I was trying to find the proper term for when a language's alphabet has one to one correspondence between the letters written and the pronunciation for those letters. Turns out its called phonemic orthography. I can't think of any cases where Telugu deviates from being phonemic. On the other hand I've also read that no language is 100% perfectly phonemic.

Can any one tell me in what situations Telugu behaves non-phonemically?

For example, th in English can be pronounced as ð (as in this) or θ (as in thin)

But this never(?) seems to happen in Telugu. If you consider the Telugu letter 'ప' it is always(?) Pronounced 'pa' like the pronunciation of 'p' in puppy. My question is does Telugu ever Violate this one to one correspondence between phonemes and graphemes because Wikipedia says:

In an ideal phonemic orthography, there would be a complete one-to-one correspondence (bijection) between the graphemes (letters) and the phonemes of the language, and each phoneme would invariably be represented by its corresponding grapheme. So the spelling of a word would unambiguously and transparently indicate its pronunciation, and conversely, a speaker knowing the pronunciation of a word would be able to infer its spelling without any doubt. That ideal situation is rare but exists in a few languages.

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    Might be something in here: archive.org/details/rosettaproject_tel_ortho-1 Dec 2, 2017 at 21:40
  • I don't think that there is a linguistic perfect of any sort, you just think it is since there is a native tongue bias Dec 2, 2017 at 22:46
  • @WiccanKarnak. Im not saying Telugu is a perfect language at all. I just wanted to know if it had perfect phonemic orthography.
    – AnkithD
    Dec 3, 2017 at 10:27
  • @sumelic, thank you it was a good read but it didn't mention anything about the phonemic orthography
    – AnkithD
    Dec 3, 2017 at 10:34
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    @Eleshar I'm sorry I gave an incorrect example, 'f' in fish and foot both sound like /f/. Please see the new example. I would like an example where Telugu deviates from this principle.
    – AnkithD
    Dec 3, 2017 at 19:02

5 Answers 5


Before getting to the specifics of Telugu, it would be useful to review what it might mean for an orthography to be 100% perfectly phonemic. Based on how the notion "phonemic" is used in language description and orthography development, it would be a system where for each phonemes there is a unique and rule-governed orthographic sequence, and for each such orthographic sequence there is a unique mapping to a phoneme. I say sequence since in a language that does not have the cluster "s+h", we could represent the phoneme ʃ as "sh". Furthermore, this 1-to-1 correlation between orthography and phonemes is not tempered with exceptions of the type "except in the word..." or "depending on the origin of the word".

Here are some examples of features that would disqualify the orthography. In Russian, unstressed /a,o/ are neutralized to a and /e,i/ become i: this is not reflected in the spelling. When the phoneme /o/ neutralizes with the phoneme /a/, in a phonemic orthography, the spelling would change. In this respect, Russian spelling is not phonemic. (I have nothing to say about the letter ы because the phonemic status of that vowel is controversial). Additionally, stress, which is not predictable (is phonemic), is entirely omitted from the spelling. If phonemic distinctions are omitted in the spelling (stress), the system is not purely phonemic. If orthographic distinctions are made which do not correspond precisely to a phonemic distinction (vowel letters are distinct where the vowel sounds are not), the system is not purely phonemic.

One other potential disqualifier would be if there is a distinction in letters which is in all contexts predictable – it reflects a phonetic fact which is not phonemic – then the system is not purely phonemic. A hypothetical example would be if English spelling notated aspiration with a raised ʰ – there is a phonetic difference, but not a phonemic difference, so it should not be indicated in the spelling. It is possible that Sanskrit has that property, since there are graphemes that reflect sub-phonemic differences (or even possibly non-existent sounds). The problem is pinning down a specific historical stage of Sanskrit pronunciation and writing: an examples is "ñ" which is predictable (adjacent to a palatal) and probably does not exist as an independent phoneme once you exclude later introductions (the noun ञ, plus grammarian's meta-usage). "Jh" (झ) is at least suspicious as a phoneme.

One very common feature of writing systems frequently renders the system not 100% phonemic, an that is when spelling does not reflect phonemic changes due to sandhi. Sanskrit is exceptional, in that when two phonemes are neutralized in sentential context, the writing reflects that change (so, /...as#m.../ is realized as [o#m] and is spelled that way too). Otherwise, when languages have external sandhi, those rules are typically not indicated in the spelling (for instance, there is no change in the spelling of word-final obstruents in Russian depending on whether the next word begins with a voiced consonant versus a voiceless consonant). Accordingly, you might want to subdivide the question about phonemicity into "with respect to citation forms" versus "in all contexts", since otherwise failure to reflect sentential phonology would disqualify a language. I believe that Telugu would be disqualified on that basis, since there is a process deleting vowels between certain consonants, described by Krishnamurti 1957, for instance gula:bi mogga → *gula:b mogga "rose bud". It may be that this is actually reflected in the spelling: if not, that would be an instance where the spelling includes something that is not in the phonemic output.

