While traveling recently, I came across an advertisement where cows are spelling as . While many chuckle and knod, stating, “Yeah, English spells stuff weird. Why don’t we just spell it how it’s sounded.” Let me walk you through the word .
When doing a scientific word investigation, we go through 4 scientific questions – mean? built? relatives? pronunciation? The definition of by Merrian-Webster’s is “he first meal of the day especially when taken in the morning.” Its definition leads us to question #2 about how it is built. Breakfast was the meal that broke the fast from the evening and overnight. In question #2, we look at the structure of the word. The morphemes identified in <breakfast> are presented in word sums: <break> + <fast> -> <breakfast>. In question #3, we look at relatives which can all be put into a matrix after word sums are created for each of them. Words with the same base include: break, breaks, breakage, breaker, breakers. It also has many compounds: breakout, breakwater, breakup, breakthrough, breakdown, windbreak, heartbreak, breakout, heartbreak.
It is an Old English word and is a strong verb. This means that the past tense will not have the default expected <-ed> suffix. The past tense is <broke> and the past participle is <broken>. There are many verbs that have a stem shift instead of a suffix added for past tense. So, <broke> and <broken> are relatives by having the same root, but they do not share a base <break>. For illustrative purposes, that would mean that <broke> and <broken> can go in the etymological circle and not in the lexical matrix.
The forth question is about pronunciation. Lets start with the graphemes of <breakfast>. There are 9 letters and 8 graphemes: <b.r.ea.k.f.a.s.t>. The pronunciation areas that are unexpected are at the grapheme <ea> and <a>. In the matrix, all the pronunciations of <ea> have a long <a> phoneme: break, breakage, breakable. There is a shift to a short <e> phoneme in <breakfast>. It is the same phoneme when the <ea> is used in <bread>. Some etymologists believe there is a connection between <breakfast> and <bread>. Either way, we know that <ea> can also be pronounced in this way.
So what about the <a>? Why do the cows want to spell it with a <u>? The answer is that it is pronounced as a schwa. The stress is on the first syllable and therefore the <a> can and is pronounced with a schwa. The schwa is a perfect example of why we can’t spell with phonology primacy. We must look at morphology (and etymology) to actually spell correctly. Knowing that that this meal broke a fast, helps us to spell it with the morpheme that means without food.
This is a quick example of how morphology and etymology are needed along with phonology for orthography. If we spelled by phonology only, we would spell <breakfast> as <brekfust> and we would need to change our dictionary in every state and dialect in the country, as well as any time we shifted the pronunciation of a word. This is another example of how our English writing system is morphophonemic.