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Thread: Why is English spelling based on such an old pronunciation?

  1. #41
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Liliana
    Well, regardless I think French pronunciation rules are taught to beginner learners, whereas there aren't really any strict English pronunciation rules for English learners, except how the th is pronounced in certain words, or positions, and a few other minor things. People basically have to remember how all the words are spelled and how they are pronounced.
    When you learn to pronounce English and French you learn letter combinations that could under the best of circumstances be considered "rules" and work 75% - 80% of the time.
    You tell the learner. "ea" is normally /i:/ as in "bead" but don't be surprised if you find common words that are different. "Learn" is another sound, "great" is another sound and "heart" is yet another sound. /i:/ can also be "e" at the end of a word like "he, she" but don't consider that normal. /i:/ is not "i" which is usually /I/ like "fit" or often /ai/ if there is a final /e/ at the end "white". It's confusing. All of these have historical reasons but learners and children will be confused if you go into that.
    For French you say things like don't pronounce any consonant or unaccented "e" after the last strong vowel in a word. That makes the last syllable seem silent. "Respect" is [rƐspƐ]. Yet, don't be surprised if this rule of thumb is broken too. The sound /Ɛ/ can be written (e + 2 consonants, è, ê, ë, ai, ei) in a word or (ais, aît, êt, ès) at the end. That's just one example. We could go through all the vowel combinations...

    You can learn to read English and French rather easily with these rules of thumb readily available on the net, but there are always doubts fueled by the exceptions that seem to make no sense if you are not a linguist. Words never seen before are badly pronounced by learners and native speakers alike. If the word is learned orally there is no real way to know how to spell it. In French that's wondering what the unpronounced element is. Should I add e, t, x, s, ct, eaux, aient. What? In English, which vowel is it? Is that the rule or the exception? This doesn't happen in phonetic languages. An Italian word is what it is (well, they do need to add some accent marks )

    For English or French native speakers it seems rather easy all of this because they have spent their whole life digesting their language spelling and if they read "sean" it is "Shawn" and not "seen". But it cannot be done in a couple years. You need dictations, spelling bees and long hours dedicated to it in elementary school.
    But... we can see clearly that /ri:spƐkt/ and /rƐspƐ/ are both the same word in origin "respect". Maybe not so with "rispetto and "respeito".
    There really is no compromise.
    Last edited by merquiades; 2nd December 2012 at 4:29 PM.

  2. #42
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    I don't know, Merquiades, I learned English as a relatively small child, and including the writing system, so I could read books, probably by the age of 12, so it is hard for me to tell, but I remember having to memorize both the pronunciation and the spelling. I am pretty sure books that were used to teach English did not have that many rules related to the pronunciation, but rather the transcription of particular words. French books had always a lot about pronunciation rules -- I remember that because one of my friends was struggling with them in elementary school. I did not like too many rules, so I did not really want to start learning French.
    Last edited by LilianaB; 2nd December 2012 at 4:54 PM.

  3. #43
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hulalessar View Post
    In any competition to find the least phonemic alphabetic orthography both English and French are going to make the finals. [...]
    I'd be tempted to put Irish up there as well. Based on my very scant knowledge of Irish I'd say that, as with French, it's more consistent than English, but (like French) contains a lot of silent letters and letter-groups, as well as groups of up to 3 vowels that (to my ear) are pronounced as one pure vowel, where an English-trained eye might expect some diphthongs in there somewhere. (Example: aodh, pronounced /i:/).
    Quote Originally Posted by Hulalessar View Post
    [...] The fact that /u/ can be written over 80 different ways in English and /o/ over 50 different ways in French illustrates the point. [...]
    That's fascinating, Hulalessar. I'd like to know more. Do you have any references/links? (If you'd asked me, I'd have guessed at one or two dozen ways, but nothing like 80, or even 50).
    Quote Originally Posted by LilianaB View Post
    [...] I am pretty sure books that were used to teach English did not have that many rules related to the pronunciation, but rather the transcription of particular words. French books had always a lot about pronunciation rules [...]
    I suspect, Liliana, that that may have more to do with teaching methods than with the actual characteristics of the languages. There are several English learning methods that rely on observation of examples, rather than on application of rules, whereas in my experience French methods are generally more 'academic'.

