Difficult English pronunciation varies with variety

Charles Coddintgon
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Frum thuh vawlt (November 3, 2011, reevized):

Thuh disserneen reeder will notiss immeedeeuhtlee that thair iz sumthing rather differuhnt abowt thiss essay. Evereewun elss will haff too stuhdee it uh bit too reelize whuht iz differuhnt abowt it. Hee or shee may naht eeven beeleeve hee or shee iz reedeen whuht hazz bin printed ahn thuh paje. Hee or shee mite kunklood that sumwun wuz playeen uh joke ahn him or her.

It iz no joke, deer reeder. It iz kwite reel.

I deesided too konduhkt uh little ekspairuhment I hav bin thinkeen abowt for sum time. Yes, I hav ritten theez ferst fyoo pairuhgrafs fonetikalee, thuh way Inglish werdz sumtimez appeer in foren dikshunaireez and thuh way thay ar cahmunlee pronownsed bi Inglish-speekeen personz.

One of the common complaints by non-English-speaking individuals who are learning the language is the difficulty of pronunciation. And they are right to complain. It’s sometimes difficult for native-born persons who are beginning readers, because modern English is the only non-phonetic language on Earth. Once upon a time, English was phonetic; when it was strictly Anglo-Saxon, an off-shoot of German, the language had clear-cut rules for pronunciation. Try reading Beowulf in its original form, and you’ll see what I mean.

After the Norman invasion of England in 1066, the “muvver tongue” began its long journey toward being the polyglot language it now is. It borrowed, sometimes heavily, from many other languages, such as Latin, French, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and it is still borrowing even as I write these words. Along the way, English became less and less phonetic and lost its clear-cut rules of pronunciation. Even the one (unwritten) rule of spelling involved non-phonetic words, i before e, except after c, or as sounded as a as in neighbor or weigh.

Foreign students of English start out pronouncing the words phonetically, but eventually come to realize, which most native speakers do, that each word has its own pronunciation and that no two words, even though they may be roughly spelled similarly, are pronounced similarly. That many students of English succeed in overcoming this barrier speaks volumes about their persistence.

One of the peskiest problems of our language is its many homophones. Other languages do not have as many of these as English does, and that reflects the way it has evolved over the centuries. For those who may have forgotten their basic grammar, a homophone is a word which sounds like another word but is spelled differently and has a very different meaning. Bare/bear, meat/meet, and read/reed, come easily to mind. Only in the context of a given passage can one determine which spelling is correct. On the other hand, homophones lend themselves marvelously to the creation of puns and plays on words, a unique form of humor for which English is famous, although it does require a mastery of the language.

Another sticking point is the collection of words containing the “ough” combination. It is enough to cause anyone to throw up his/her hands in despair and go get drunk! In most cases, the gh is silent; in others, it is pronounced as an f. An interesting example is the word “tough” (pronounced “tuhf”). Insert an h after the t, and you have though, pronounced tho; insert an r after the h, and you have through, pronounced throo. Go back to though and add a t at the end, and you have thought, pronounced thawt. Crazy, huh? That’s what foreigners think!

Another interesting feature of English is the way one can add or subtract a letter to one word and get another word entirely different in meaning. My favorite example is friend; subtract the r, and you have fiend, a complete opposite!. Add an h or an l or an n to a simple word like sake, and you have shake, slake, and snake. Add an h or an m or a p or a w to sell, and you have shell, smell,” spell, and swell. Many words in the language lend themselves to this sort of word creation.

What would happen if we were to write English phonetically, as I did at the beginning of this essay? For one thing, we’d lose a few letters in our alphabet. There would be no need for x because it could be replaced with ks. Similarly, j could be replaced by dzh, which, co-incidentally, is how the letter is transcribed in Russian. C would go as well, because it has either a k or an s sound, depending upon the word; its only other use, the ch combination, could be written as tsh. Significantly, the letter e would no longer appear at the end of any word because it is usually silent.

For another thing, everything written/printed would look as if a child had written/printed it. A child does write phonetically when he/she is first tackling the language. Eventually, the young learn all of the oddities of English and write/print just like adults. If, however, we were to teach them not to lose their sense of phoneticization, everything written/printed would become ingrained in the human mind. I recommend reading the essay at the end of Orwell’s 1984 for a possible direction of English. There would be the hold-outs, of course, the traditionalists who would strenuously resist; but, after a few generations, the “new” English would become the norm.

The question arises: Should we do that?

The essence of a language is to convey the maximum amount of information in as little a package as is intelligently practical. The characters of our English alphabet, or anyone’s alphabet, have evolved from simple pictographs to their modern form to do just that; each of them had, and has, a specific function to perform. The magic of English derives from its ability to assimilate and expand upon other languages, to become the world’s first truly polyglot tongue. Of course, the pronunciation is often maddening, but the language as a whole packs so much punch that it is now the language of choice around the world and may continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

Wood yoo wahnt it enee uhther way?

Dzhuhst a thawt.

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