What are the shortest words in English?
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important” – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).
There is considerable fascination – quite rightly so – with the longest words in the English language. But an equally curious feature is that of the shortest words. We may think of letters of the alphabet, but not all of these pronounced as a single speech sound. B is pronounced as two sounds – a consonant and a vowel, ‘b’ plus ‘ee’. Same as C (‘s’ plus ‘ee’). So which words in English are just one speech sound?
The names of the letters A, E, I, and O are all just one vowel sound (interestingly, U is not, pronounced with a consonant-vowel sequence as in you). The name of the consonant R is also just one sound.
Most of these are also homophonous with (i.e. sound exactly the same as) other words which have more letters. A is pronounced the same as the interjections ay, eh, and eigh (a dialectal exclamation of wonder), and the adverb ay (dialectal word meaning of ever, always, and continually). I is homophonous with eye, but also ai and aye, as well as being alternative pronunciations of the interjection and adverb forms of ay.
The homophones of O include the commonly-known owe, but also oh (meaning ‘nought’, or as an interjection), a South African English colloquial noun ou meaning a ‘fellow’ or ‘chap’ and an adjectival form preceding nouns and names as a term of respect, and the largely literary and poetic oe (a Scottish and Northern English dialectal form for a small island). R shares a pronunciation with the interjections ah and argh, as well as being a common pronunciation of our. It is perhaps most widely known as the strong form of are, but is also the closest British English approximation of the French metric measurement are, a ten-metre square.
The vowels heard in nurse, goose, voice, near, square, thought, and mound can also stand as meaningful words by themselves. Nurse’s vowel is heard in er and ur (hesitations/inarticulate sounds), err (go astray or make mistakes), and ure (a particular historical type of land in Orkney and Shetland). Goose shares its vowel with oo (colloquial you, who), interjections ooh and ou (the latter a chiefly Scottish term), and a variant way of pronouncing U (when used as a Burmese/Myanmarese equivalent of ‘Mr’).
The vowel of voice stands alone in oi (not just an interjection, but also a New Zealand seabird) and two interjection forms of oy, one being equivalent to oi and the other a Yiddish borrowing. Ear (in all its various uses) and ‘ere (nonstandard variant of here) provide the standalone instances of the near vowel, while square’s vowel exists as the pronunciation of common words air and heir, but also ayre (a sea-formed ridge of sand or gravel), ere (early, before, soon), and eyre (historical judicial term).
In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the vowel in thought stands alone with six different spellings. It represents the various meanings of or (including a particular heraldic use and the capitalized Boolean operation OR), ore (mineral, wool, seaweed, and currency-related forms), oar, and awe, plus Aur (referring to the constellation Auriga) and the interjection aw. In contrast, the vowel in mound stands alone simply in the interjection expressing sharp or sudden pain, ow!
It is possible that other vowels could share the mantle of English’s shortest word. We might include ire, though speakers will vary as to whether this is pronounced as one syllable traversing three vowel qualities (a ‘triphthong’) or as two separate syllables. The reduced vowel ‘schwa’ (the final sound in alpha, letter) is also meaningful in connected speech as the pronunciation of a but also a common pronunciation of her (as in, ‘I didn’t catch her name’) and are (‘The cats are playing’).
Just in closing, we can find a couple of consonant sounds which are meaningful ‘words’ in isolation, though they are largely interjections. Perhaps the most well-known would be sh, encouraging silence, but there is also mm (indicating satisfaction, approval or, alternatively, hesitation). The latter is also used as a pronunciation of ‘em, meaning them. Finally, although less commonly thought of than sh or mm, the connected-speech forms of an and and can sometimes be simply a syllabic n sound with no vowel (‘Had an onion’, ‘Bread and butter’).