    Ws
    Last edited by Wordsmyth; 2nd December 2012 at 5:37 PM. Reason: Added example
    The answer is 42

  4. #44
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by LilianaB View Post
    I don't know, Merquiades, I learned English as a relatively small child, and including the writing system, so I could read books, probably by the age of 12, so it is hard for me to tell, but I remember having to memorize both the pronunciation and the spelling. I am pretty sure books that were used to teach English did not have that many rules related to the pronunciation, but rather the transcription of particular words. French books had always a lot about pronunciation rules -- I remember that because one of my friends was struggling with them in elementary school. I did not like too many rules, so I did not really want to start learning French.
    You didn't have the class what was/is known as "phonics" in elementary school where you repeat sounds and words over and over again and then see the spelling? Usually the most common spelling was in blue and the others were in red. It's a bit tedious. The French, however, prefer their long dictations.

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    No, Merquaiades. Phonetics and phonology are usually college courses in linguistics departments only, sometimes combined into one. Languages were not even mandatory (Western languages were not mandatory) in elementary schools in many Eastern block countries. No, I did not have phonics in any language in elementary school. You had to feel lucky sometimes that the teachers spoke English at all. Phonics, sounds really interesting, I am just not sure how it works, but I think we cannot discuss it in this thread.
    Last edited by LilianaB; 2nd December 2012 at 6:00 PM.

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Wordsmyth View Post
    That's fascinating, Hulalessar. I'd like to know more. Do you have any references/links? (If you'd asked me, I'd have guessed at one or two dozen ways, but nothing like 80, or even 50).
    The count in English was made by Professor Julius Nyikos. See The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987. He also apparently calculated that (ignoring rarer words) the 40 phonemes of English can be represented in over 1120 ways.

    As for the French /o/ I am not sure who worked it out, but I got up to 23 different ways without spending a lot of time on it.

  7. #47
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Regarding the OP, I claim the first prize for Greek. While the rules of spelling-pronunciation are much more clear than in English (and, in all fairness, while there are rules for English spelling, to someone learning the language, spelling may seem like a game of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey), so we can't win based on that, with very, very few exceptions (like upsilon for example) we haven't pronounced the words like we spell them for almost two millennia.
    “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” ~ Jerome K. Jerome

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    The link phonics lead me to the "Four Reading Methods - learning to read" link. Thankx.
    http://www.teachingtreasures.com.au/homeschool/reading-methods/reading-methods.htm

    Regarding the OP, I claim the first prize for Greek.
    Indeed. A Cyprian girl has explained me that the new spoken Greek has lost all of the diftongs and the "eta" of ancient Greek, so the sound [i] is denoted by "iota" or "eta" and many other double vowels. I read day before yesterday that the mad European kings sat on the Greek throne descendants of dynasties affected by mental illnesses forced the nowhere spoken classic Greek against the people's language in the 19th century. The result was civil wars, murder of kings and the present Greek spelling.
    I still miss a contribution of an English parent having a child just learning to read.

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by franknagy View Post
    I read day before yesterday that the mad European kings sat on the Greek throne descendants of dynasties affected by mental illnesses forced the nowhere spoken classic Greek against the people's language in the 19th century. The result was civil wars, murder of kings and the present Greek spelling.
    It's actually a bit more complex, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_language_question

  10. #50
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by franknagy View Post

    May I ask the authors of
    http://www.wwnorton.com/college/engl.../noa/audio.htm whether they borrowed a time machine from H. G. Wells to record Old English Speech? Anyway, how can they prove that the pronunciation of the audio is correct?
    Not to go too far off topic, but the assumptions are that spelling was more phonemic then; that comparisons made to other languages of the time period (again just their written records) give insight; and that reconstructions based on modern languages shed light on the past. Despite this, there are many uncertainties regarding OE phonology and pronunciation and most good authors will admit as much. We also have relatively few dialects represented in the surviving texts, but when we do have alternative dialects preserved, they show appreciable variations.

    Is there anybody among the responding people a native English speaker who has an own five or six year old child learning reading right now?
    I work in the public school system with children who have difficulty in reading. I work mostly with younger children.

