Thursday 26 November 2009


Donald Marsh wrote
I've been trying to find the origin for the difference in the pronunciation of the word 'schedule' (sked- and shed-) and thought you might be able to help. If you could give me a brief, layman's explanation as to why British English pronounces the word "shed-ule" and American English pronounces it "sked-ule" I would be deeply grateful. Which pronunciation is older, and how did the newer pronunciation become acceptable and take hold?
The basic answer is surely that we don’t know. As with most differences in pronunciation, we really cannot tell why one form has become prevalent in one geographical area and another in another.
I replied
It's often difficult or impossible to say WHY a particular pronunciation exists — ultimately it's a matter of fashion, like clothes.
For 'schedule', one mystery is that this word used to be pronounced with plain s-. That's the only form given by Walker (1791). (See the OED.) But it is never heard today.

The earliest spelling for this word given in the OED is cedule, from Old French and attested from the 14th to the 16th century, when the modern spelling first makes its appearance. (The OED continues, “mod.F. cédule”, though I can find no such word in my big Collins/Robert dictionary of French.) The pronunciation with /s-/ appears to have persisted unchanged. In BrE, the orthoepist Smart (1836) is the first to recommend the pronunciation with /ʃ-/. I don’t know what early Americans did.
So the question comes down to why /ˈsedjuːl/, the pronunciation used until the end of the 18th century, ultimately gave way to /ˈʃedjuːl/ in BrE but to /ˈskedʒ(u)əl/ in AmE.
Actually, as readers of LPD will know, the picture is actually more complicated than that. By no means all speakers of BrE prefer /ʃed-/. In my sample, in fact, 65% of BrE respondents born in 1974 or later preferred the /sked-/ form, which seems set to gradually displace /ʃed-/. This may have something to do with the fact that in AmE the word has a wider meaning than traditionally in BrE, since it covers BrE (railway, airline, bus) timetable as well as the meaning we share of a “tabular or classified statement” or “blank form”. Now we are borrowing this additional AmE timetable meaning (e.g. departing on schedule, scheduled arrival time), often along with its pronunciation.
I suppose that part of the answer to Mr Marsh’s question is that both /sk-/ and /ʃ-/ are spelling pronunciations. The model for the first would be in words such as school, scheme, schooner, Schofield; for the second, schnapps, schnozzle, meerschaum, and German names such as Schiller, Schubert, Schweppes, Porsche. Since the first group may be felt as more “native”, it is not surprising if it attracts items from the second. The same thing has happened with schism, traditionally /ˈsɪzəm/ but now usually /ˈskɪzəm/.
As for scheme, /k/ is the usual reflex of Greek chi, which is what σχῆμα schēma had.


  1. Le Petit Robert Dictionnaire de la Langue Française:

    CÉDULE n.f.: (Sedule, 1180; bas lat. schedula 'feuillet', de scheda 'bande be papyrus')
    1. Vx. Reconnaissance d'un engagement.
    2. Dr. Cédule de citation (de témoin, d'expert): ordonnance de juge de paix
    3. Fisc. Feuillet de déclaration de revenue, par catégories d'origine (av. 1949). Catégorie d'impôt.

  2. Here's what Etymonline has (no further sources, unfortunately). I'm not sure what he means concerning the French influence:

    1397, sedule, cedule "ticket, label, slip of paper with writing on it," from O.Fr. cedule, from L.L. schedula "strip of paper," dim. of L. schida "one of the strips forming a papyrus sheet," from Gk. skhida "splinter," From stem of skhizein "to cleave, split" (see shed (v.) and cf. schism). The notion is of slips of paper attached to a document as an appendix (a sense maintained in U.S. tax forms). The specific meaning "printed timetable" is first recorded 1863 in railway use (the verb in this sense is from 1862). Modern spelling is 15c., in imitation of L.; the modern British pronunciation ("shed-yul") is from Fr. influence, while the U.S. pronunciation ("sked-yul") is from the practice of Webster, and is based on the Greek original.

  3. According to Littré, the original meaning of cédule was "petit morceau de papier où l'on écrivait quelque chose pour servir de mémoire. Dans l'ancienne université, on donnait aux régents des cédules où étaient écrits les noms des écoliers qui avaient commis quelque faute." And all the other cognates mentioned in OED don't seem to have evolved much beyond mod.F. cédule in meaning, except Du cedel (or ceel). I was riveted to see Ger Zettel was one of them.

