Why is English spelling based on such an old pronunciation?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by franknagy, Nov 29, 2012.

  1. franknagy Senior Member

    I know that even the Hungarian spelling preserves the almost disappeared consonant -ly- which is merged with the -j- in almost all Hungarian dialect [gulyás]. The English spelling, however, disregards the language changes of 400? 500? 600? recent years. Why? Can you explain me this conservatism?
     
  2. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    Do you have an example of an English word in which this relates to?
     
  3. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I do! I do! I just finished rereading The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson, and this - retaining old spellings even after the pronunciation changes - is a genuine characteristic of English. I know we aren't supposed to make lists, so let me give you just one example: knight. Originally pretty much every letter was pronounced, but even though only about half are pronounced now, we still have all those letters.

    I don't have an answer as to why, though. I'm sure there are theories, but I'm betting that nobody has any real idea.
     
  4. Hau Ruck

    Hau Ruck Senior Member

    United States - Midwest
    English - U.S.
    I am still completely confused as to what, exactly, the OP is referring to.
     
  5. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I believe I know, but I suspect that the moderators would rather hear it from him than from me. Am I right?
     
    Last edited: Nov 29, 2012
  6. PaulQ

    PaulQ Senior Member

    UK
    English - England
    I suspect that it is because spelling is set in tablets of stone and, although e.g. knight was originally pronounced as /'knɪxt/ and the spelling was more or less a reproduction of the spoken word, the pronunciation changed but strict schoolmasters, clerics, editors, etc., demanded the 'correct' (i.e. original) spelling - and we are stuck with it.

    Take the English name "Featherstonehaugh" - who would think that it is pronounced "Fanshaw"?:rolleyes:
     
  7. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    Devon
    British English
    Thread moved to EHL.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Nov 30, 2012
  8. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    There are several factors involved in this question. One is that English was codified fairly early (early 17th century), mainly through the Bible translation and the Book of Common Prayer. Many other European languages were codified considerably later, French, for example, not really until the latter part of the 18th century.
     
  9. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    Another could be that English has incorporated words from so many languages into it, and there are only so many ways to spell particular sounds. It is confusing to spell the same sound in so many different ways - k-n-i-g-h-t and n-i-g-h-t and n-i-t-e - but it would also be confusing if the word for the guy in shining armor was spelled the same as the word for the oposite of day. There have been a number of spelling regularization efforts over the past couple of hundred years, and that's where they all seem to fall down. Well, that and entropy.
     
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2012
  10. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    I disagree. It would be no more confusing than it already is having the words pronounced the same. Spelling them the same would add nothing in the way of confusion to the written language, unless we were to all get in the habit of writing single-word documents.

    There are three issues with English spelling: (1) English has more sounds than its alphabet has letters. There is no straight-forward way of matching up the letters to the sounds that can be agreed upon by everyone. Which brings us to (2) the English language's lack of a language-usage body to decide how to write the language and enforce the changes by having meaningful control over, for example, dictionaries and publishing centers. Finally, (3) there are currently so many varieties of English and the spoken language changes so quickly that it is impractical to have a system of spelling reflective of pronunciation for the simple fact that there is no single pronunciation of English, and indeed, never has been.

    You ask why spelling hasn't changed in 400-600 years, and one way to answer this question is to point out that in fact it has changed; perhaps not as considerably as you would like it to have changed, but it has changed. English no longer uses the long 's'; many -gue words have lost/are losing the -ue (e.g., catalogue, and dialogue); the word through is regularly seen as thru (Drive Thru); and so the examples continue. Writing being static rather than dynamic (as is spoken language) the changes are slower to happen, but they still have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen.

    You are bothered by the supposed lack of change in English's spelling over the last few hundred years, but you don't tell us what you think an acceptable time-lag is between pronunciation changes and spelling changes. Should spelling change with each generation? Every 100 years? Whose language should be the one that gets spelled? Should the spelling be different in different regions of the world? Of a country? Of a state?

    These problems, and many more, are just a few of the reasons why English spelling is reflective of older forms of the language. I mean, who can bitch and complain about their dialect not being represented in writing if no one's dialect is represented?

