Languages like Japanese have different pronunciations for each character (in the kanji system in this case) , a kanji character can have up to 20 different pronunciations depending on the the word it is in. Is there or was there any language where each character is pronounced differently depending on the word it's in?

  • 3
    Do you something like English where there is a poor mapping of characters to pronunciation, mostly rule based but lots of exceptions ? Does every character have to have multiple pronunciations? 'k' is always 'k'. but 'c' can be like k' or 's' or part of 'ch'. 'p' can be the usual or part of 'ph' or silent (and most others have at least one other pronunciation). I feel like each of the vowels cover many vowel sounds.
    – Mitch
    Dec 27 '18 at 20:29
  • 3
    Isn't Kanji the same, meaning you don't know which of a handful of pronunciations before learning, but there are actual clues sometimes in some characters (ell, that is the case for those characters in Chinese, I don't know for Japanese).
    – Mitch
    Dec 27 '18 at 20:42
  • 4
    But to your point, spelling systems while not always designed codes ab initio, attempt to be so, and such a coding scheme where every character_ has multiple mappings not determinable by context would have very poor learnability and very poor utility.
    – Mitch
    Dec 27 '18 at 20:44
  • 2
    @Pablo I think part of the problem is that you're asking this question from the perspective that "In English you can guess more or less the pronunciation for each word you don't know", but in my experience this is actually not at all true, certainly not significantly more true than it is that you can generally guess what every kanji reads like from context. That is to say, I think a lot of people are trying to say that your intuition is trained by your familiarity with English to think about these things as more distinctly different than they really are.
    – mtraceur
    Dec 28 '18 at 22:31
  • 2
    This question is way too broad. Why isn't it on hold? I doubt OP's hypothesis is true for all Kanji. And even for the signs with many readings, they often have a primary sense and reading, where the others have to be gleamed from context. Switching context is not unlike code switching, which is not unlike switching language. Hence, it shouldn't be surprising that characters like "+" may have different readings even in English alone (cross, plus, and). It's also pretty much out of the question whether logographic writing was invented and formalized independently multiple times.
    – vectory
    Dec 29 '18 at 3:17

It is unlikely that in some language's writing system, each and every character is pronounced differently depending on the word it's in. For that to be true, it would mean that every character has at least two pronunciations. The implication of "what word it is in" is that what determines the pronunciation is the word, and not the general context (for instance, the Devanagari letter त is pronounced differently when it is combined with the letter ि). Kanji may have multiple readings, for example 明 can be myō or mei. Chinese also has multiple readings for a character. But not all characters are like that.

A candidate for such writing is the Phoenician alphabet, which (originally) only marked consonants, though of course the language did have vowels. So "𐤋" could represent [la, li, lu, l] and you would just have to know what the word is. But this is quite different from the situation with readings for Chinese characters. Still, it might be the kind of thing you are looking for.


There is, as a matter of fact!

Cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") was a writing system originally developed for the Sumerian language, then adapted for Akkadian, Hittite, and many other languages. But the adaptation process was not particularly consistent. Take this Sumerian glyph for example:

DIŊIR glyph

It originally meant the words an, "heaven", or An, "An, the god of the sky". But through synecdoche it could also mean diŋir, "deity". And when cuneiform started being used for sounds instead of words, it also meant the syllable /an/.

Then the Akkadians started using the writing system. In Akkadian, this sign was used for the words il ("god"), or šamû ("heaven"), taken straightforwardly from the Sumerian meanings. But, it could still be used for the syllable /an/ from Sumerian, and now for the syllable /il/ from Akkadian!

In fact, some signs, including this one ("DIŊIR", written in capitals to indicate the sign as opposed to any particular interpretation) could also be used as determiners, and not pronounced at all! When written before a name, this sign indicates that it's the name of a deity. This is mostly used for clarifying the huge mess of homophones created by this system.

  • 1
    Are you claiming that all Sumerian hieroglyph characters have multiple pronunciations, or that some/most do?
    – user6726
    Dec 28 '18 at 5:54
  • 1
    @user6726 In Akkadian and Hittite, all the ones I've seen have multiple readings: at a minimum, they can be read as either native words/sounds, or Sumerian words/sounds.
    – Draconis
    Dec 28 '18 at 6:24
  • @user6726: Well, there are some cuneiform signs (not hieroglyphs; that word has a reasonably well defined meaning, and cuneiform doesn't fit it) which only have one known reading, even considering all the languages cuneiform was used to write. For example, some particularly elaborate combination signs like dalhamun₄ are AFAIK only attested from a single source (in this case, a list of divine epithets) that gives them a single reading. Some archaic signs that fell out of use or merged with other signs early on might also qualify. Dec 28 '18 at 17:42
  • ... Then again, especially in the earliest sources there are also quite a few signs that we simply know no pronunciation for, even if we might sometimes be able to guess from context (or from the signs they're composed of, in case of combination signs) what they probably mean. In some cases it's not even clear if a particular combination of wedges actually was a distinct sign, or just a variant or miswritten form of another similar sign. The bottom line is that, while we know a lot about cuneiform writing nowadays, there's also a lot that we still don't know, and may never know. Dec 28 '18 at 17:47
  • 1
    +1, Akkadian also came to my mind. You may also want to include signs like ah/eh/ih/uh or qá/ga or ib/ip which can express a range of similar sounds and are disambiguated by nearby signs (e.g. id/it - ti = itti) or larger context (e.g. qá/ga - tu - um = qātum).
    – Keelan
    Dec 30 '18 at 8:52