    John, the way you have quoted the OED seems to imply that ˈsɛdjuːl is still an option:

    – The pronunciation with /s-/ appears to have persisted unchanged. In BrE, the orthoepist Smart (1836) is the first to recommend the pronunciation with /ʃ-/

    Somehow I don't think you intended to endorse the statement in Walker's second ed. (1797) that it is ‘too firmly fixed by custom to be altered’! Let alone his preference 'on theoretical grounds' for either (ˈskɛdjuːl), or – ‘if we follow the French’ – (ˈʃɛdjul). What theoretical grounds? What French?

    For it seems the Greek origin that Etymonline has espoused is a bit speculative, and OED doesn’t acknowledge it. In fact it gives med. Gr. σχέδη as deriving from med. L scheda (dim. schedula), of which the late L forms were sceda and scedula. I guess we may be intended to infer that since both etymological hs from Greek and unetymological hs (e.g. pulcher) were well established by late L, the h had no business to be there in the first place. Of course its introduction in med. L would have any number of fake etymological parallels.

    The ironic truth of the matter may be that by rights /s-/ should have persisted unchanged, both /sk-/ and /ʃ-/ being as you say spelling pronunciations, and spelling pronunciations based on dubious etymology at that.

    BTW Smart (1836) says that as the word is of Greek origin the normal pronunciation would be with (sk).

    I suspected even before I saw the Etymonline entry that the evil Webster had the same motivation for enshrining that pronunciation. Not that the one with /ʃ-/ is any better motivated or less mysterious!

    For again Etymonline espouses the OED claim that the modern British pronunciation ("shed-yul") is from Fr. Influence.

  4. I must clearly have a foot in both camps, since when I mentally pronounced "departing on schedule, scheduled arrival time", the first came out with k- whilst the second came out with sh-.

    Some 45 years ago, when I briefly held a radio amateur's licence, I remember that the canonical abbreviation for a scheduled link-up was "sked", and a quick Google search for '"radio amateur" sked' discloses almost 1800 hits in the UK alone, suggesting that the abbreviation has not fallen into disuse.

    Interestingly, another term for a staff schedule is a staff roster, sometimes staff rota : yet despite the apparent similarities between "rota" and "roster", they appear to be derived from quite different etymons (see for a discussion of this.

  5. Whilst I, mentally pronouncing the same thing, had 'sKeduled departure time' and 'on SHedule'...

  6. These learned words in some sense always have spelling pronunciations, and are always subject to reborrowing. Thus ModE cell cannot be the direct descendant of OE cell 'monk's cell' < Lat. cella, for sound-change would have caused it to be spelled and pronounced chell today, like chin < OE cin or churl < OE ceorl. It can only be reborrowed from MF celle, giving it the initial [s] characteristic of French words.'

    I would say that the 'timetable' sense 'is overwhelmingly dominant in AmE today. People are familiar with Schedule A, B, C, etc. attached to their tax returns, but I don't think they realize why these forms are called that.

  7. I see that no mention has been made of the idea (legend? canard?) that the pronunciation of "schedule" with [ʃ] derives from "the King's English" at a time when the king was a German speaker. Is this idea completely untenable? Is the same true of the corresponding idea about the origin of the pronunciation of "either" and "neither" with [aɪ]?

  8. Can i know how it should pronounce the second half of the word schedule. Is it "jule" or "dule"?? i am using "skejule". Is that correct?

  9. hmm phonetics do actually term the broad aspects of life.

    Pakistani Girls

  10. I had no idea that British pronounced the word schedule like that, I know several English people but oddly enough that word has never came up in any conversation.

  11. @Pam:

    Or maybe we should go back to pronouncing it with initial /s/. As in "spam" :)

  12. I usually don't have an schedule, my monday to friday are the same always, I work, class, exercising, study, and weekends are for training and fun, and that's it,, I don't feel like sedentary, anywayy thanks for share, I drink sildenafil it's an energy drink to handle the monday to friday because it's very tired.

  13. Is it possible that the hard "sk" sound came from Italians? In Italian, an "h" after an "sc" makes a c hard, not soft; so an Italian seeing "sch" on any word would incline to an "sk" pronunciation? And maybe others simply adopted the pronunciation from there?


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