Monday, October 22, 2007

Sounds vs. spelling

Pronunciation is not predictable in English. It may be more predictable in other languages, but there are many situations in English where the same sequence of letters can make a different sound altogether. The obvious disadvantage is that it can make the language much more difficult to learn. However, there is an advantage to unpredictable pronunciation. It can improve reading comprehensibility by keeping the spelling stable. Here's an example: note the different sounds of "s" for the words cats and dogs. The former takes an s sound and the latter takes a z sound, but both are spelled with s.

Some more fun with sounds and spelling

Note the bolded letters in the following sentence all make a different sound, despite the identical spelling:

She said you laid the plaid tie on the chair.

In the following word pairs, just one letter is changed but the pronunciation is significantly altered:

encourage -> entourage
revenges -> revenues
karate -> karats
hideous -> hideout
ballets -> bullets
telephone -> telephony

Monday, October 08, 2007

Same word, opposite meaning

There exist many words whose meanings are opposites of themselves.

You may ask, How can a word be an antonym of itself? Through polysemy and homonymy, a word that is pronounced or spelled the same way can have opposite meanings. A word that is an antonym of itself is called a contronym.

A commonly known contronym one is dust (verb). The two opposite meanings of dust are:
1. remove fine particles: Please dust the drawers to keep them clean.
2. cover with fine particles: He dusted the cookies with sugar.

Seed (verb) is another one:
1. remove seeds from: Seed the watermelon before eating.
2. distribute seeds; to sow seeds

To "X" something is a phrase often used colloquially. Here are its opposite meanings:
1. select: X your desired items on the list.
2. cancel/eliminate: Please X out the items you don't want.