Sounds vs. spelling ~ The Linguistics Zone

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

514 comments:

Education Blogger said...

Wow.. that is interesting. I bet english is a tough language to master. There are so many inconsistencies and exceptions that you would have to learn if it wasn't your native language.

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AOV Philippines Outsourcing Service said...

different places ... different pronunciation ... US english is very different than in England.

Patrick Reay Jehu said...

Although you have mentioned one advantage of the irregular spelling of English, with your example concerning "cats" and "dogs", I still feel that some sort of spelling reform could improve things. It has been shown more that once that languages with more regular spelling systems make it easier for children to learn, and the frequency of dyslexia is significantly less in those languages (e.g. Turkish and Spanish).
The difficulty is reconciling different pronunciation standards across English speaking countries, but some sort of compromise could be reached between the most important of these, e.g. General American and RP British English.

msteinborn said...

Great blog with interesting topics! Keep it up!

Concerning this particular post, I would suggest that the pronunciation of plural forms of nouns ending in "s" is actually quite predictable. It is pronounced as "s" for nouns whose singular form ends in a voiceless consonant, and as "z" for nouns whose singular form ends in a voiced consonant. People do not have to think about this when pronouncing the words because it's a natural articulatory process (just try making a "z" sound after a voiceless consonant, or an "s" sound after a voiced one, and you'll notice that it requires considerable conscious effort!) However, as you so well pointed out, choosing to write "s" as the plural morpheme no matter which way it's pronounced makes the spelling of these plural nouns stable, consistent, and easier to learn.

djahna said...

That's an interesting point you brought up.. The English language may not be predictable, but at least it's stable,, And it's very helpful that way.

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These are some really interesting suggestions. Im rather curious at your eduction level, im sure its really high to know all this stuff. As a university graduate i still don't know all of this. But then again i chose a business course. Nice work. Keep doing it.

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LS said...

They say that English is one of the hardest languages to master. I am happy that it is my native language, but I find other languages to be equally difficult.

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i can see that you are quite passionate about linguistic :)

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I never noticed that before, wierd.

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I so like your posts, they're very educational. But I noticed you haven't been posting. More posts please.

Teresa said...

American English is diffirent from British English. Its all about the dipthongs which differentiates one nationality from the others.

Andrey Troy said...

And I want to ask you to write more this kind of posts, everything else doesnt metter, I will live on your blog. :)

Floyd Buenavente said...

I remember training for it once in my speech class and found out its really hard hahaha

art said...

i get the rhythm. english words sometime so difficult to understand if not properly pronounce

andy2007 said...

what about the level of literacy/spelling nowadays?
can you always find out what the author tries to say when he writes
"there" (supposed to be their).
ex: on there workplace
is it a new English or am I just an old fashioned guy?

real estate agents said...

Ya me too I am happy that it is my native language, but I find other languages to be equally difficult.

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US english is very different than in England.

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John M said...

English is not as easy as perceived to learn and teach(I was watching a movie "Good Morning Vietnam" yesterday.

Play Arcade Games said...

intresting, would not have thought about it that way myself.

Money Talks said...

Is there any hard and fast rules... i took notice once with "But" and "put" and tried to figure out.

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Just trying to read that sentence sure is hard!

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Concerning this particular post, I would suggest that the pronunciation of plural forms of nouns ending in "s" is actually quite predictable. It is pronounced as "s" for nouns whose singular form ends in a voiceless consonant, and as "z" for nouns whose singular form ends in a voiced consonant. People do not have to think about this when pronouncing the words because it's a natural articulatory process (just try making a "z" sound after a voiceless consonant, or an "s" sound after a voiced one, and you'll notice that it requires considerable conscious effort!) However, as you so well pointed out, choosing to write "s" as the plural morpheme no matter which way it's pronounced makes the spelling of these plural nouns stable, consistent, and easier to learn.

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Guinness Gifts said...

Your right about some english words being spelt the same but pronounced differently according to context.

I read a book. I will read a book.

but some of the examples you give are actually words from different languages which is why they're pronounced differently.

entourage = french
ballet = french
karate = chinese?

Sounds said...

Funny, Gallagher does a bit on this.

hair tools said...

It is funny how in the US different words spelled the same are pronounced different in various areas of the country. I live in the Ozarks now and they tend to say things how they look. But when I lived in the Rockies the spelling was not a good clue on how the word was spoken.

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Thats an interesting point, but I feel english is one of the most stable language.

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Thats an interesting view of yours.English is a tough language to master because its quite different in various part of the world.

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Is like asking a Chinesse to speak fluent chinesse after he has been living in U.S for many years. Definitely good point.

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English is one of the toughest languages to learn yet so many non-native speakers do take the time to do so. While many English speakers just feel that others should conform to their language. I applaud schools that make second language a requirement.

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Home Decor said...

Some people really have problems with sounds and pronunciation, but the way you explain it really helps to improve a lot.

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Nice blog and interesting topic. English is not tough,i think English is very easy and interesting language.

Canvas Printing said...

This is a great post. English is not tough but as American english is different than British so it makes confusion in the minds of new english learners.

Limoeg said...

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Where I live everything is spelled exactly as it sounds. If people here travel elsewhere, they pronounce it as it is spelled.

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Mexican Breakfast Food said...

There should be rules for pronunciation no matter what country they speak englich.

Education Learning said...

I really get confused with pronunciations some times, especially american vs british!

viktor said...

american English is diffirent from British English

Nick said...

Well done, I think that your post is very disputed and interesting.I think that various in our language just make it unique and obviously one of the world spoken.

Paolo said...

Great and interesting post! Its a tough language though. Even I couldn't master it. :)

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Nacho said...

English isn't hard to master. I guess there are more languages that are much complex such as Japanese and Chinese

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Yes this is really funny you can say the same word with different sounds and it will spell differently. Makes for interesting reading.

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Sam said...

I thing that our language is very difficult and different pronunciation have in every country.

Nina said...

Intresting and informative topic. But most of the languages have that different pronunciation.

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Grammar Teacher said...

As a special needs teacher of pupils with dyslexia it would be so much easier for them (and me!)if English had a more phonetic and logical spelling system. If you look at many German words they are so simply put together by just adding words one after the other to make one large word to describe something and the words are basically written as they sound.

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