Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Spelling vs. pronunciation

A common complaint relating to the English language is that a lot of words are not spelled the way they are sound. Should all words be spelled like they are pronounced? I'm sure that in elementary school you once complained that spelling is too chaotic, and that the word school should be spelled skool, and through be made into thru.

The reason for this chaos is that in writing, a particular letter can have more than one sound associated with it, depending on the context (its surrounding letters for instance). A good example of this is the letter "C": it can represent either a [k] sound or an [s] sound. Furthermore, some sounds in English are not represented with a single letter, and we must use two letters to write them. The [sh] sound in shout is an example of this.

There are many arguments for keeping English spelling as it is. Reading comprehension will suffer if all words are spelled exactly as they are sounded. Many words change their pronunciation when inflected forms of the word are used. Consider what a mess it would be to read musical as muzikal and musician as muzishan. Also, there can be stress changes on different forms of the same word, like photograph and photographer.

English spelling, although many find it tricky, should be kept as it is. Proponents of "English spelling reform" have been somewhat successful, as we sometimes see signs that say "nite", "thru", and more rarely "foto".

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Phonetics: Why we say 'cheese'

Phonetics is defined as the study of sounds made in the production of human languages. It is important to note that sounds and spellings of the English language are quite different. Not all English words are spelled the way they are sounded. Words such as "through" and "night" have more letters in them than sounds. Spelling vs. sound will be brought up again, for now I want to concentrate on the basics of phonetics.

As human beings, we produce sounds using our vocal tract. Where we make the sound (known as the place of articulation) matters. For instance, the [p] and [b] sounds use the lips. I won't bore you with a full list of the locations of each of the sounds, but I'll present an interesting factoid.

When pronouncing the long E vowel sound (IPA symbol [i]), which occurs in words such as "seat" and "meet", the relative position of the tongue is toward the front of the mouth. Furthermore, the lips are not rounded when pronouncing this sound (unlike the [o] sound in "go" which causes the lips to be round). Thus, when you say "cheese", it forces your mouth to be in a position which kind of looks like you are smiling.

Phonetics has even more uses than you might think. Ever think about why your dentist tells you to open your mouth and say "ahhhh"? This is because the "ah" sound is pronounced with the tongue in the back of the mouth, thus preventing your tongue from getting in the way of the dentist's work!