Words that Are Not Pronounced How They Are Spelled
Is English a phonetic language? Longtime ESL teacher and founder of EnglishClub.com Josef Essberger firmly says no. But the psychologist Gertrude Hildreth, who developed the Metropolitan Readiness Tests, stated that “English is a phonetic language…” It seems the experts don’t agree. On one hand, there are classes that teach English phonetics, so it must be a phonetic language. On the other hand, with so many words not pronounced the way they’re spelled, it can’t be!
First, what does the term “phonetic language” mean? Consider Spanish, a highly phonetic language. The letters in its alphabet consistently correspond to the same sounds and form reliable patterns of pronunciation. If you know the rules, you can spell any word you hear. The relationship between spelling and pronunciation is strong.
The above quote from Gertrude Hildreth originally appeared in a 1957 article titled “Some Misconceptions Concerning Phonics.” The full sentence reads: “English is a phonetic language, even though it’s inconsistent to a considerable degree.” Its inconsistencies can be confusing, but amusing too! English language learners have bemoaned its idiosyncrasies for decades. In his poem “The Chaos,” Dutchman Gerard Nolst Trenité penned the following advice to those attempting to master English phonetics:
Finally, which rhymes with enough—
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!
In one apocryphal story, a child took an immediate dislike to a new student because of her “odd” behavior. The new girl had a habit of staring at others. Later, the child felt ashamed when she learned the student was deaf. The staring had an explanation; the young girl was only trying to read lips. Rather than abandon the language completely, as Trenité suggested, let’s examine some of the English words with intriguing pronunciation. If you understand them better, you may discover that they’re not always as illogical as they seem.