If you take the phonetic word form /fl* (where * denotes any vowel sound), you can create (at least) 6 valid English words:

flay, flee, fly, flow, flue, flaw.

Which single-vowel phonetic word form can make the most valid English words by interchanging vowel sounds?

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    $\begingroup$ By the way, words like these are called minimal pairs. Would you consider sounds like ar, or, er to be vowels or sequences of a vowel and a consonant? $\endgroup$
    – sumelic
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 23:47
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    $\begingroup$ If you're British, try bad, bed, bid, bod, bud, baaed, baud, booed, bowed, bowed, bead, bayed, bide, buoyed, bared, beard, bird. That's 17. Note that bowed and bowed are pronounced differently. And also note board, bard (which are homophones for baud and baaed in BrE.) $\endgroup$
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 23:51
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    $\begingroup$ Adding to @PeterShor 's list: I think that Ladefoged uses the hVd series in his phonetics textbook. heed, hid, hayed, head, had, hawed, who'd, hood, HUD, hoed. I think this gets you all of the monophthongs in AE other than open-o. $\endgroup$
    – jlovegren
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 0:05
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    $\begingroup$ @jlovegren: if you don't have the cot/caught merger, you have to add hod. (A word I know from The Bricklayer's Song, aka The Sick Note.) $\endgroup$
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 0:14
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    $\begingroup$ @Drew and the other close-voters: it is called English phonetics. This is a branch of English linguistics. Researchers actually look for lists of words like this when studying English dialectal variation... Coloring a map with four colors is a puzzle, but I somehow doubt that discussion of the topic would be closed off on Math.SE. $\endgroup$
    – jlovegren
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 23:41

1 Answer 1


The question doesn't make this clear and I'm not good with phonetics, so I'll make these assumptions:

  1. you're looking for 1 syllable words only
  2. each word must end in a 'vowel sound', which excludes hard consonant endings like 'ed'

With the above, I wrote a list of vowel-sound endings (I might have missed some):

suffixes = ['aa', 'ough', 'ae', 'ai', 'ah', 'ir', 'ea', 'ar', 'au', 'o', 'aw', 'ay', 'ei', 'ew', 'ie', 'er', 'ear', 'ier', 'owe', 'ire', 'igh', 'oo', 'augh', 'y', 'aigh', 'ee', 'ye', 'ooh', 'ow', 'oor', 'ore', 'a', 'e', 'err', 'i', 'oe', 'oa', 'ur', 'eigh', 'u', 'urr', 'ue', 'ey', 'ou', 'or']

And ran a python script which joins all possible prefixes ('thr','sp','tr','fl' etc) to all possible vowel-sound endings and checks if the result is a word. The winners are:

18 words:

['pea', 'par', 'po', 'paw', 'pay', 'pew', 'pie', 'per', 'pear', 'pier', 'pee', 'pooh', 'pow', 'poor', 'pore', 'pa', 'pi', 'purr']

19 words:

['tough', 'tai', 'tea', 'tar', 'tau', 'to', 'taw', 'tie', 'tear', 'tier', 'tire', 'too', 'tee', 'tow', 'tore', 'terr', 'ti', 'toe', 'tor']
 ['baa', 'bough', 'bah', 'bar', 'bay', 'bear', 'bier', 'boo', 'by', 'bee', 'bye', 'bow', 'boor', 'bore', 'be', 'boa', 'bur', 'burr', 'bey']

23 words:

['hah', 'ho', 'haw', 'hay', 'hew', 'hie', 'her', 'hear', 'howe', 'hire', 'high', 'haugh', 'hee', 'how', 'ha', 'he', 'herr', 'hi', 'hoe', 'heigh', 'hue', 'hey', 'hor']

This was using this dictionary, with others your mileage may vary.

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    $\begingroup$ The question doesn't appear to restrict the phonetic to being a prefix, just that there must be exactly one other sound added and it must be a vowel sound. Making asp an addition to your sp list, for example. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ That doesn't change the outcome (I checked with another python script). Which makes sense because the longer the prefix the less words there will be which match it (therefore single character prefixes come out on top). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 17:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Ian MacDonald The question does imply it - the asterisk is where the vowel sound should be added. $\endgroup$
    – charfellow
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 21:42
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    $\begingroup$ @astralfenix If you're including -r endings, you might want to include -eer and -oar. Other endings I can think of are -eu and -ieu (as in milieu). Additionally, just because the combination can often be a vowel sound, does not mean it is within the word used (see, e.g., tough). $\endgroup$
    – charfellow
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @IanMacDonald My interpretation of the authors writing is that, for example, tea (/t*) and eat (/*t) are different phonetic word forms as intended by the author. I am considering the asterisk to be a sort of wildcard symbol in the question (thus /fl* as the example phonetic word form). $\endgroup$
    – charfellow
    Commented Mar 2, 2016 at 22:25

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