Adding letters to the alphabet

Mxsmanic   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 07:46 GMT
English orthoepy isn't nearly as inconsistent as many people claim. An English speaker with a good vocabulary can generalize pronounce words correctly even if he has never seen them before, which is pretty strong proof of this consistency. I don't know why people are so intent on believing that English is somehow worse than all other languages in this respect. I think it is part of the more general tendency of many people to consider their own languages the most difficult to master of all the languages on the planet; it's a disguised form of egoism ("my language is harder than any other, and yet I speak it well!").

There is really no point in spelling reform. Pronunciation drifts constantly over time, and it always changes faster than spelling. Trying to "update" spelling would require changes almost every few years, and each change would render all printed material printed up to that time unreadable. It makes a lot more sense to try to use spelling to hold the line on pronunciation, so that printed materials do not become obsolete and so that pronunciation doesn't drift too far from spelling.

Those who yearn for absolutely phonetic spelling can use the IPA to transcribe speech. They will find, however, that pronunciation changes so often and so quickly that no two transcriptions ever look exactly the same. While such transcriptions accurately correspond to the spoken language, they have no consistency or durability, so they would not be useful for printed material that is intended to be readable over the long term.
Denis   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 09:40 GMT

<<An English speaker with a good vocabulary can generalize pronounce
words correctly even if he has never seen them before>>

<<There is really no point in spelling reform>>

My German is very, very poor but anybody who knows German would understand me reading aloud (even if the most of the words in the text I've never seen before). The same for Italian, Polish, Geordian, Latvian (and many other languages I'm not familiar with).

My English teacher (a native speaker) says I'm advanced (I doubt though) and I know quite a few. But nevertheless in English sometimes I've got no idea how to pronounce a word to be understood.
I may GUESS but I'm never sure. It's always a puzzle to me.
It's really annoying.

That's the point.
Sooner or late English will have to do something with this.

I love English and I like "weird" spellings of the words I'm familiar with but
that spelling inconsistency makes me feel half disable (I mean literacy).

Anyway what's the use of the letters if they don't reflect pronunciation
(roughly at least)?
Why not hieroglyphs then?

I beg your pardon if I've been too harsh.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 11:31 GMT

An English speaker can pronounce most words correctly because he has either seen or heard them before. It's like a photographic process where whole words are recognised as bundles, where reading is second nature to us, but to the average person spelling is much harder.

I will demonstrate how English spelling can be so inconsistent with just a few simple examples. (as if it wasn't obvious how bad it was already) In the following, here is my pronunciation for the "as" compound:
was => /woz/
gas => /g@s/
ask => /a:sk/
aside => /..said/
Asiatic => /eizi:@tik/
Asian => /eiZ..n/

You see, that's 5 different vowel sounds for "a" and 3 consonant sounds for "s" in the "as" compound.

Now, how do you explain to an ESL student that "ough" is pronounced 6 different ways depending on the syllables or consonants around it? eg. tough, trough, through, thought, though, thoroughly.There is no pattern, logic or consistency.

Many of these things were brought to my attention by friends who have a horrid time still trying to learn basic English pronunciation.

I can tell you frankly that the clumsy inconsistencies of this nature never -- if rarely -- occur in French, yet these examples involve the most rudimentary of words!
Mxsmanic   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 13:11 GMT
An English speaker with a good vocabulary can correctly pronounce virtually any English word presented to him, even if he has never seen it before in his life. To claim otherwise is a tremendous exaggeration; English orthoepy just isn't that irregular. It is, in fact, extremely regular.

The _only_ area in which I've ever seen anything approaching a complete lack of correlation between spelling and pronunciation is in the group of letters "ough." Fortunately, they don't often occur in English.

I tell ESL students to look up and memorize the pronunciations of words containing "ough," as I do. For all other words, they will eventually be able to correctly guess pronunciations based on their knowledge of existing words. The better their vocabularies, the more accurate their guesses will be, as in any language.

I do not find that ESL students have any inordinate trouble with English pronunciation.

Here again I see the unspoken assertion that English is somehow harder than all other languages, and that its native speakers are somehow smarter because they can speak the language fluently. Neither of these assertions has any basis in fact. There's nothing especially difficult (or easy) about English that sets it apart from thousands of other human languages.
Denis   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 14:26 GMT

<<It is, in fact, extremely regular.>>

LOL What are you talking about? It definitely isn't. It's rather historical.
I guess you didn't even bother to look at the link I gave you.
Here's one more: (

If you don't see what's obvious I can't help.

<<.. the more accurate their guesses will be, as in any language.>>

By no means in ANY language.

<<Here again I see the unspoken assertion that English is somehow harder than all other languages>>

There's no such assertion. Not a glimpse of it.
English is NOT harder than all other languages.
Mxsmanic   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 14:32 GMT
As I've said, if English orthoepy were not extremely regular, it would be impossible to correctly pronounce unfamiliar English words at first glance; and yet English speakers routinely do this, so clearly it _is_ extremely regular, as it is in just about every language that uses an alphabet or syllabary linked to the spoken language.

