As many people know, theoretically a lot of words have more than one way to be spelled. I just want to provide a single example from English language: the word "fish". As Bernard Shaw noted, it could be spelled "ghoti":

gh is pronounced as [f] in 'rough', 'enough' etc.;

o is pronounced as [ɪ] in 'women';

ti is pronounced as [ʃ] in 'nation'.

I suggest that the same word "fish" could be also spelled "phusi":

ph is pronounced as [f] in 'photo';

u is pronounced as [ɪ] in 'busy';

si is pronounced as [ʃ] in 'tension'.

Now, my question. Imagine a huge amount of French students, many of whom unfortunately are very bad at spelling. The teacher told them to write down the French word « chrysanthème ». The question is as follows: how many different ways exist to theoretically spell this word in the way that any of the words written by the students would be still pronounced (according to French language rules) exactly the same as the original correctly spelled word?

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have a specific answer for this, or are you looking for answers to keep optimizing their answers as new ways to pronounce certain phonemes are mentioned? And on a related note, do you have a pronunciation dictionary that answerers should use? For the English one, for example, there could be variations in pronunciation that may lead some words to produce [ɪ] sound in some dialect but not others. It'll be good if there is a well-defined pronunciation dictionary, so answers can be comparable. $\endgroup$
    – justhalf
    Commented Jul 7, 2023 at 20:35
  • $\begingroup$ @justhalf I assume in French this puzzle has a well-defined answer. French pronouncination rules are complicated but it is a finite list. The same in English wouldn't work very well because pronounciation is mostly a list of exception instead of rules. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ Is there really a finite list of rules? It seems to me like there is no comprehensive set of rules for, say, whether or not a final "s" is pronounced. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 13:02

1 Answer 1


The word can be spelled

599040 ways. One example: cqurrilxaëncteaiemm

First we

look up how the word is pronounced: /kʁi.zɑ̃.tɛm/

Then we

check Wikipedia's French Orthography page and add up all the ways each phoneme can be represented:

 /k/  8  c, cc, ch, cqu, k, q, qu, x
 /ʁ/  2  r, rr
 /i/ 12  ea, ee, i, î, ï, ie, u, ui, uï, y, ÿ, il
 /z/  3  s, x, z
 /ɑ̃/  8  am, an, aan, aen, aën, aon, em, en
 /t/  5  pt, t, tt, th, cte
 /ɛ/ 13  ai, aie, ay, e, é, ée, è, ei, ey, œ, ue, uë, es
 /m/  2  m, mm

If we

multiply those numbers out we get 599040.

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    $\begingroup$ not sure about é, ée since it is pronounced /e/ but not /ɛ/. But for example what about ê and êt like in crêpe and forêt? $\endgroup$
    – theozh
    Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 4:47
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    $\begingroup$ @theozh: As mentioned in the Wikipedia page quoted by caPNCApn, é (if not ée) is pronounced “/ɛ/ (in closed syllables) événement, céderai, vénerie (in new orthography, évènement, cèderai, vènerie).“ $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 8, 2023 at 6:42
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't multiply them all independantly. The Wikipedia page is not complete. Many ways depend on the surrounded letters. For example u is always going to be heard in qur or gur, as in piqure or figure or your example. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ @ClaudeChaunier I think the premise of the puzzle was to ignore the actual rules and just go off surface appearance like the ghoti/fish example. $\endgroup$
    – caPNCApn
    Commented Jul 9, 2023 at 17:32

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