It is the case in French. Such a differentiation is due to two distinct phenomena: assimilation & polyphonic letters.

An example of assimilations in French:

shop is transcribed in French "magasin" and is pronounced [maɡazɛ̃], but the word "oursin" is pronounced [uʁsɛ̃]. So the letter s can be pronounced [s] or [z].

An example of polyphonic letters in French:

The word "garage", meaning garage, is pronounced [gaʀaʒ]. This example shows that the letter g corresponds to two sounds [g] and [ʒ].

That can be generalised to other languages with old written traditions as English, Spanish and so on.

Let us add, ideograms (such the Kanji) are not an alphabetic writing system. Then, there is not relation between the characters and the signifier, instead the symbols are tied to the signified.

  • 2
    While absolutely correct, does this apply to every character in French? For example, is q ever anything other than /k/?
    – Draconis
    Dec 27 '18 at 23:31
  • 2
    In French, /k/ is transcribed by the bigraph "qu" and rarely only by the character "q". This bigraph has also other pronounciations as [kw]. Every character, I don't know, I don't have such an information. But, I would say, from my experience, that most of the letters have several pronounciations.
    – amegnunsen
    Dec 28 '18 at 0:23
  • In garage it's not just the g that carries the /ʒ/ sound, but at least the ge.
    – vectory
    Dec 29 '18 at 2:47
  • @vectory the word "girafe" is pronounced [ʒiʁaf]. Generally, the letter g corresponds to [ʒ], without being combined with e, and the the digrah gu carries the sound [g].
    – amegnunsen
    Dec 29 '18 at 8:21
  • That's disingenuous. The e in garage is silent and its part of a digraph. I suppose there is not a single instance of a word ending on plain -g, because that tends to be -c. I might be wrong though.
    – vectory
    Dec 29 '18 at 13:55

You're asking about a writing system, which is artificial. Even though language is learnt, it is considered natural. Language has meanings, and spoken language uses sounds to communicate those meanings. Written language converts the meanings to marks. One writing system may be used for multiple languages (Latin variants, Cyrillic, Devanagari, etc.), and one language may have multiple writing systems (Sindhi is written in Arabic, Devanagari, and Gujarati, as well as other historical scripts).

Your question is not so much about language, but a combination of language and writing. Language does not naturally have characters, but writing systems do. English is probably a good candidate language for its writing system. All "characters" and digraphs have at least two different pronunciations, although some may be viewed as being foreign, and not (yet) naturalised. As time goes on, this number could increase. English has been written for a long time and has had no spelling reforms, only standardisation. If we reformed English spelling, only people familiar with the old spelling would be able to read current English unchanged.

  • a - various: /æ/ cat, /ɑ/ father, /ə/ apply
  • b - /b/: bee, baby; silent: lamb, plumber, climb
  • c - /k/: cat, coffee; /s/: city, cyan; (both in one word: success); silent: muscle; /ʃ/: liquorice
  • ch - /t͡ʃ/: child; /ʃ/: cache; /x/: loch; /k/: school
  • d - /d/: dog; /t/: jumped; /ɾ/: paddle
  • e - various
  • f - /f/: fish; /v/: of
  • g - /ɡ/: gate; /d͡ʒ/: age; silent: gnome
  • gh - /ɡ/: ghost; /f/: rough; silent: through
  • h - /h/: hat; silent: hour
  • i - various
  • j - /d͡ʒ/: jet; /i/: fjord; /j/: Jugoslavia; /h/: Julio; /xw/: Juan
  • k - /k/: kite; silent: knight
  • l - /l/: lamp; /ɫ/ felt; silent: palm, walk; /j/: guillotine
  • m - /m/: man; silent: mnemonic
  • n - /n/: nose; silent: autumn
  • o - various
  • p - /p/: pet; silent: psalm
  • ph - /f/: phone; /p/: diphthong, Phuket
  • qu - /kw/: queen; /k/: plaque
  • q - /k/: burqa; /t͡ʃ/: qi
  • r - /ɹ/: red; silent: nurse
  • s - /s/: stop; /z/: dogs; /ʃ/: sure; /ʒ/: unusual
  • sh - /ʃ/: shop; /s.h/: mishap
  • t - /t/: tap; /ɾ/: butter; /ʃ/: motion
  • th - /θ/: thing; /ð/: this; /t/: Thames, Thailand
  • u - various
  • v - /v/: vain; /f/: Tchaikovsky
  • w - /w/: wet; silent: write, sword, two
  • wh - /w/: what; /h/: who
  • x - /ks/: excel; /gz/: exit; silent: faux
  • y - /j/: yellow; /i/: city
  • z - /z/: zoo; silent: rendezvous

