No, the answer is not: “Five: a, e, i, o u.” Granted, in traditional English spelling those are the vowel letters, yes, but I’m talking about our spoken language: How many significant vowel sounds are there? Well, if you consult any popular American English dictionary, and study the Pronunciation Key, there will be a long list of vowels. In the Pronunciation Key to the American Heritage Dictionary, 19 different vowel symbols are listed (not counting the ones only used in foreign words)! However, some of these are special vowels that only occur before the /r/ sound, which are “colored” by the /r/, so these can be separated out as special cases. And one of these vowels, /ə/, only occurs in weak syllables (completely unstressed syllables), never in stressed syllables, so it also can be separated out as a special case. This leaves us with 15 vowels that can occur in stressed syllables. Very few North American English speakers have all of these vowels: Many have 14 (lacking the /ä/ vowel), and many have only 13 (lacking both /ä/ and /ô/). New York City has 16 vowels, the 15 in the American Heritage list plus one that is not usually listed in dictionary pronunciation guides, which I have chosen to spell /ăə/!
To lay is to place something or put something down, and it must be followed by a noun or pronoun, a thing; to lie is to recline. A lie is an untruth, and to lie also means "to tell an untruth." Examples: Lay that package on the mantel, will you please? Bridgette would like to lie in the hammock near the pool. Sometimes it's tempting to lie when you're in trouble, but a lie only makes things worse. (Hint:Lay sounds like place; lie sounds like recline. But be careful: lay is also the past tense of the verb to lie: Jay lay on the couch all day yesterday.)
A brake is the device that stops a vehicle; to break is to separate or destroy; and the noun break is a timed stoppage, as in "take a break." Examples: You could break your bones if the brakes on your car or bike don't work!
A chord is the combination of two or more tones sounded at the same time; acord is a rope or string, or an insulated electric wire fitted with a plug to use as a conduit. Examples: The dissonant chord sung by the choir sounded like a cat screeching! The computer lab has a mass of cords crawling from the computers to the walls.
Continual means "repeated regularly and often;" continuous means "extended or prolonged without interruption." Examples: Julia hated the continual negative political ads. The alarm bell was jammed and rang continuously; it never stopped and was making Gayle loony!
A cue is a clue or hint or a subtle pointing out of something; it's also a long, tapered stick used in playing billiards or pool; a queue (a term used mainly in Britain) is a file or line, especially of people awaiting their turn; it also is a braid of hair worn hanging down the back. Examples: Take a cue from Jeff; he's an accomplished pool player and often chalks his cue. Allison had a long braid of hair that draped down her back, and when she stood in line we joked that she was a girl with a queue in a queue!
Eminent means "distinguished or superior"; imminent means "impending, sure to happen." Also, eminent domain is the right of a government to take over private property for public use. Examples: The rain was imminent; it would arrive soon, soaking the eminent dignitaries on the stage. (Think of imminent andimpending, which both begin with the same letters.)
Stationary means "fixed in place, unable to move;" stationery is letterhead or other special writing paper. (Hint: Stationery with an e comes with an envelope.) Examples: Evan worked out on his stationary bike. The duke's initials and crest appeared atop his personal stationery.
The eccentric spelling of the English language is preserved because of a pervasive meme that there are right and wrong ways to spell words. This meme has all kinds of support, including dictionaries, computer spell-checkers, and children's spelling bees. But before the Use a dictionary strategy-meme became prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, people spelled words any way they wanted. It's not True that there's one and only one correct way to spell a word-it's just a meme. As Mark Twain said, "'Tis a small mind cannot think of but one way to spell a word."
We think it's True because all our lives people have been criticizing us for misspelling words-we've been programmed. Not that there's anything wrong with consistent spelling-it enhances communication, after all-but it's important to start seeing that all of what we think of as the Truth is composed of memes, and most of those memes just came into our heads through programming, without any of our own conscious choice involved.