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Learning a new language is an intellectual challenge, but some languages make it harder for the learner than others. English is no exception. Written English is familiar and recognizable for the majority of fluent English users, but spoken English presents some challenges, particularly figuring out what sounds are or may be associated with the letters that make up words and sentences.

Suggesting to pronounce words as they are spelled doesn’t always work. It often results in strange sequences of sound that wouldn’t be recognizable to any fluent English user. For example, we don’t pronounce the “g” in gnat nor the “p” in psychology. Not only are some letters silent, some letters and combinations of letters have different sounds associated with them, like the letters “ch” in check, chevron, and Czech.

In English, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between its written symbols, or letters, and speech sounds. George Yule in The Study of Language lists five reasons for this.

Pronunciation and spelling in English don’t match for the following reasons:

  1. Words have diverse origins.
  2. Spelling systems haven’t been updated.
  3. There are many varieties of English.
  4. Letters may be pronounced differently depending on where they are found in a word.
  5. Spoken forms may differ across social contexts.

Languages are living entities that change over time. They evolve through the interactions among three power forces: convergence, universality, and divergence.

Elements from different languages and speech communities converge to create something new. However, that new form has to stabilize to be universally comprehensible and usable within the community. Meanwhile, changes within the community itself cause parts of the language and community to diverge over time.

We will examine these forces at play as we review the reasons.

Words Have Diverse Origins

Words entered the language when people entered the community of language users. Words can be seen as the record of the movements of people through history by immigration and, in some cases, invasion.

The majority of words in English have their roots in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Their ancestors came from northern Europe; so, Old English has Germanic roots. A large infusion of words from French began with the Norman Invasion of 1066. Along with new words, spellings based on French entered the English language. For example, the -ie- spelling in words like thief replaced the -ee- found in many Anglo-Saxon words, like theef.

Subsequent waves of immigration added new words to the English language. A few examples are shown in the table below.

Language of OriginSample Words
Chinesedim sum, kung fu, shifu
Frenchcafe, croissant, faux pas
Germandelicatessen, kindergarten, rucksack
Japanesesushi, tsunami, karaoke
Spanishpatio, plaza, siesta
Yiddishglitch, spiel, schmooze

Convergence is illustrated by the integration of words from other languages into English. One consequence of this integration is that words in English reflect different spelling systems.

Spelling Systems Haven’t Been Updated

Words retain the written forms based on old spelling systems while others came from languages with different spelling conventions or from those that didn’t use the Latin/Roman alphabet. There are no governmental or scholarly authorities with the power to prescribe changes.

The absence of any central authority to oversee language uniformity or modernization is the norm for many languages and regions, but there are notable exceptions. Spain has the Royal Spanish Academy (Spanish: Real Academia Española). Article 1 of its statutes states that its mission is to “ensure that changes experienced by the Spanish language in its constant adaptation to the needs of its speakers do not break the essential unity it maintains throughout the Hispanic world.” There are similar institutions in France (Academie Francaise) and Italy (Accademia della Crusca).

Although these institutions do not possess legal or legislative authority, they do serve oversight and guidance functions. They act as a stabilizing force or point of reference so that members of the speech community can share a common set of rules and practices to facilitate communication. Of course, that “force” is not unidirectional.

There are many varieties of English.

No language is monolithic. Different varieties arise based on a variety of factors, like geography, demographics, and history. English is no different. Different varieties are spoken throughout the world and for different purposes.

Most are familiar with the concept of dialects, or different versions of a language associated with specific geographic regions. This concept can be extended to varieties of English spoken in places where it is not the primary language of that region.

In many parts of the world, English is used to facilitate communication between people who do not share a common language. In those parts of the world, English may be someone’s second or third language.

While there are many varieties of English, the written forms of the various varieties share many characteristics in common. This standardization enhances communication across different communities of English users, but it also creates mismatches between what is written and how it is spoken.

This paradoxical situation illustrates the universal feature of the shared elements of the written language, but the divergent nature of spoken language.

Letters may be Pronounced Differently Depending on Where They are Found in a Word

In all varieties of English, there are more sounds (44-50) than letters (26) to represent them. There are examples of single sounds represented by multiple letters, like th and ch. This leads to the same letter being matched with different sounds.

For example, the letters “ch” will sound like the “sh” in shell in chevron, the “ch” in check, and the “k” in kick in Czech.

You’ve noticed that check and Czech sound the same, but the “ch” sound is represented by different letters in the words. Czech is a borrowed word and the “cz” reflects a Polish spelling convention. Additionally, the letters “cz” in the word czar is pronounced like the “z” as in zebra. This reflects its journey from the Russian language to the English language via German and French.

Spoken Forms may Differ Across Social Contexts

Language offers variety in its expression. Speakers adjust to fit the social context. For examples, contractions are rare or absent in formal settings, but common in informal speech.

In some cases, the written form has accommodated spoken language. This is seen with contractions, like don’t for do not, isn’t for is not, and we’ve for we have. However, some spoken forms are not reflected in the written language, like “gonna” for going to, “wanna” for want to, and”woncha” for won’t you.

One contributing factor could be explained by the Maxim of Manner, part of the Cooperative Principle put forth by Paul Grice. This maxim states when people use language, they try to avoid ambiguity or obscurity of expression.

If the spoken expression “woncha” were to be written, it might cause ambiguity as there is no word with that spelling. Many might mistake it for a foreign word. In contrast, someone who is familiar with the spoken form of “woncha” will mentally connect it with the form “won’t you.” We will examine how such mental connections are formed when we discuss linguistic signs at a later date.

Languages along with people who used them converged to different places throughout history. They mixed and evolved to promote commerce that required a standardized and common manner of communication. And, as these speech communities continued to evolve and move, they began to diverge from their original communities. When we look at the mismatch between spelling and pronunciation as a manifestation of this process, perhaps we can better tolerate some of those challenges and inconveniences.

Related Questions

Are there any benefits when spelling and pronunciation don’t match? Although the disadvantages of spelling and pronunciation mismatches seem many, there are some benefits. A standardized writing system allows communication among people who speech different languages or different versions of what is considered the “same” language.

Are there writing systems where symbols match up more closely to pronunciation? Japanese use four writing systems: kanji (Chinese characters), the Roman alphabet, and two syllabaries (hiragana and katakana). The syllabary characters refer to specific consonant and vowel combinations that are consistent throughout the language. Any fluent Japanese user will recognize the sounds associated with a specific syllabary symbol.

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