The sociolinguistic issues mentioned in the Telugu-informed answers point to a further way in which it is unlikely that any language has a 100% phonemic spelling. As far as know, in no language is it the rule that you "spell it as you pronounce it". Apparently, there are very many things in Telugu spelling that are not pronounced that way by all speakers. For instance there is apparently an aspiration difference in writing, which is not pronounced by some speakers. V. Sastry's 1987 SOAS dissertation mentions a number of regional and social variations, though the dissertation is not about the spelling system. From what I understand, spelling is fairly standard, and the spelling of duhkham "grief" does not change to dukkaw̃ when you pronounce the word that way.

The issues then would be whether there are letter distinctions that are not based on pronunciation (e.g. you have to know the etymology of a word), or (less likely) are there phonemic distinctions that are just ignored (e.g. tone in virtually all tone languages; vowel length in many languages; anything that doesn't conveniently translate to letters of the dominant alphabet, such as breathy voicing).

  • झ is at least a legit distinct phoneme in Prakrit (as well as in most New Indo-Aryan languages).
    – Aryaman
    Jan 3, 2018 at 20:02

I wanted to write this as a comment, but it was too long. Anyway, I don't speak Telugu, I speak Kannada. While I can't tell you about the differences between what's indicated in the script and what's actually spoken in Telugu, I can tell you about that in Kannada. This might help you come up with analogous examples for Telugu.

(1) Regional dialects may demonstrate their own peculiar deviations. While ಎಲೆ ("leaf") indicates /ele/, and that's mostly how it's pronounced in most dialects, in the northern dialects it is pronounced /eli/.

(2) Contemporary informal registers tend to omit sounds indicated by the script. While news readers or literary scholars might enunciate all the sounds of "ಮಾಡುತ್ತಾರೆ" ("will do", 3rd person plural) and pronounce it /maaDuttaare/ most native speakers would read it as /maaDtare/ or /maaDtaare/.

  • Yea regional dialects differ in Telugu too
    – AnkithD
    Dec 4, 2017 at 8:30

I cannot say Telugu is 100% phonetic, but close to.

A deviation I can think of is, there are a couple of letters e.g., ర, ఱ in classical scripts, which are pronounced with same sound, but scripted differently in classical literature. Examples: కురుచ, చిఱుత, చేరువ, చెఱువు. Interestingly, no composite letter exists with ఱ except itself like in గుఱ్ఱము. It is being scripted as గుర్రము in modern print media to reduce the number of letters.

In the classical scripts, there used to be a letter between చ, ఛ to denote చాప (meaning mat) which is different from చాపము (bow). Similarly between జ, ఝ, to make Telugu more phonetic than its mother language Sanskrit.

Unfortunately, the letter ఋ in ఋణము is also seeing its demise along with its immediate three sisters (ruu, lu, luu) in modern scripts (even classical literature is being changed), thus making Telugu less phonetic.


I am a Kannada speaker not Telugu (I can speak no Telugu at all), but due to historic sociolinguistic relations between the two languages, I think I can answer this fairly well.

If you are asking do Telugu letters represent the sounds to be uttered accurately such that there is not inconsistencies as with English spelling, then yes. The consonants always retain their sounds. Unlike Tamil, 'pa' and 'ba' don't use the same letter which are uttered differently based on the context.

If you are asking do Telugu speakers utter the intended sounds when they look at a letter, then no.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, as with Kannada, some sounds, and, consequently, their corresponding letters were discarded centuries back. So people don't know how to utter the sounds and use the nearest ones if the letters are used. In Kannada such letters appear only in studying older forms of the language. I guess that's where they occur in Telugu as well. Secondly, the script is an adaptation and extension of script intended for Sanskrit and its derivatives. It is unreasonable to expect an average Telugu speaker to mimic Sanskrit specific sounds such as r in rishi which is different from r in rama, for instance. The same applies to mahapranas. Thirdly, due to colloquialism, some vowels are uttered in 'non standard' way. The one my Kannada ear picks up is the sound for long 'e', the one represented by 'a' in 'gate'. Many people utter it as if it were 'a' from 'gap'. I specifically hear this when some say the word 'lekapote'. Lastly, if you consider the usage of 'f' and 'z' sounds, which are foreign, you tilt more towards 'no'.


In Telugu language there is no a sound as in bag,cat,rat etc. Telugu words like chesaanu, chusaanu,thippaanu where the pronunciation is different to what we write. చేశాను,చూశాను,

  • Hi Ragnar, and welcome to the site! I'm not sure this really answers the question; could you edit it to address the original asker's points directly?
    – Draconis
    Feb 29 at 21:05

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