    Personally, the only change I would like to see made to the English writing system is to start writing single words as single words.

    JE
     
  11. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Which doesn't mean that French has any fewer examples of 'unphonetic' spellings. Look at all those word endings that are mute, but which were mostly pronounced at some time in the dim and distant past. I guess the late-18th century codifying simply officialised all the disparities, rather than removing them.
    One theory, mentioned by a socio-linguistic doctoral friend of mine, is that the way written languages evolve is influenced by how much tradition matters to the related society (or at least to those of its elements who influence language definition). That would explain the 'unphonetic' disparities in both English and French — and it's much easier for traditionalist 'authorities' (or respected sources) to control written language than spoken language — so the latter evolves, the former doesn't.

    An example that supports this theory is the Dutch language. Judging by several of my Dutch friends and colleagues, they're very laid back about language. They welcome foreign words and expressions into their language, rather than getting all protectionist and legislating against such 'invasion'. Apparently they regularly (and officially) update the spellings of foreign words that have been absorbed into Dutch, to maintain the original pronunciation. So, for example, boutique is boetiek in Dutch. This practice is one of the rare examples of recognition that spoken language is the true basis, and that writing is simply a device by which to transmit it.
    Well, in AE anyway. In many other parts of the English-speaking world, no-one browses 'thru catalogs', but browsing 'through catalogues' is alive and well (which perhaps also supports the theory about degrees of traditionalism ;)).

    Ws:)
     
  12. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    How do you measure the degree to which a society is 'traditional'?

    And who are these 'authorities'? English has no unified language authority--what is accepted in academic writing would not be accepted in commercial writing; and what is accepted in commercial writing would not be accepted in academic writing. Writing, like speaking, is done on different levels and at different registers; and a language as large and encompassing as English has many varieties, levels, and registers; it is unreasonable to suppose we can lump all of these under a single umbrella writing system.

    Are you suggesting that the English language is closed to words from other languages?

    But that is not true. Written English differs from spoken English in more than just its spelling. How many times do you use phrases like "the former is such and such, the latter not" when you speak? Look at the number of subordinate and sprawling clauses in a piece of academic writing. Do you really talk like that?

    The belief that written language is dependent and subordinate to spoken language is a false one. Writing and speech are related, but they are also distinct. We may speak before we write, but that doesn't give primacy to speech over writing.

    My point exactly. If you change it, someone will be upset.

    JE
     
  13. franknagy Senior Member

    Indeed but the delay and difference between them should be much less than in English and French.
    I am eager to understand why are these two written languages so far from the spoken forms compared to others.
    Are there too many dialects of geographical areas and social classes in England (France) that forced the adaption Chinese method: Let us write with the hierogliphs all over the empire in order to facilitate the people to undarstatand each other at least during written communication?
     
  14. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    What changes have English and French undergone in speech since their respective modern writing systems were being established?

    JE
     
  15. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    By observation. I dare say my linguist friend has some scientific means; but having lived in a number of different societies, I am aware that some are more driven by tradition than others, even if that awareness is the result of subjective judgement.
    " 'authorities' (or respected sources)": I chose my words to cover languages that do have formal authorities (such as the Académie Française) and languages that do not (such as English). However English does have 'respected sources' that are widely consulted as 'authoritative' references. Whether it's the Académie Française or the OED, they are both controlled by 'experts' with some degree of traditionalism.
    Not at all. I had certain examples of French legislation in mind, but there are also other countries where the phenomenon is seen.
    I should have been more precise. By "basis", I meant the base upon which language was built, its origin. I wasn't referring to the current relative status of written vs spoken language. I just find it refreshing that the Dutch consider the spoken word as the fundamental form, and adapt their spelling to transmit that form (since that was the original function of writing). At least it avoids some of the excruciating mispronunciation of foreign words that is considered as normal in some languages.

    Would you prefer to hear "Juan" pronounced as in Spanish, or (if read by an anglophone who had no idea of its provenance) as "Djoo'un' (accent on the first syllable)? Personally, I feel that the real identity of that name, and indeed of any word, lies in its spoken form.