    There is another issue: hyphenation. That is as difficult as the spelling in English. My grandson is learning reading using hyphenated words. The base rule is simple in Hungarian: only one consonant may be shifted to the syllable after the hyphen. (The consonants denoted by double letters are held together. The complication comes from the compound words which are divided at the border of its elements, so machine division may fail.)
    Are you talking about when words spill over the right margin of a page and have to be split?

    JE

  11. #51
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    franknagy, as killerbee256, noted the matter is more complex (and not just the linguistic one actually) but the spelling is not really connected with katharevousa (puristic Greek). I'm afraid that any further analysis on this subject would be really off topic.
    By my previous post I was merely trying, in a tongue in the cheek way, to point out that there are other languages whose spelling does not reflect current pronunciation.
    “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” ~ Jerome K. Jerome

  12. #52
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Hulalessar View Post
    The count in English was made by Professor Julius Nyikos. See The Fourteenth LACUS Forum 1987. [...]
    Thanks for that, Hulalessar. I read Nyikos's article, and I see now that he gets to 80 by casting his net very wide. He includes words that contain what I think of (from my BE standpoint) as /ju:/, /ɪu/, /ɜ:/, /ɔɪ/, as well as graphemes that have /u/ tucked away inside them (I'd say it's pushing it to say that Q and W are ways of spelling /u/). At least half of the total count seems to come from words such as dew, neutral, student, nuisance (which are all /ju:/ in BE (RP), but in AE can be /ju/ or /u/ — but more often /u/ in my experience).

    This is another example of one of Juan's earlier answers to the OP's question — that there are now so many variants of English, with so many different pronunciations, that it's too late to start looking for a commonly acceptable phonetic spelling system ... even if one wanted to.

    Ws
    The answer is 42

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Thank you for the correction
    "Why is English spelling (or: the spelling of English) based on such an old pronunciation?"
    May I return to the question of diglossia.
    1. In the English language. The Anglo-Saxon serfs were feeding the swines/pigs and cattle/cows. The Norman-French earls were eating the pork and beef.
    2. In the Greek language. The diglossia started in the Hellenistic age. Archimedes was blamed for his Doric dialect of Syracuse by the critics living in Athene. (I think the real reason was those was not be able to understand his mathematical theorems.) The diglossia went on all over the thousand year of Byzantine empire and may be as contradiction between the ecclesiastic Greek of monasteries and the common people.

  14. #54
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Perhaps I'm missing something, franknagy, but what does diglossia have to do with the spelling/pronunciation disparity?

    Ws
    The answer is 42

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by Wordsmyth View Post
    Perhaps I'm missing something, franknagy, but what does diglossia have to do with the spelling/pronunciation disparity?

    Ws
    Absolutely nothing, of course. Ironically, the examples franknagy gives for English are words whose spellings conform 100% to the most basic and standard of English orthographical rules.

    I think the best answer to the question raised in the OP is that English has undergone considerable sound changes since many written forms were codified, and there have not been similar changes in the orthography to reflect those sound changes. Looking at the history of attempted spelling reforms can shed some light on why efforts to update written words to match their pronunciations have largely failed.

    In general, more drastic reforms have failed, while less-drastic reforms have had better success.

    JE

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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Diglossia appeared by he comparison of modern Greek spelling with the English spelling. (English is the veterinarian horse of spelling diseases but there are other written languages suffering similar stupid traditions, too.)
    Thank you for the history of attempted spelling reforms. I think the spelling reform of English is hopeless if the reform keeps sticking 40 or more sounds with 26 letters. The English-speaking language community needs its Ciryll and Method - the saints who invented the alphabet of Slavic languages (33 letters on current Russian).

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    Re: Why is English spelling based on such an old pronunciation?

    This argument would apply to other Germanic languages and even to Romance languages and to Latin itself which had more phonemes than letters. So, no, the use of the Latin alphabet has nothing to do with it.

  18. #58
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    Re: Why is the English spelling based on a so old pronunciation?

    Quote Originally Posted by franknagy View Post
    Diglossia appeared by he comparison of modern Greek spelling with the English spelling. (English is the veterinarian horse of spelling diseases but there are other written languages suffering similar stupid traditions, too.)
    Thank you for the history of attempted spelling reforms. I think the spelling reform of English is hopeless if the reform keeps sticking 40 or more sounds with 26 letters. The English-speaking language community needs its Ciryll and Method - the saints who invented the alphabet of Slavic languages (33 letters on current Russian).
    I think value judgements are beyond the scope of this forum.

