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Spelling and pronunciation

In this series of articles I have been putting forward the proposition that English is not quite the easy language that many people consider it to be. Of course, easy is not an absolute term, and it is only in relation to other languages that we can decide whether English really is as simple as its reputation. So this time I want to take one aspect of the language system and compare English with another language, German. The aspect I want to consider is spelling / pronunciation (but please first see * below).

The learner of German as a foreign language does not have a difficult job in this respect. Once she has learned the sounds associated with the vowels or vowel combinations, she will know how to pronounce every new word containing those vowels. Conversely, she will be able to spell with great confidence any new word that she meets for the first time in spoken language. So for example, having learned that the vowel combination "ei" is pronounced as in the English words my, high, she will be able to correctly pronounce any of these German words: kein, Schein, fein, herein etc. Once she knows that the "ie" sound is like the English me, tree she should have little difficulty in spelling words like wie, sieben, ziemlich etc.

Compare this with English! Each of the following sets of words contains the same vowel or vowel combination but the words are pronounced differently.

said paid catch watch golf wolf
few sew horse worse give drive
have shave bead bread shoes goes does
womb comb bomb     bear fear early      move glove drove

And then there is the famous -ough ending. All of these words have a different vowel sound:

Now imagine hearing for the first time the following words, each of which has the same sound as in the word ten. Would you have any idea how to spell them?

And how about these words which all have a vowel sound as in the word bus?

Or these whose vowels sound like the o in go:

And would you suspect that each of the following words has the same pronunciation?

The four words above are examples of homophones, words with the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings. The English language is full of these and, unfortunately, they are among the most common words in the language. In fact they are a major problem not only for learners of English as a second language but for native speakers too. Even very accomplished users of English can find themselves inadvertently writing their in place of there, or to instead of too. And the problem here is that most standard computer spellchecks do not pick up these or other homophone mistakes.

Question 1

In the following table, try to find a homophone for each of the words. In the list on the left you have to guess the more common homophone; these are easier to find than homophones for the words on the right.

Example: weather - whether

brake            lesson
tow floor
weight horse
witch profit
stare sauce
wail medal
court tear (as in water from the eye)
blew roar
waist not
knead due

Another difficulty of English spelling is the prevalence of words with silent letters. The learner hearing the following words for the first time will probably be surprised to see how they are written. In each case the silent letter is shown in bold: debt, climb, muscle, Wednesday, foreign, honest, knife, half, autumn, cupboard, iron, island, listen, castle, answer, sword.

A related issue is the formation of plural nouns. Most languages have irregular plurals, but at least you can usually expect a certain consistency of irregularity. Not so in English! Having learned that the plural of mouse is mice and of louse is lice, you might expect the plural of spouse to be spice and grouse to be grice, or the singular of dice to be douse. All wrong! Spouse changes to spouses, grouse is grouse in both singular and plural, and the singular of dice is die. Learning that the "f" in singular words changes to "v" in the plurals, as in wife-wives, knife-knives, thief-thieves etc., you will probably be surprised to note that the plural of chief is not chieves but chiefs, and although there is a verb form believes, the plural of belief is beliefs. Similarly, if tooth changes to teeth and goose to geese, why don’t we say beeth and meese? One piano and one tomato become two pianos and two tomatoes; and with tornado you can decide for yourself whether to write tornados or tornadoes - both are correct. The fox and the ox are both animals so why is it two foxes but three oxen? And wouldn’t it be more logical to talk of the Germen? After all the plural of woman is women and of Frenchman Frenchmen. And so it goes on. Just think of the extra time and effort a German learner of English has to put into this aspect of language compared with the English learner of German. And this without even considering the differences in spelling between British and American English!

Question 2

As a brief quiz, look at the table below. Firstly, in column A choose the word in the list on the right that has the same vowel sound as the word on the left. In column B choose the word in each set that has a different vowel sound to the others. The first one in each case is done for you as an example.

           A        B
light: piece buy they buy try lie ski high
word: sword heard lord nut put cut but
sweat: sweet seat ate pull wool fool full
soul: foul roll doll cork work pork fork
good: food flood wood row mow sow now
worm: storm third hear done stone zone phone
put: but stood shut car far war jar
pea: quay idea wear straight weight height
shoes: choose goes does loose laugh heart calm heard
suit: boot soot quit prayer there hair were
pull: full skull dull day rein quay gauge
hour: pour four sour tour ceiling piece key grey
watch: catch cot coat true knew through thou
fierce: weird lie fight break breakfast brake brave
daughter: slaughter laughter seven even heaven eleven


Answers 1

brake  break            lesson  lessen
tow  toe floor  flaw
weight  wait horse  hoarse
witch  which profit  prophet
stare  stair sauce  source
wail  whale medal  meddle
court  caught tear  tier
blew  blue roar  raw
waist  waste not  knot
knead  need due  dew

Answers 2

        A     B
word: sword heard lord nut put cut but
sweat: sweet seat ate ** pull wool fool full
soul: foul roll doll cork work pork fork
good: food flood wood row mow sow now
worm: storm third hear done stone zone phone
put: but stood shut car far war jar
pea: quay idea wear straight weight height
shoes: choose goes does loose laugh heart calm heard
suit: boot soot quit prayer there hair were
pull: full skull dull day rein quay gauge
hour: pour four sour tour ceiling piece key grey
watch: catch cot coat true knew through thou
fierce: weird lie fight break breakfast brake brave
daughter: slaughter laughter seven even heaven eleven

* English has a large variety of dialects with distinctive spellings and pronunciations. I am British English native speaker, who grew up speaking the BE dialect known as Received Pronunciation. This page is written from the RP perspective; consequently, some of the assertions made will not necessarily hold true in different English dialects.

** In some varieties of English ate rhymes with late or date.


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