Headbloom Blog

There is no “itch” in Michigan!

I can always tell when someone is new to the Great Lake State. In the first few minutes of conversation, it usually comes out how they just moved to “Mitch-igan.” As a good ambassador of the mitten-shaped peninsula, I then have to correct them. “It’s pronounced Mish-igan,” I say, sometimes adding that the spelling came from the early French trappers and explorers who beat the British to the upper Midwest. (It’s hard to stop a good teacher-ambassador once he gets started.)

It comes as no surprise to students of English that the spelling system of this language is a nightmare. Almost half of our words are Germanic, coming from Anglo-Saxon; nearly another half come from Latin via Old French. Add to that a sprinkling of Arabic, Spanish, Greek, and other languages, and it is clear that our vocabulary—and the system used to spell it—is one huge mish-mash of letters, letter clusters, and even silent letters.

As I tell my students, one underlying problem is that English (through generous donations by other languages) has 39 distinctive sounds in its system but only 26 letters in the alphabet to represent these sounds on paper. That’s a 33% shortfall. Consequently, lots of letters end up doing double and triple duty in an effort to cover all the necessary sounds, making it all the more confusing for learners of English as a second language.

The Rule: Most of the time, the “ch” cluster in English is pronounced /t∫/ as in child or lunch. Here are some common place names or people names which English speakers know:
Chelsea, Massachusetts, Charleston, Chattanooga, Richmond, Tallahatchie, Chesapeake, Rochester, Wichita, Chatham, Chesaning, Cherokee, Chippewa, Choctaw, Chapin, Chester, Churchill, Hatcher, Archer

The good news is that most “ch” words are pronounced like those above. (If your native language is Spanish, you will already know the correct pronunciation of those words.)

Exception #1: At question today is the spelling cluster “ch” as we see in Michigan. Students who have studied French or Portuguese know that these two letters represent the linguistic symbol /∫/ or the English cluster “sh” as in she.

Here are some common “ch” place names or people names with the /∫/ pronunciation:
Chicago, Michigan, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, Cheyenne, Charlotte, Michelle, Cheryl, Michelin, Chevron, Chanel, Chevrolet, Cher, Chirac, Chevalier

The following group represents some common “ch” words with the /∫/ pronunciation:
chauffeur, machine, mustache, chivalry, champagne, chagrin, chez, chalet, chauvinist, nonchalant, chamois, chef, chandelier, charade, chemise, chartreuse, brochure, chic, chateau, chardonnay, chicanery, chiffon

Exception #2: Another way to pronounce “ch” is with the /k/ sound. These words often come into English from Greek or Italian.
chronicle, chemistry, stomach, echo, Christmas, headache, Chrysler, chrome, cholesterol, chrysanthemum, chianti, chiaroscuro, Christian, chaos, character, charisma, chasm, chelate, cholera, choir, chlorophyll, chlamydia, chloride, chemotherapy, chiropractor, inchoate, chorus, chord, chronic, chondroitin, Christina, chromatic, choreograph, Chaldean

Exception #3: The last group of exceptions to the “ch” rule are words which come from Hebrew. The phonetic sound /X/ has friction coming from the back of the mouth (similar to the “ch” in Bach). Because most English speakers can’t pronounce /X/, they just substitute a /h/ sound in these Hebrew words. Here are a few examples:
chutzpah, challah, Chanukah

If some of the above words are new to you, just write me to ask for a list of meanings. A handful of them are technical, but most of them represent words which a learner with advanced vocabulary should know.

For newcomers to my state, here is some practice for you:

Michigan sounds like fish-again or wish-again.
So, repeat after me: “Oh, how I wish-again I were in Michigan learning to fish-again.”

Alan Headbloom