Not all languages have the same degree of correspondence between the spoken and the written form.

Saying correspondence, I'm referring to the equivalence between what we write in a certain language and the way we read it.

It seems that one of those (very few) languages that have this perfect equivalence is Serbian, although I don't know Serbian that much, therefore I can't really make explanatory examples on it.

But while Serbian, and similar Slavic languages, have a different symbol for the /tʃ/ and the /k/ sound, in Italian the letter C has 2 different sounds according to what vowel follows it.

When A, O or U are present, we have a /k/ sound, while with E and I, a /tʃ/ sound:

  1. Casa — /k/ (house)
  2. Cena — /tʃ/ (dinner)
  3. Cibo — /tʃ/ (food)
  4. Cosa — /k/ (thing)
  5. Cura — /k/ (cure)

Some languages have less equivalence, like English where the reading rules make the spoken form different from the written one, or French, considering the final letters don't get usually pronounced. Others have more, like Spanish or Italian, even though they still have exceptions like I showed above, of course.

  • By the way, I'm not sure about the tags. As soon as I finished writing it I realized there weren't really fitting tags. Feel free to retag if you know better tags.
    – Alenanno
    Oct 1, 2011 at 17:12
  • Yeah I did some retagging of the question even before your comment and it still ain't perfect so my feelings won't be hurt if some more retagging occurs (-: Oct 1, 2011 at 17:51
  • You could also consider the two directions independently: To what extent can we pronounce a word correctly from it's spelling vs To what extend can we spell a word correctly from it's pronunciation. The two do not always correlated. I can do a fair job of pronouncing written Korean but I can't spell very well because in final position many consonants result in the same sound. Oct 2, 2011 at 9:45
  • @hippietrail Yes. The same difficulties arise when writing something someone said in French/English that you don't know yet. But if someone says something in Italian, it'll be easier to "know" how it's spelled.
    – Alenanno
    Oct 2, 2011 at 10:06
  • Well in English it goes both ways but in French if you know the language it is supposed to go more like Italian. Spanish is close to Italian but depending on the variety "ll" and "y" may sound alike, "c", "s", and "z" may sound alike, and "h" being silent is sometimes inserted where it doesn't belong or omitted where it does. Also literate native speakers often feel their language is more phonetic than it really is, just like we seem not to be convincing you that French is pretty phonetic. Oct 2, 2011 at 10:10

3 Answers 3


The usual term for this in linguistics is 'orthographic depth', which refers to the degree to which the writing system of the language shows a straightforward correspondence with the sound system. There are numerous articles on orthographic depth on the web, and a fair discussion on Wikipedia.

And yes, linguists are unhappy to describe these as 'phonetically spelled' languages (feel free to look up 'phonetics' on Wikipedia if you want to know why).

Some languages which have a shallow orthography (i.e. are close to having a one-to-one correspondence between written symbols and phonemes) are Finnish and Spanish. While languages with a deep orthography (i.e. poor correspondence between written symbols and phonemes) are French and English.

  • 3
    And when the graphemes and phonemes approach a one-to-one correspondence, as in a shallow orthography, it's considered to be a 'phonemic orthography'. This term seems to be generally accepted by linguists (as opposed to 'phonetic'). Oct 5, 2011 at 6:39
  • just FYI: Most Indian languages have considerably shallow orthography.
    – nb1
    Feb 6, 2012 at 9:52

There is a non-technical term for this, which jars my linguistics ears, but I believe there is no other technical or linguistics term for it.


Here are some randomly Googled examples from the net:

  • Romanian is a phonetic language so a person can look at a word and know how it is pronounced
  • Everyone knows that English is riddled with horribly inconsistent spelling. Most other languages have a phonetic spelling system ...
  • Chinese and Japanese, of course, could be called the least phonetic languages on earth ...
  • Some languages are "phonetic". That means you can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it.
  • What are the most and least phonetic languages in the world?
  • So what about phoneticism?
    – Alenanno
    Oct 1, 2011 at 17:53
  • Well "phoneticism" does get a fitting definition on thefreedictionary.com but I doubt it's used within linguistics either. Please tell me if it is though! Oct 1, 2011 at 18:10
  • 1
    It would have to be "phonetically spelled language." All languages are phonetic, in the sense that they have a phonetic system.
    – Aaron
    Oct 2, 2011 at 1:21
  • @Aaron: Hence the jarring and doubt linguists would use it, but hey I'm just being descriptivist (-; Oct 2, 2011 at 7:07
  • 1
    "Phonetic" does seem to be the layman's term for it, but then we need to come up with some way of distinguishing orthographies that are basically a match for the phonemes of the language versus ones that show allophonic variation as well.
    – Joe
    Oct 3, 2011 at 23:05

There are actually two different types of correspondence that are at issue, and both are "phonetic", though in different ways. Gaston is correct that 'orthographic depth' is the variable that distinguishes (say) Finnish from French. But orthographies can be deep in either direction.

Anyone who can pronounce French can learn to read French aloud (whether they understand it or not) without much difficulty, once they learn the spelling conventions. But without knowing a great deal more, they wouldn't be able to know how to spell a word they'd heard aloud; I remember once trying to figure out all the different ways French might have spelled cendrier. French orthography is shallow for reading (input depth), but deep for spelling (output depth).

This is not true of English orthography, which is deep on both input and output. A strange written word may have an unpredictable or inconsistent pronunciation (bedraggled, bedridden; cough, rough, through). And a strange spoken word might be spelled in any number of ways.

This is yet another reason why linguists do not like to talk about "phonetic writing systems". All alphabetic writing systems are phonetic in some sense. But there are a lot of senses, and a lot of kinds of senses.

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