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Our impression of letter counts

Critics of Gerard Kennedy are having a field day with the fact that the Ontario Education Minister mistakenly said there were five letters in the word “strike”. The flub has drawn comparisons to former U.S. vice president Dan Quayle.

“But then again, at least no one put Dan Quayle in charge of educating over a million schoolchildren,” said legislator John Baird, of the opposition Conservative Party.

Mr. Kennedy made his error in speech, rather than in writing. Human beings in general are bad at counting the letters of words while they are talking–at least, that’s my impression. It’s pretty obvious why that would be.

The idea of an alphabet is to have one character to represent one sound. However, languages change over time. The older your writing system is, the more differences there are going to be between what is written and how it is pronounced. I don’t know the particular etymology of the word “strike”, but I can tell you right now that the final “e” is not pronounced. In the IPA, the word “strike” would be written

/straik/

The /ai/ there is a diphthong. (I don’t know that I make the diphthong mark show up in Shift_JIS, or even in a regular font. Also, note that by /r/ I actually mean the American English r, not the normal IPA /r/.) If you consider a diphthong to be one “letter”, you could argue that “strike” actually is a five-letter word–in terms of pronunciation.

Ultimately, I’ve thought way too much about this, writing a bunch of baseless conjecture and then deleting it all :> The upshot is that I don’t think people should be judged too seriously on grammar value judgments they make out loud.