem vowel shift, such as “eat/ate”; “run/ran”; “sing/sang” and “”grow/grew.”

I notice that, unlike the words above, “hear” and “heard” have a vowel shift but not a letter string or grapheme shift. Hmmm. There is another example of am Old English-derived strong verb that has a vowel sound shift without a letter string or grapheme shift:

Present tense: “read”/Past tense: “read”

So, I ponder what, if anything does the “hear/heard” and “read/read” pairings have in common? They are all homophones: read/reed; read/red; hear/here; heard/herd. So, it would have been important for the scribes long ago to follow the homophone principle: “where possible, words that are pronounced the same, but are unrelated, will have different spellings to mark the differences in meaning.”

So, it would have been important to have graphemes in <heard> that would signal the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>.

Now, with those thoughts in mind, I will investigate <heard> and <hear> using the 4 questions of Structured Word Inquiry (Bowers & Kirby, 2010) to determine if any other new understandings come to light:

So, after considering all my current understandings, my answer to Q.’s question, “Why is “heard” spelled that way?”, my hypothesis is that <heard>, as an Old English-derived strong verb, is spelled that way in order to show the meaningful connection to <hear> while differentiating <heard> from <herd>. I will continue to refine my hypothesis as I learn. Thank you, Q., for a very thought-provoking question!

Update: I wasn’t feeling confident about my analysis about why <heard> is spelled that way so I continued to do research. I came across Dr. Peter Bowers’ wonderful exploration of <say> and <said> here. His analysis taught me something new: <-d> is a non-productive suffix ( a suffix that is not currently being used to generate new words). In his etymological investigation, <saith> was historically replaced by <say> and he is aware of the OE suffix -th (-th, according to Gina Cooke, is a verbal inflection that has been replaced by the <-s> in says. It has an <-eth> variant, like in <prayeth>) so

saith-> sai + th

If <sai> is an earlier version of <say> and <-d> is an earlier, now non-productive, suffix then

sai + d-> said

Dr. Bowers concludes, “our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <say> and <said> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root secgan. “

That makes me update my hypothesis that <heard> is spelled that way as a result of <hear> + the now unproductive -d suffix hence

hear + d->heard

Based on my updated hypothesis and my current understanding, our word sum analysis gives us evidence that <hear> and <heard> do NOT share a base, but the etymological evidence shows that they derived from the same Old English root heran.

Thank you, Dr. Bowers, for your illuminative analysis of <said> and for all your scholarship related to spelling and Structured Word Inquiry.

Note from Real Spellers Toolkit (Theme 2D):

  • We know that the homophones < hear > and < here > have different meanings because they are spelled differently. The one that is to do with listening shares a spelling with < ear > because that’s what we listen with.

The other word is the one to do with place: < here >. It shares a spelling with the other words that are clearly about place: < there > and < where >, even though the pronunciation is different.


Peter Bowers, Structured Word Inquiry

Rebecca Loveless

Etymology Online

The Noun Project

Neil Ramsden’s Mini-Matrix Maker

Real Spellers Forum and Toolbox

Gina Cooke and Lex Exchange

Oxford Dictionary


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