Why is the ‘u’ in ‘busy’ pronounced as /i/ and in ‘bury’ pronounced as /e/? It relates to the fact that how we pronounce words can be different in different dialects of English and that the pronunciation of words often change over time, but this is not reflected in changes to spelling.
According to Crystal (2013), in the Middle English period, ‘bury was spelled ‘berry’, ‘burie’, ‘birie’ or ‘byry’. These different spellings reflected the way the word was pronounced in different regions.
The /e/ pronunciation and spelling was typical in and around Kent. The /i/ pronunciation reflected a northern accent and the /u/ spelling was typical of the Midlands region.
It is unclear as to why the ‘u’ spelling and the /e/ pronunciation combination came to be the standard. However, this pattern of spelling and pronunciation is consistent with words derived from ‘bury’ (burial, buried, burying), as well as nouns beginning or ending with ‘bury’ (Canterbury, Padbury).
Similarly, ‘busy’ was spelled as ‘bisi’, ‘bisy’, ‘besy’, ‘busi’ or ‘byry’ in Middle English, again reflecting dialect differences. It is also not known why ‘busy’ became the standard spelling and /bizy/ the standard pronunciation. However, Crystal believes this combination was standardised in the 1500s with Tyndale and Cloverdale’s published translation of the bible which was then copied by other translators.
From a teaching perspective there is nothing logical about the spelling of ‘busy’ or ‘bury’. Even if we ignore the fact that the ‘u’ is representing the short vowel sound /e/, according to the rule, there should have been a double ‘r’ (like in hurry, berry, mirror) to ‘keep the vowel short’. Similarly, ‘busy’ should also be written with double ‘s’ (like in fussy, missy, bossy).
- For both ‘busy’ and ‘bury’, begin by asking students to identify the sounds in each word and map these to the graphemes (letter or letter combinations) representing each of these sounds.
- An additional memory strategy for ‘bury’ is to pronounce the word as /b/-/er/-/ee/ (only for spelling purposes) and then link it to the ‘ur’ grapheme in church – we will /b/-/er/-/ee/ you by the church.
- Remember to teach the homophone ‘berry’ at the same time that you teach ‘bury’.
- An addition memory strategy for ‘busy’ is for the student to think: I’m busy on the bus. The student writes ‘bus’ and then adds on the ‘y’.
- It is also useful to draw the link between ‘busy’ and ‘business’ – another word that poor spellers often spell incorrectly. Have students identify that the base word of ‘business’ is ‘busy’. The student writes ‘busy’. Now remind (or teach) students the rule – change ‘y’ to ‘i’ and add ‘es’ or the suffix. The student erases the ‘y’ and changes it to ‘i’ then adds on the suffix ‘ness’.
Crystal, D. (2013). Spell it out: The singular story of English: Profile Books.