    Some of the reasons why English spelling reform is doomed to fail have already been laid out, and they have nothing to do with the number of letters used for representing the number of phonemes (which, to connect with previous points, varies by dialect). For the dialect of English I speak, I could easily think of a system linking every phoneme to a unique orthographical representation using just the 26 letters of the alphabet:

    /b/ ⟨b⟩
    /p/ ⟨p⟩
    /m/ ⟨m⟩
    /f/ ⟨f⟩
    /v/ ⟨v⟩
    /θ/ ⟨th⟩
    /ð/ ⟨dh⟩
    /t/ ⟨t⟩
    /d/ ⟨d⟩
    /n/ ⟨n⟩
    /s/ ⟨s⟩
    /z/ ⟨z⟩
    /ʃ/ ⟨sh⟩
    /ʒ/ ⟨zh⟩
    /ʧ/ ⟨c⟩
    /ʤ/ ⟨j⟩
    /k/ ⟨k⟩
    /g/ ⟨g⟩
    /ŋ/ ⟨ng⟩
    /ɹ/ ⟨r⟩
    /l/ ⟨l⟩
    /w/ ⟨u⟩
    /j/ ⟨i⟩
    /h/ ⟨h⟩
    /i/ ⟨ee⟩
    /e/ ⟨aa⟩

    /a/ ⟨a⟩
    /u/ ⟨uu⟩
    /o/ ⟨oo⟩
    /ɪ/ ⟨i⟩
    /ɛ/ ⟨e⟩
    /æ/ ⟨ae⟩
    /ʊ/ ⟨u⟩
    /ɔ/ ⟨o⟩
    /ʌ/ ⟨uh⟩
    /ə/ ⟨ah⟩
    /aɪ/ ⟨y⟩
    /aʊ/ ⟨au⟩
    /ɔɪ/ ⟨oi⟩


    Did Y mis enee? It's hard tuu saa; uuhn thing dhaet iz for sahrt?n iz dhaet piurlee fooneemahk ryting iz aen ineefishnt uaa tuu ryt Inglish.

    Underlying phonemes aren't always clear in English (as exemplified by the ? above). English phonotactic constraints make some spellings unnecessarily excessive: spelling ⟨hee⟩ for he is pointless since English forbids lax vowels in open syllables (there is no /hɛ/ to distinguish /hi/ from); distinguishing /θ/ and /ð/ is unnecessary; etc. Compounds also serve to make clear spellings impossible: courthouse is not pronounced with either [θ] or [ð], neither is there an /ʃ/ in asshole.

    To top it all off, the system I made up above would only be relevant to a single dialect, and not even apply to many other regional speakers of English. In fact, members of my own family would not have their phonemic inventories satisfied by the system laid out above.

    Your claim that English spelling is as it is because of 'stupid tradition' is 100% unfounded and only demonstrates your ignorance of the complexities of an issue that is not simply linguistic, but also historical, cultural, and sociological.

    JE

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    Re: Why is English spelling based on such an old pronunciation?

    .
    Excellent reply, JE, to what I found to be a rather disturbing post ....
    Quote Originally Posted by franknagy View Post
    [...] (English is the veterinarian horse of spelling diseases but there are other written languages suffering similar stupid traditions, too.) [...]
    I know I mentioned earlier some research (not mine) into the possible effects of tradition, within a given culture, on language evolution — but at no point does the related thesis claim that tradition is the reason for language conservation (nor indeed that the result is a 'disease'!); only that it could be one small potential factor within the complex panoply of reasons that Juan and others have explained ...

    And above all, the idea that such tradition is stupid would be anathema both to my researcher friend and to me.

    Ws
    The answer is 42

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    Re: Why is English spelling based on such an old pronunciation?

    And it should also be pointed out that habitually changing spellings to preserve spelling-phoneme correspondence is as much a tradition as leaving spellings as they are.

    To suppose that one of those traditions is 'stupid' is completely against the standard of all academic disciplines that study language, society, and culture. It is a comment that really has no place in a discussion between individuals older than 12.

    JE

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