    Ws:)
     
  16. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    English has an etymologically based orthography. It pays homage to Germanic, Greco-Latin, and French roots, and also takes loan words into the language as is without trying to adapt them. French is also etymologically based.
    This is different from phonetically based spelling systems which are found in Spanish, Italian, Dutch where the sound of a word (or idealized sound) dictates how it should be written.
    Personally it'd be hard to get used to "telifoan, raydeeo or cumpewta". But I think we all like etymology in this forum.
     
  17. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    My point was that there is no single authority (or respected source) on the English language. Different standards of writing are preferred for different situations. The examples I already mentioned are academic settings and commercial settings; but there are also other settings, such as text messaging settings. Each of these settings require different orthographic conventions, even if their speaking conventions are largely identical.

    Any examples for English, the topic of this thread?

    Then the word to use for this is not 'basis' but 'bias', namely yours.

    Isn't that the point? English is spoken differently from how it is written? Juan isn't my real name, but a nickname I've had most of my life; and my mother can't pronounce it to save her life, so I am in no way vexed to hear it mispronounced. In fact, spelling pronunciations are one of the ways the English language has changed over the years with the increase in literacy.

    JE
     
  18. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    English spelling obviously corresponds to late Middle English and not to mid Early Modern English (Shakespeare rhymed already come-sum (sonnet 44) and write-might (sonnet 80)). So this cannot be the reason. The spelling of English has undergone only small changes since the mid 15th century Chancery Standard (small compared to the substantial changes in pronunciation) whereas before spelling was rather free and followed dialectal variation and changes over time. It must have been the influence of this very early standard, a standard which also coincided with rapid change in pronunciation, that detached spelling from pronunciation (straight forward grapheme-phoneme correspondence).
    See above.
     
  19. franknagy Senior Member

    Some responding people states that no authority regulates the English spelling. But it is somehow fixed in MS Word and many spelling checkers like here in Google I am using right now.
    Does Bill Gates control it?
    :pOK, let foreigners suck.
    Is there anybody in the world thinking of the native English-speaking children's suffer while they are learning to read write? How many energy is wasted in the first grade of the English, American, Australian... schools?
     
  20. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I wouldn't know where to start. Here is the prologue of the the Miller's tale by Chaucer. This is about 50-100 years before the Chancery Standard was established. The spelling is already relatively similar to the modern one. Here (no. 6) is a reconstruction of how it was probably pronounced in the late 14th century.
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2012
  21. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    This was part of an exchange about languages being closed to new words. I'm looking for English examples of this; but so far have only been told about the French legislating against foreign words. MY question was not at all related to when English spelling became somewhat fixed.

    JE
     
  22. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Fantastic, Berndf! Thanks. I'm surprised I actually understand it. I thought it was a completely different language. It's more Germanic sounding.
     
  23. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    I see.
     
  24. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    Agreed, but my point (or rather my sociolinguist friend's point) had nothing to do with there being a single authority or source — only that the extent to which 'authorities' (however many of them, official or not) will accept change is influenced by the degree of importance that they attach to tradition.
    Yes, English is the topic, but the OP kicked off by comparing English with Hungarian and, in seeking reasons for the phenomenon, it seems pertinent to consider what factors English has in common with other languages that share the spoken/written disparity, and in what way it differs from the more phonetic languages.

    Any examples of English being closed to words from other languages? : As I said before, not at all. My point was not about whether languages import foreign words, but about how they spell them once they've arrived. My example of the Dutch was aimed at suggesting a link between their linguistic open-mindedness and the fact that they respell imported words to maintain the pronunciation. That doesn't happen in English (just as long-standing English words are not respelled to match modern pronunciation), and that may or may not be related to the sociolinguistic reasons I mentioned. It wasn't my theory, so I can't defend it with confidence, but it arose from research conducted for a doctoral thesis (as yet unpublished).
    No. "Spoken language is the true bias" isn't at all what I meant. As I already said, the word I should have used was "base".
    Your bias, I guess. It would vex me. (Perhaps that makes me a pronunciation traditionalist at heart, rather than a spelling traditionalist).;)

    Ws:)
     
    Last edited: Dec 1, 2012
  25. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    It is actually not so surprising, because it correponds to how it is spelled. For an illiterate Modern English speakier, Middle English would probably be more difficult to understand.
     
