From the archives...
The following question was originally posted on the (now discontinued) LOE Forum.
About ar and or:
My student, in spelling list 8 (Essentials), spelled warm as "worm."
She asked, "The ar in warm does not sound like the ar in car. Why isn't it spelled worm? The or in worm does not sound like the or of form. Why isn't it spelled werm?"
I couldn't answer. Can you?
Your student is correct! It does not sound the same, though some dialects say it closer to /ar/ than others.
When dictating "warm" in spelling analysis you need to clearly say to spell "wARm" to help students develop a clear auditory "picture" of this sound, just as you would with a schwa sound, and will probably be helpful to tell her "we usually pronounce this word "wORm," but we will say to spell "wARm" to help us remember how it is spelled." This is the same process we use with words containing a schwa sound or any other sound that is distorted or obscured in common pronunciation.
In terms of why they came to be spelled this way: I don't know this absolutely, but there are some interesting pieces to ponder.
- The words that have this pronunciation of AR always have it following a /w/ sound: war, warm, warn, swarm, dwarf, quarter, quartz.
- You would think that these words should be spelled W-O-R. However, in English, WOR is almost always pronounced /wer/, and /wer/ is almost always spelled WOR. That is why we teach WOR as a phonogram.
- It is an odd pattern, but a consistent one you can easily see in your dictionary: virtually every English word that starts "wor-" is pronounced /wer/ (thus the need for the phonogram WOR), most words that start "war-" are pronounced /wōr/, and there are virtually none in our language that begin "wur-". And some words beginning with "quar-" - which also has that /w/ sound - follow the same pattern as "war-" words.
It's possible that these pronunciations have shifted over time, and there may be a historical and linguistic explanation for this shift that I don't know, but what we can see is the consistency in the pattern we have now. One theory my colleagues and I were just discussing is that the vowels have shifted further back into the mouth, closer to where /r/ is pronounced, for ease of pronunciation; we don't actually say /wär/ in almost any word, which is understandable because it's difficult to say. So the /ar/ might have shifted to /or/ after a /w/, and the /or/ to /er/, because the words were easier to pronounce this way.
You could make an argument that "WAR" should be taught as a separate phonogram that says /wōr/. We haven't found it to be necessary, though, since a) it occurs in a relatively small number of words, b) some dialects do pronounce it closer to /är/, and c) students seem to have no trouble understanding the spelling of the words through Say to Spell.