Here pronunciation is not even close to the spelling. I wonder why and if there are other words like this which I should probably be aware of?


3 Answers 3


General stuff to be aware of as an English language learner

English spelling and pronunciation have a complicated relationship. It's normal to not be able to derive the pronunciation of a word from the spelling. There are a lot of useful rules that can allow you to make an educated guess, but there's no guarantee that the actual pronunciation will follow these rules. It might be an exception. The only way to be confident a pronunciation is correct is to check a good pronouncing dictionary, such as the Longman Pronunciation Dictionary. (If you don't have one of these, there are many free online dictionaries that list pronunciation; a good resource for accessing these is the OneLook Dictionary Search). Make sure the dictionary transcriptions are in the accent that you're trying to learn.

More specific information about the spelling of tomb

It's normal for the spelling mb at the end of a word to correspond to /m/: other words like this are jamb, lamb, plumb, dumb, climb, limb.

There are also a number of other words in English where a single o represents the /uː/ sound normally associated with the digraph oo: womb, who, whom, two, to, do, lose, prove, move. This is "irregular," but it is a pattern rather than an isolated occurrence.

So it's true the spelling is unusual and irregular, but if we break it up into parts we can see patterns that occur in the spelling of other words.

In this answer, I've tried to explain the pronunciation and spelling of tomb by comparing it to other words in Modern English, rather than by tracing its historical development. The historical development of a word's spelling and pronunciation can be pretty complicated, and it's usually not useful information for learning English. If you're interested in this subject anyway, I've written an answer that focuses on that historical side of things on the English Language and Usage site: Why do “bomb” and “tomb” have different pronunciations?

  • I don't dislike your research and effort so +1. Though you know, speaking on the issue which even the professionals who are also native speakers are arguing and has had not yet a deinite conclusion is quite a heavy task though....- -.
    – user17814
    May 2, 2016 at 19:21
  • @KentaroTomono: Thank you. I also appreciate your research and effort. I am not 100% sure of my linked answer. The main thing I'm basing it on is the source that Josh61 found that says "/u:/ was not diphthongized when followed immediately by a labial consonant. The original pronunciation of the vowel survives without change in coop, cooper, droop, loop, stoop, troop, and tomb." Anthonoy Kroch, the person who wrote this, is a linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, so I think he probably knows more than any of us.
    – sumelic
    May 2, 2016 at 19:25

There are two oddities about that word:

  1. "mb", where you ignore the B. That's pretty much a rule: if a word ends with "mb", the B is silent. Other examples are "plumb", "dumb", and "lamb".
  2. The uː sound, where there is only one O. This probably has something to do with the origins of the word. I'm no expert here, but it almost seems like the pronunciation came from Latin (tumba), but the spelling came from Old French (tombe).

It's just one of those words that you'll have to memorize.

  • 1
    I was trying to think of other words where a single O makes that u sound. Then I realized: you've got one example in the last sentence of your answer: to. The word whom is another good example. But it's rather rare, I think.
    – J.R.
    Apr 30, 2016 at 19:38
  • 1
    @J.R. 'who' also
    – Hatshepsut
    May 1, 2016 at 1:00
  • Regarding point 1., consider also: womb, comb, bomb, lamb, aplomb, crumb, climb, limb, and others.
    – Nathan K
    May 2, 2016 at 16:00

I think it is because English went thorough the Great Vowel Shift.

Had that not occured, the word in the question tomb could've been pronounced as like Tome-b in modern English.

Here, the word the vowel of tomb is not pronounced as oː but ü.

The last b is not important. Please consider why in today's English the word moon is not pronounced as like m-oooo-n but m-uuuu-n.

I am sorry I have to add here because sumelic developed his opinon in my comment line. Accoridng to Merriam ( not free ), bomb is

borrowed from Spanish or Italian bomba or French bombe, all probably in part from an onomatopoeic base bomb- (as in Greek bómbos “booming, humming,” Old Norse bumba “drum,” Lithuanian bambėti “to mutter, mumble,” Albanian bumbullin “it is thundering”), in part back-formation from Medieval Latin bombardus or Middle French bombarde 1bombard ◆The origin and transmission of bomba, bombe, etc., in the sense “explosive device, projectile, etc.,” among European languages is not certain. Bomba is attested earliest in Spanish, appearing several times in the second half of the 16th century (canto 18 of La Araucana of Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga, the Descripción general de {Aactue}frica of Luis del Mármol, the Historia de las cosas … del Gran Reyno de la China of Juan González de Mendoza). Mendoza’s book (1585) is the source of an early and aberrant instance of bomb in English: his bombas de fuego is rendered as “bomes of fire” in Robert Parke’s translation (The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China, London, 1588, p. 65). Bomba is recorded as Italian in Antoine Oudin’s Italian-French dictionary (Recherches italiennes et françoises, Paris, 1640), where it is glossed “bombe, ou balon de feu” (“bomb, or ball of fire”), though it is not recorded in an Italian text until 1686 (Paolo Segneri, Il cristiano instruito, Florence, p. 327); Oudin’s gloss also apparently constitutes the first record in French. Significantly earlier than any of these is Latin bombus, which occurs twice in the Commentarii, an account of the exploits of the condottiero Jacopo Piccinino in 1452-53 by the Neapolitan humanist Giannantonio de’ Pandone, “il Porcellio” (ca. 1405-85); Pandone’s bombus appears to be some sort of exploding projectile (“Hic Tibertus Dux bombi fulmine in ulna sauciatur” - “Here Duke Tibertus [the condottiero Tiberto Brandolini] was wounded in the forearm by the flash of a bombus”); the 18th-century lexicographer Du Cange, in Glossarium mediae et infimae Latinitatis, glosses bombus in this passage, alluding to French bombe, as pila incendiaria, “fireball.” Spanish bomba in the sense “pump,” attested from the early 16th century, is almost certainly an independent formation; cf


rearding tomb, it says

Middle English toumbe, tombe, from Anglo-French tumbe, from Late Latin tumba sepulchral mound, from Greek tymbos; akin to Middle Irish tomm hill, Latin tumēre to be swollen — more at thumb

so I may have mistaken, but considering the appearance of the age of "bomb" in the modern technolocial sense, it is hard for me to the two went through the "same" vowel shift. toumbe could've sounded like taunbe, tombe, tom-be, tumbe-tunbe, tumba- tunba- tomm I bet t - o - m.

  • 1
    Actually, the /uː/ sound seems to be preserved unchanged from before the Great Vowel Shift. One of the historical spelling variations of the word was "toumbe," which suggests the vowel /uː/ rather than /oː/. There was a question about this on ELU recently. You can see my answer here: Why do “bomb” and “tomb” have different pronunciations? Spelling is not always an accurate guide to etymology. For example, the word "room" also historically had /uː/, not /oː/.
    – sumelic
    May 2, 2016 at 2:24
  • I think your quoting old toumbe and bombes are quite different though... the former ends in vowel and the latter ends in consonant. That would've changed even the old English, I guess......
    – user17814
    May 2, 2016 at 12:19
  • If Merriam's research is correct, then we should probablyconsider tomb in old days was pronounced more like a in today's English. Like, tamba. See- Thumb.
    – user17814
    May 2, 2016 at 12:44
  • Even you need to look at carefullly the "map" of the shift. The first pronunciation of u: was a:!
    – user17814
    May 2, 2016 at 13:05
  • That's what happened for "womb." But "tomb" is a different word. It never had /a:/, as far as I can tell. By the way, thank you for taking the trouble to find these useful citations!
    – sumelic
    May 2, 2016 at 13:10

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