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Italian is commonly cited as an example of a phonetically spelled language. It is easy to guess how an Italian word is pronounced based on the way it is written, because each written symbol highly corresponds to a sound (with some exceptions). This is not the case with English and French, for example. Series of sound changes (for example, the Great Vowel Shift) caused changes in pronunciations and the written form didn't catch up.

Why didn't the same thing happen to Italian? It is an old language, and the Latin alphabet has been used since before the language existed. Did sound changes not happen? Or did they happen but the written form caught up? Or are the changes so systematic that the letter-sound correspondence still holds?

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    That's not true about French, or so I've been told. French is mostly phonetically spelled but has much more complicated rules for its spelling than say Italian or Spanish or German. For me French spelling is difficult but I'm told for literate native speakers it's straightforward to spell an unknown word from its sound or pronounce a word from its spelling. – hippietrail Oct 1 '11 at 20:59
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    It depends what you mean by phonetic. Sound changes without spelling changes don't necessarily make the consistency any less. A vowel change doesn't introduce inconsistency if there is no conflation. The inconsistencies arise in two cases: 1) conflation of two sounds; 2) lexical differences – James Tauber Oct 1 '11 at 21:15
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    @LaurenG If he says "Italian" he can't be referring to dialects that have a different name. So there's no confusion. :) – Alenanno Oct 2 '11 at 9:16
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    Spanish is not "perfectly" phonetic. I'm an average second language speaker at best and I see spelling mistakes in less educated Spanish speaking regions all the time. "y" and "ll" can be switched. "b" and "v" can be switched, which is a bit odd. "c", "s", and "z" get mixed up. "h" is sometimes dropped or added where it's not needed. And I guess it's worse in places that drop "s" and other sounds frequently. – hippietrail Aug 19 '13 at 9:23
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    @JoePineda While less irregular than English, French is far from being perfectly deterministic. There is for example no rule that help to figure out how to pronounce "ville" and "quille", "fils" (wires) and "fils" (sons), "outil" and "péril", "gageure" and "majeure", "charisme" and "charette", "magnat" and "magnétique", "paris" and "iris", "dix", "phoenix" and "perdrix", "femme" and "gemme", "monsieur" and "monseigneur", "faisant" and "taisant", "oignon" and "moignon", "août" and "raout","croc" and "troc", not to mention the convoluted rules about mandatory, optional and forbidden liaisons. – jlliagre Sep 8 '15 at 20:18
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Italian was adopted as an everyday written language long after French and English were. In medieval central Italy, literacy meant the ability to read and write Latin (and perhaps Greek if one was really learned)—that is, until influential writers like Dante and Petrarca wrote in a somewhat artificial version of il dialetto fiorentino and made it prestigious. Use of this vernacular was further bolstered by the regional political influence that Tuscany enjoyed from the early Renaissance on, but it wasn't (at least not in the modern sense) a national language until 1861. By then the written form of the language was fairly stable. I think there was a final orthographic reform in the early 20th century.

In fact, modern Italian spelling isn't all that "phonetic" when it comes to avoiding ambiguity. In many words it fails to note tonic stress or to disambiguate certain letters, such as: open and closed o and e, voiced and voiceless s and z (including zz), the combination gli, which normally represents a palatal lateral but in a few cases is [gli], the digraph gn, which is usually a palatal nasal, but very occasionally is [gn], and semi-consonantal and vocalic i and u. While figuring out the written form of an unfamiliar spoken French word can be difficult, the spelling is normally consistent enough (much more so than in English) to enable correct pronunciation of an unfamiliar written word.

Furthermore, French and Italian are at opposite ends of the Romance Family when it comes to diachronic change or innovation. Old French developed a relatively fixed orthography early on. At that point the writing closely reflected actual pronunciation, but with rapid expansion and the increasing urbanization of its speakers Old French soon underwent radical pronunciation and syntactic changes (morphing into Middle French) while the writing remained fairly static. Florentine-based Tuscan, on the other hand, is remarkable for its phonological and morphological conservatism, only central Sardinian dialects being closer to Latin in these respects. Native vocabulary hasn't undergone any appreciable phonetic or morphological changes up to the present day, so the spelling, which became fixed relatively late, has remained much closer to spoken Italian than has written French to spoken French. In theory spoken Tuscan could have changed radically soon after the written language became common, as happened with French, but during that period Tuscan didn't become the popular language of a vast state or kingdom—the kind of situation that encourages rapid linguistic change. When it finally became an official national language in the latter part of the 19th century it was imposed on the population as a language of bureaucracy and remained such until extremely recently. Modern Italian is no longer pure Tuscan but is increasingly mixed with Southern dialects and is in the process of absorbing a huge amount of foreign vocabulary for which it lacks native equivalents. These foreign words—more often than not from English—create an ever-increasing number of "non-phonetic" spellings.

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Some of the difficulty of spelling in English arrises from the fact that we borrowed so many words from other languages (often changing their pronunciation to fit English phonological explanations but keeping their spelling to preserve their etymology) and because our highly populated vowel system appears to be far less stable than the 5-vowel systems we see in other languages. This probably accounts for much of the belief that many people have that languages like Italian and Spanish are "more phonetic" than English.

Also: English originiated as an amalgamation of several germanic languages before borrowing so heavily from other languages. Yet, it was written down using the Roman alphabet. So, even before all the historical changes, English writing was probably not "as phonetic" as languages which are more like Italian.

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    Also Italian has borrowed many words from other languages, and still it remains more "phonetic" (if we can use this expression) than English. I don't think that's the reason. – Alenanno Oct 6 '11 at 21:07
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    Yes that's part of the origin of the difficulty, but also numerous phonological changes, so that we have preserved a writing system that suited the language 500 years ago. As more phonological changes accrue but we retain the old writing system it's going to become more problematic. The Roman alphabet has been adapted to many languages that are far less like Romance languages than English, and yet has provided very shallow, phonemic orthographies that are very easy for native speakers to learn. – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 20 '11 at 22:51
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    This answer is interesting and informative about English spelling, and that's no joke. But what about Italian spelling? Why is it so phonemic compared to English spelling? – James Grossmann Jul 14 '12 at 20:50
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    @JamesGrossmann: One reason is that English is the oddity, not the most common case. Across all the literary languages in the world only English is this non-phonetic. Apparently even Tibetan and Korean are much more phonetic than English and spelling in those languages can be tricky for language learners. – hippietrail Aug 19 '13 at 9:28
  • Good point; that English has a insular history where the language (and speakers) changed radically over time. – Joop Eggen Aug 19 '13 at 14:12

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