  26. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    I think study of over languages help too: hearing like pronouced /li:ke/ instead of /laIk/ doesn't cause problems for me. It's more of a Dutch/German like pronunciation.
     
  27. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    Well, the German cognate is Leiche. German has shifted too, but it adaped spelling. But it is true, when you pronounce an English word with there Middle English sound values, correpondances are easier to detect. The most famous example, you surely know is knight /knɪçt/ - Knecht /knɛçt/, while /naɪt/ bears little resemblence with /knɛçt/. The individual steps that transformed /knɪçt/ into /naɪt/ are straight forward (/knɪçt/ > /kni:t/ (muting of "gh" with compensatory lengthening, > /ni:t/ (cluster reduction) > /naɪt/ (reflex of /i:/ after Great Vowel Shift)) but the end result of the chain would be difficult to match to the ME origin, if the spelling hadn't preserved it.
     
  28. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Leiche (cadaver)? It's easier to start from German (probably Dutch even more) to go to OE though. A modern speaker who knows /nait/ can't really understand /knIçt/ unless they know how "ch" is pronounced in Germanic languages. Even if they don't know about the GVS, they have to know about pure vowels sounds and relate them to English. It's interesting to know predictable these changes. Not many "igh" words went to something other than "aI". Going back on topic, that's also why they didn't need to seriously envision re-hauling English orthography. At each stage it mostly fit in. I hope it's never changed. Tonite is a sacrilege. (In Spanish you can't figure out the medieval word from the modern one without knowing first either latin or having read old spanish or portuguese with a dictionary. They wiped out the etymology)
     
  29. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    This could have happened to other languages as well and to a lesser degree happend there were just fewer sound changes since the standardization, e.g. German eins is pronounced as if written ains and the cluster "ie" is still spelled but pronounced /i:/. The peculiarity of English and French is that a) standardization happened relatively early and b) was followed by substancial pronunciation changes. (Toscan) Italian was also standardized very early but didn't change that much afterwards. If German had been standardized in the days of Dante, i.e. before the transition from Middle to Modern High German, its spelling would today probably be almost as different from pronunciation as in English.
     
  30. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Which almost makes you wonder just what folks are learning to read and write when they learn to read and write English.

    The language of literacy is the English of centuries ago; the language of speech is the English of today—save for (relatively minor) changes in syntax and lexicon..

    There are benefits to this as well as drawbacks. The first drawback anyone will point out is that it increases the difficulty children have when learning to read and write. This might be true, but it is also likely mostly true because we are still trying to teach children at their youngest age that the English language encodes each sound into one letter when, as we know, this is not the case.

    The most significant benefit, once the hurdles to learning the written language are overcome, is that a person literate in English can read texts and engage in their linguistic heritage from centuries ago. My knowledge on the way other modern, well-attested languages have changed in speech versus writing is incomplete, and so I cannot be sure whether this makes English somewhat unique or not, but I certainly do know that if the English orthography had been altered to preserve—more or less—grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence throughout the ages, this benefit would not exist and entire time periods of English literature would be inaccessible to modern readers without continuously updated and republished translations.

    I think my bias on this is already clear, but I will restate it anyway: I think the benefits of the current English writing system far outweigh any perceived drawbacks—and I say this after having my spelling corrected by Firefox about twelve times while typing this post.

    JE
     
  31. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    Phonetically spelled languages have their advantage. You can look at a word and know instinctively how it's going to be pronounced, and native speakers and learners can pick up these languages much quicker. You have to explain to Spanish and Italian speakers what on earth a spelling bee is because the whole concept is irrelevant in those languages. Besides, let's face it few people read literary works from hundreds of years ago anyway. Only language forum addicts are concerned with language evolution. They also make modern editions with new orthography when people forget the way it used to be.