Some of these sound differences could be described as nuances, some seem quite different. It depends how different "different" is. Most letters have a primary sound, and a lifetime of exposure means an English speaker can correctly guess the pronunciation of unfamiliar words with a plethora of rules that are applied subconsciously.

For example, "b" is usually silent after "m". "c" is usually pronounced /s/ before the vowels "e", "i", and "y". "d" and "t" may be pronounced as /ɾ/ in quick speech (as opposed to careful speech), but is that different enough, or do you consider that sound to be an allophone of /d/ and /t/? As an example, Sinhala has a letter "ව" that supposedly represents the sound /ʋ/. However, native speakers pronounce it as either [v] or [w] depending on the word, and consider both sounds to be the same, even though they can be different in other languages, such as English.

A writing system where every word had to be learnt independently, would take a long time to learn. There would need to be a lot of pressure from some source to prevent it from simplifying or being replaced. It is said that Vietnamese writing is now a lot easier to learn now that the writing system is based on Latin letters instead of Chinese characters.

Since you've said in a comment that your motivation for asking is wanting to write a story, perhaps you should check out Worldbuilding.

  • 1
    Careful, I don't think that there is any way you could argue that [ɾ] isn't an allophone of /d : t/. As you said that /t : d/ may be pronounced as [ɾ]. That is pretty much the definition of an allophone – and the similarity in pronunciation can easily be proven because they are homorganous consonants and [ɾ] doesn't resemble other consonants as closely. I also don't agree about the /r/ in nurse being silent (do you mean in RP etc?). Some of the irregular pronunciations are not universal. Could you explain your reasoning? :) Dec 29 '18 at 11:35
  • 1
    "v - always /v/: vain" Well, it's a weak argument, but there may still be some loan words like verboten /ˌfə(ɹ)ˈboʊ.tən/ (varying in pronunciation). Dec 29 '18 at 11:38
  • 1
    @tobiornottobi Also von, Tchaikovsky. But in the older English spellings, until recent centuries, v was used like u at the beginning of a word, so there were spellings like vpon. So the answer could just be changed to Early Modern English. There are also words like rooves and roofs where both pronunciations occur, and probably there are speakers who pronounce it one way and write it the other, or read it one way regardless of the spelling. Jan 6 '19 at 17:19
  • 1
    And a silent v: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leveson-Gower_family Jan 6 '19 at 17:26
  • 1
    The only example I could think of originally for "v" was "nuclear wessels".
    – CJ Dennis
    Jan 7 '19 at 3:21

I bring you: "The strange case of Mexican 'x'".

Letter 'X' in Mexican Spanish has four different sounds, and it takes some time for a non-native speaker to learn the nuances... Mostly, it's a matter of knowing the right pronunciation for each word.

  • X can sound as you expect, /ks/ in words like "excluir" (exclude) or "extraño" (strange).
  • Things start to be interesting when you pronounce "Mexico" in Spanish: you need to say /Méjico/ (say /Méksico/ and you may as well wear a T-Shirt saying "I'm a foreigner"). Same goes for "Oaxaca" and "Mexicali".
  • It starts to get weird when you say "Xochimilco" (a borough in Mexico City): the "X" here has the sound /s/.
  • And finally, if you say "Xola" (a metro station and a neighborhood in Mexico City), the "X" must sound /sh/ (don't say /sola/, which is the female form of "alone").

Hope this is an example of what you're looking for.


I am Mexican. I live in Mexico City. I know what I'm talking about.

  • 1
    Isn't xochimilco also pronounced with /sh/? It's from Aztec right?
    – OmarL
    Dec 28 '18 at 20:28
  • @Wilson it comes from Nahuatl, indeed. Its pronunciation is [sotʃiˈmilko] (/sochimilco/). See here.
    – Barranka
    Dec 28 '18 at 20:33
  • @Barranka Wiktionary mentions both /s/ and /ʃ/ for Spanish. And while Wiktionary is not the most secure source, the audio on Wikipedia does not reflect the long vowels of the transcription for Nahuatl [ʃoːtʃiˈmiːlko]. It might rather be a Spanish recording placed incorrectly. Jan 7 '19 at 19:53

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.