I agree that you can't help.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 15:06 GMT
Where's the correlation between the words of my example: was, gas/lass, glass? Each with differing phonemes with the use of the same vowel. You still haven't addressed this issue. You've made a vague statement that English has a regular ortheopy (a relationship between pronunciation and spelling) but haven't explained how or why.

"As I've said, if English orthoepy were not extremely regular, it would be impossible to correctly pronounce unfamiliar English words at first glance;"

Well I don't know how to pronounce "orthoepy" even at a long glance (I just looked it up in the dictionary) and many teenagers who encounter new words are unable to correctly pronounce them the first time.

Pronounciation of English words at a glance is not based on scrutinising individual letters for correlations, but of a scanning process where whole words are treated as bundles, almost treated like pictographs. This is the same process used when dealing with "ough" words, where they are purely memorised and recalled at a glance. Not sure what I mean be a scanning at a glance? Check out this article, where letter order is significant provided the first and ending letters are in place:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 15:09 GMT
* Corrections as I'm half asleep:
Not sure what I mean by scanning at a glance? Check out this article, where letter order is insignificant, provided the first and ending letters are in place:
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 15:20 GMT

Sgeun un etsduio de una uivenrsdiad ignlsea, no ipmotra el odren en el que las ltears etsan ersciats, la uicna csoa ipormtnate es que la pmrirea y la utlima ltera esten ecsritas en la psiocion cocrrtea. El rsteo peuden estar ttaolmntee mal y aun pordas lerelo sin pobrleams. Etso es pquore no lemeos cada ltera por si msima preo la paalbra es un tdoo.


Sleon une édtue de l'Uvinertisé de Cmabrigde, l'odrre des ltteers dnas un mtos n'a pas d'ipmrotncae, la suele coshe ipmrotnate est que la pmeirère et la drenèire soit à la bnnoe pclae. Le rsete peut êrte dnas un dsérorde ttoal et vuos puoevz tujoruos lrie snas porlblème. C'est prace que le creaveu hmauin ne lit pas chuaqe ltetre elle-mmêe, mias le mot cmome un tuot.
Sanja   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 15:23 GMT
I agree with Msxmanic, well of course English spelling is not as consistent as for instance Spanish, but if we wanted to do the spelling reform of all the words that are not spelt the way they are pronounced, we would have to do that in almost every language on Earth, maybe even my own, which is almost 100 % phonetic. And yes, I think that English speakers tend to exaggerate when it comes to their spelling and its difficulties.
Mxsmanic   Thursday, August 26, 2004, 15:29 GMT
Glass, gas, and lass are all pronounced with the same vowel phoneme.

Many teenagers are barely literate; it is not surprising that they have trouble pronouncing new words. They have trouble recognizing all words, period. In the United States, the rate of functional illteracy is around 30% (much higher in some areas).

Pronunciation of English words is best based on phonics: you look at each letter in turn to determine how to pronounce the word as a whole. It is nothing at all like pictographs. The most successful methods for teaching reading to native English speakers use phonics to teach the relationship between the written language and pronunciation.

That article has been making the rounds for some time, but the conclusions people draw from it are highly questionable. In addition, it's not the result of any research at Cambridge, as the Web page referenced itself makes clear. Similar "reasoning" was used to develop look-and-say methods of reading instruction, which is one reason why a third of the American population can barely read today.

Frankly, my experience is that people who complain the most about English spelling tend to be very poor readers generally with equally poor vocabularies. I don't know of any highly literate people with large vocabularies who complain about English spelling--except in jest.
Mi5 Mick   Friday, August 27, 2004, 00:00 GMT
You still haven't explained the correlation, where in my accent there are many different phonemes for "a". For the following words ending in "s"/"ss", they are /o/, /@/, /a:/ in my accent:

was => /woz/
gas => /g@s/
lass => /l@s/
glass => /gla:s/

You could find many more examples of such erroneous spellings for your accent.

You introduced the term "glance"; glancing requires treating words whole, and that's why I produced the "Cmabrigde Uinervtisy" article.
Mxsmanic   Friday, August 27, 2004, 02:07 GMT
You're confusing phonemes, phones, and allophones.

Gas, lass, and glass all contain the same vowel phoneme. This phoneme has several allophones that vary with the dialect of English being spoken. Since they are allophones, however, you can use any of them when speaking with any other speaker of English without impacting comprehension. This is why Americans can understand the British and vice versa.

For example, there is no word in RP pronounced [gl@s], therefore any RP speaker hearing an American say this will understand it to be equivalent to [glA:s], or glass. Both can be phonemically transcribed as /glas/. The converse is also true for the American speaker listening to an RP speaker.

Thus, in your accent, there are not "many different phonemes" for 'a', but merely several different allophones for the same phoneme. Allophones are responsible for regional English pronunciation differences, but they have no effect on comprehension and they do not have to be represented uniquely in writing.
CalifJim   Friday, August 27, 2004, 06:14 GMT
Yes, indeed. A phoneme can never be said nor heard. It is only an abstraction. It is the allophones which are audible.
Mi5 Mick   Friday, August 27, 2004, 06:29 GMT
I know what you're saying about phonemes. I'll think up some more examples to show what I'm thinking and how elaborate it is.