    But with this system, etymology is lost completely, also a sense of connections to word families in that language and even those shared with other languages too. For example, Italian has mostly eliminated the "h" as it became silent in that language so "harmony" is "armonia". They also got rid of x, y, j, k, w and started writing words like "anedotto" as pronounced instead of etymologically accurate "anecdoto". Links with the past are severed. Portuguese just recently updated their language and also got rid of lots of consonants to match modern pronunciation. "Ato" and "Atual" replaced "Acto" and "Actual" (obvious cognates in English, other languages plus the origin of their language). Spanish decided to get rid of many accent marks. Why? People know how to stress the correct syllable anyway. It's not needed.

    This is ol thee eekwivalent uv bigining ta rait meibee laik this, it's surtunlee reelee weerd at furst but then wee cun ghet yuust ta it. Shood wee updeit?
    It's practical but sad. There are hundreds of years separating spoken English from the written standard but we see clearly the origin of the words be they Germanic, Latin, French or a Swedish or Polish loan word.

    In the end there has not been change because there is no desire for change. Why are other languages so obsessed with updating?

    But German is still being updated despite having glorious centuries too. They just made a reform in the 1990's. What rationale?
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2012
  32. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    Native speakers of English learn their language just as quickly as native speakers of German, Italian, or, indeed, any language.

    Spelling is not as clear in these language as some might think; the more diverse a language becomes (such as Spanish, spoken natively all across the world by even more people than English) the more difficult it is to encode the language as a whole phonemically (or phonetically) in a manner maximally suitable to all speakers. Spanish lapiz for example could just as well contain an ⟨s⟩ in place of the ⟨z⟩ for speakers of most American Spanish varieties whose /θ/ phoneme has merged with /s/.

    That, of course, is a completely fabricated statement with no supporting evidence whatsoever, and which will not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

    How many speakers does Italian have? Where do they live?

    How many speakers does Portuguese have? Where do they live?

    Spanish no longer utilizes the acute accent? Are you sure?

    If we do update, your suggested changes would certainly be worse than the system we have now. For example, native English speakers do not analyze /e/ as a diphthong even if it is produced as such (which it isn't in all dialects), and for most dialects you will need a different symbol for /ɔ/ and /o/. And, of course, English words change pronunciation depending on where they are in the phrase as stress-placement is somewhat mobile and affects vowel quality (see Stress & Vowel Reduction in English). So I hope this makes it obvious why a phonetic system, at least, is absolutely ridiculous to use with English (or any language)—speakers think in phonemes not phones.

    It should be further clear that changes to English spelling would only make it easier for one dialect group of English-speaking children to learn to write and read, but the rest would have as much (if not more) difficulty as they do now.

    It will be up to you to demonstrate the practicality of the changes you're describing.

    Frankly, at the end of the day, the most practical way to solve the problem of how to phonemically transcribe a language as diverse and ever-changing as English in a way suitable to the most number of speakers and still workable for the rest is to just throw our hands in the air, decide to do it the way it's always been done, go to bed, and wake up the next morning pretending the problem doesn't exist.

    Quite honestly the appeal to etymology argument doesn't really support leaving the spelling system as it is. There are other, very valid, reasons why sweeping spelling reform is not practical in English, but preserving etymological links is not one of them.

    Good point.

    The rationale is that nobody speaks German besides the Germans; it is their language and they can do with it as they please; they alone own it and they alone must suffer through any decisions they make about it.

    English, however, no longer belongs to just the English. It belongs to the Canadians; the Australians; the Americans; the Indians—and you're going to have a hell of a time getting all of those people to agree on a 'fix'. They can't even agree on what side of the road to drive on!



    Anyway, the topic is kind of drifting away from its intent, which, I think, was to ask for an historical account of why the English language's writing system has not changed in so long. I believe the question has been answered in various ways, but perhaps the simplest reason is that by the time people really started to realize that the words they were writing weren't the words they were saying it was a bit too late to really do anything about it.

