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I do not encounter so big problems with the English language although I'm not a native English speaker. But I'm curious why some languages (like English or French) are written different from the way they are read? And the German or Slavic languages are WYSIWYG. So especially for beginners (but I use them sometimes too) there are transcriptions in the dictionaries how to read the corresponding word.

Is this because in the middle ages the west European societies were separated in classes (castes) and some of them were privileged to be literate and some not? Or this is a special way to save the pronunciation of the word?

Thanks in advance and regards!

PS: Some examples (the entire language is an example but... ;))

  • example [ig'za:mpl]
  • sometimes ['sʌmtaimz]
  • literate ['litərət]
  • language ['længwidʒ]
  • although [ɔːlˈðəʊ]
  • because [bi'kɔz]
  • you [ju]
  • ...

and in German the corresponding words:

  • Beispiel
  • manchmal
  • gebildet
  • obwohl
  • weil
  • du / ihr / Sie

And here (in German) you can see few exceptions too.

  • "ei" is actually [ai].
  • "sp" is [ʃp]
  • "ch" is [h]
  • vowel + "h" = long vowel / obwohl [obvo:l] / ihr [i:r]
  • "ie" is [i:]

In English:

  • "A" is [a] and [ei]
  • "C" is [s] and [k]
  • "E" is [e] and [i] and nothing at the end of the word
  • etc...

But in German "A" is only [a], "E" is only [e]...

I'll not give you examples in Slavic languages.

  • 3
    Because people have been recording written English much longer than spoken English. We want to be able to read the great works written in the English language of the past, so spelling changes are infrequent and slow. But until the late 19th century there was no way to record speech, so there was much less inertial to counteract the natural rate of language change. – curiousdannii Aug 10 '17 at 10:00
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    On the other hand, the pronunciation of "ch" as [x~χ] or [ç] in German is not an "exception", it's the regular correspondence for this sound in the German spelling system. Same for "ei" = [ai] and "ie" = [iː]. Just because it is not IPA doesn't make it an "exception" to systematic spelling. – brass tacks Aug 10 '17 at 17:45
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    @sumelic it's not an exception/unsystematic, yes. But, it's still a deviation from the original, international Latin usage of Latin letters, which causes surprises to anyone coming from a Latin-based writing system. And the reason why these spellings exist is the same reason as for the weird way that English uses the Latin letters (‹i› = /ai/ etc.), viz. because the spelling is outdated. Of course, in German that happens a whole lot less than English or French. – melissa_boiko Aug 10 '17 at 20:55
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    @leoboiko: I don't really agree that there is a single "original, international Latin usage of Latin letters". How are "c", "g", "j", "ch", "th", "w", "y", "ae" and "oe" pronounced according to this usage? What are the conventional ways to write sounds like [tʃ], [ʃ], [dʒ], [ʒ], [x], [ç], [j], [w], [θ], [ɲ], [ʎ] in this usage? – brass tacks Aug 10 '17 at 21:17
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    @sumelic I think you are nitpicking a bit. Of course, there's a degree of variation, and in particular with digraphs and sounds not originally in Latin.You seem to have listed the complex cases on purpose. But surely all the basic sounds like e.g. /a/ /e/ /i/ /o/ /u/ having the respective Latin sounds is an international standard—Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Guaraní, Vietnamese, Albanian…—and things like /i/ = [aj] or /eu/ = [ɔj] are the exceptions. One could easily make statistics of the various Latin writing systems, and show a correlation of their normal sound values with the original ones. – melissa_boiko Aug 10 '17 at 22:02
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The essential reason is that writing systems historically tend to not be modified, until there is a frenzy of orthography reform, and some languages have had more phonological change than others. English and French are noteworthy because their spelling was fixed a long time ago and there has not been a massive reform; and then there substantial phonological changes in the spoken language. Tibetan is similar, having been written for as long a time, and having undergone probably more substantial phonological change. Norwegian spelling can also be a nuisance (there is no "d" in bønder; one kind of has to guess how "o" is pronounced; for some dialects, you have to just know how to spell ʃ in a given word: "rs", "kj", "sj"). In contrast, German had an orthography reform just a decade ago, and was standardized much later than English. Indeed, Standard German as a spoken language is a relatively new language, somewhat over 200 years old.

Many people would like English spelling to be "phonetic", in that if you know how a word is spelled, you know how it is pronounced, and vice versa. This is perhaps tenable for small languages with only a couple of speakers in one village. For any other language, you do not know how all speakers actually pronounce words. ɪf ɔl ɹaɪɾɪŋ wɹ̩ bɛɪst ɔn hæw ðə ɪndəvɪdʒʊl̩ ækʃəli tɔks, ɪɾəd bi ɹɪli dɪfəkl̩t tə əndɹ̩stæn pipl̩z ɹaɪɾɪŋ. wɹs, sɪns ðɛɹ aɹ mɛni wɛɪz ðæt ən ɪndəvɪdʒʊl̩ dʌz prənæwns ʌ wɹ̩d, you would spend all your time trying to figure out how you pronounce a word, so that you would know how to spell it.

This is not to say that improvements to English spelling are unimaginable: but especially for a language like English (with a huge set of pronunciations for all words), just adopting phonetic spelling is a fairly bad idea. The Oxford list of most common mis-spellings does point to candidates for change. "Amoeba" is not on the list, probably because most people don't use it.

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  • 1
    Good answer. Let me add that there are also languages where the pronunciation has changed quite a lot but at the same time there's still a (formal/official) variety pronounced in line with the orthography, i.e. there's a diglossy - Swiss German would be one example. – Atamiri Aug 10 '17 at 19:02
  • But why do writing systems tend to not be modified? French had a number of modern revolutions with pretty radical changes in other areas, so why not in orthography? I think Russian had an orthography simplification after their revolution. "We want to be able to read the great works of the past", as curiousdannii suggested, would not move too many people when weighed against simplifying their life in the present. Besides, book lovers can always learn archaic grammar or read translations. Would current internetization of English shift it if most users ignore non-phonic spellings? – Conifold Aug 11 '17 at 0:23
  • The political and social underpinnings of that fact are real complicated. If we had a major "break with the past" revolution, things could be different. If the sub-optimality of spelling becomes sufficiently intolerable that The People take to the street, it could change. Or if enough people flout the rules for long enough (lite, acheive, paradime), there could be speling reform. I will address the problem of phonetic spelling in a revision, though. – user6726 Aug 11 '17 at 0:41
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    I think what is usually meant by "phonetic" is more practical and structural. Like eliminating silent letters and other context dependent pronunciations, replacing letter groups with simpler homophones (like o instead of au or augh), etc. German, say, is seen as more "phonetic" than English, so this is not about geographic variations in pronunciation. I think, much of the phonetic wish list was implemented in artificial languages like Esperanto (along with optimizing grammar), but they did not take, so there must be some counterforces at work. – Conifold Aug 11 '17 at 1:47
  • Using just the Latin alphabet, you can't write English without digraphs. But as I say, it may be possible to reduce the arbitrariness, as we currently see with the "ight → ite" replacement. – user6726 Aug 11 '17 at 16:10

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