    JE
     
  33. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In the end these what-if scenarios have to remain pure speculation. I think that it is the fixing of spelling at a time of sweeping change in pronunciation that causes the separation. If pronunciation changes only slowly over the centuries, it is more likely that people make small changes to the spelling here and there. Since Luther's time, which is generally seen as the starting point of standardized German, pronunciation didn't change drastically and where it changed, the spelling has often remained etymological:
    - Loss of differentiation between long and short consonants, but spelling didn't change and is often appears erratic for modern speakers
    - The diphthongs "ei", "eu" and "äu" changed there pronunciation to something unrelated to how they are spelled ([aɪ], [ɔʏ] and [ɔʏ]), yet the spelling remained.
    - "s" split into a voiced and an unvoiced variant, at the same time, the unvoiced "s" merged with "ß". Here, spelling partially adapted an "ß" was re-interpreted as an unvoiced marker where a voices "s" would otherwise be expected. But this change in usage has only been completed in 1996.
    - When the phoneme /ʃ/, spelled "sch", developed, original "s" in initial consonant clusters merged with "sch" rather than with "ß". In some cases, spelling was adapted, cf. English snow and German Schnee, but in some clusters the spelling remained: stone=Stein but pronounced like *Schtein.
    Exactly.
    This applies to the last 236 year only, when the first colonists got the strange idea they should be ruling themselves. So, this can't be the reason.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2012
  34. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Lithuanian
    Hello, Juan. You were wondering if English is somewhat unique with respect to the discrepancy between its written form and the pronunciation -- I can assure you, it is, really unique among all the Indo-European languages at least. There is nothing bad about it -- it might even be interesting, it is just that some learners, especially not that familiar with things related to languages, may have it harder to learn it, or to comprehend why there is such a difference between the written system, and the speech. It is much better, however, in my opinion, that it stays this way as opposed to being re-transcribed into something mediocre, though standardized, by a silly computer.

    If you take into consideration just the vernacular, or some regional dialects of some languages, of course the pronunciation may differer from the standard spelling, not so much for the literary language, though. Some dialects don't even have a written form, or haven't had for ages.
     
    Last edited: Dec 2, 2012
  35. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    French is similar in this respect.
    Nobody said so and that isn't really what we are concerned with here.
     
  36. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Lithuanian
    Doesn't French have rules, though? It may have some exceptions, but I thought it basically had many rules how to pronounce words, as opposed to English.
     
  37. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    In any competition to find the least phonemic alphabetic orthography both English and French are going to make the finals. Neither system is totally chaotic. Both have rules, but the problem is that the rules are so complex that they cannot usefully be taught to beginners. The fact that /u/ can be written over 80 different ways in English and /o/ over 50 different ways in French illustrates the point. The learner more or less has to absorb the rules by seeing examples. Once the rules are known you stand a pretty good chance of pronouncing a word you do not know correctly, but rather less chance of spelling a word you do not know correctly. Many of the irregularities will be commonly occurring words. Any superficial analysis of either system will home in on the polyvalence and irregularities, but a more in depth analysis will reveal the underlying regularities, even if they are complex. The complexities do not seem to affect literacy, even if it takes children longer to master writing correctly.
     
  38. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Lithuanian
    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.
     
  39. berndf Moderator

    Geneva
    German (Germany)
    In the context of this thread, this doesn't matter. I only means that French sounds shifts have been more systematic than English shifts.
     
  40. franknagy Senior Member


    May I ask the authors of
    http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/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?
    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? 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.)
     
  41. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    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: Dec 2, 2012
  42. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Lithuanian
    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: Dec 2, 2012
  43. Wordsmyth

    Wordsmyth Senior Member

    Location: Mostly SW France
    Native language: English (BrE)
    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:/).
    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).
    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: Dec 2, 2012
  44. merquiades

    merquiades Senior Member

    France
    USA Northeast
    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.
     
  45. LilianaB Senior Member

    US New York
    Lithuanian
    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. :D 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: Dec 2, 2012
  46. Hulalessar Senior Member

    Andalucía
    English - England
    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.
     
  47. ireney

    ireney Modistra

    U.S.A.
    Greek Greece
    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. :D
     
  48. franknagy Senior Member

    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

    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 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.
     
  49. killerbee256 Senior Member

    American English
    It's actually a bit more complex, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_language_question
     
  50. JuanEscritor

    JuanEscritor Senior Member

    Minnesota
    English - AE
    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.

    I work in the public school system with children who have difficulty in reading. I work mostly with younger children.

    Are you talking about when words spill over the right margin of a page and have to be split?

    JE
     

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