What a Beautiful Language #2: Variations in Spelling and Pronunciation (Oddities and Inconsistencies)

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The English language has its fair share of quirks, arising mainly from the fact that English borrows so many of its words from other languages, leading to inconsistencies and oddities in spelling and pronunciation that, for a non-native speaker, might be difficult to comprehend. .English, then, being the linguistic equivalent of a sponge, has a myriad of rules that don’t actually apply all that often – anyone who encountered “‘i’ before ‘e’, except after ‘c'” at school will be able to attest to that! There are so many exceptions that such grammatical strategies become largely redundant.

So, why am I celebrating this? The reason I think diversity in our language is such a good thing is because it shows that despite so-called English superiority – before, during, and after the colonial Empire – the language has found a way to fight back. There are linguistic records that cannot be purged; evidence that the speakers of English are so diverse, and their use of the language is so creative and adaptive, that it belongs to all of us. The English language becomes a sort of tapestry, then – weaved of words and history, trends and variations. To me, that is a truly beautiful thing.

One of the most amusing things about our language is the way is which we must try and decide which spelling is ‘right’. For instance, the playwright George Bernard Shaw once pointed out that the word ‘FISH’ could arguably be spelt ‘GHOTI’, because…:

In the words ‘tough’ and ‘rough’, ‘the ‘GH’ is pronounced ‘F’

In words such as ‘women’, the ‘O’ is actually pronounced as an ‘I’

In the word ‘nation’, ‘TI’ is alternatively pronounced as ‘SH’

Therefore, arguably, GH + O + TI = FISH!

For Shaw, this was a source of endless frustration – when he died in the 1960s, he even left the monetary contents of his will to a fund intended to establish the Shavian alphabet, but it never really took off – but for me, it is a source of joy and amusement.

Take another example: potato. A plain, old word… right? Wrong. Arguably, you could break this word down in the same manner as above, and result in the spelling ‘GHOUGHPHTHEIGHTTEEAU’! Allow me to explain exactly how…:

In the word ‘hiccough’, the ‘GH’ is pronounced as a ‘P’

In words like ‘dough’, the ‘OUGH’ is actually pronounced ‘O’

In the word ‘phthisis’, the ‘PHTH’ is pronounced simply as ‘T’

In the words ‘eight’ and ‘neighbour’ , the ‘EIGH’  sound is pronounced ‘A’

In the word ‘gazette’, ‘TTE’ is actually pronounced just as  a simple ‘T’

In words such as ‘plateau’, the ‘EAU’ sound as pronounced as ‘O’

Therefore, arguably, GH + OUGH + PHTH + EIGH + TTE + EAU = POTATO!

Now, I’m not saying we should implement these sorts of spellings, but they do emphasise just how varied our language has become. For instance, in the above example alone, we have a variety of inherited words – ‘plateau’ is from Old French, whereas ‘gazette’ is Italian. ‘Eight’ and ‘dough’ both originate from old Germanic, whereas ‘neighbour’ is an adapted old English word (‘nēahgebūr’, from nēah ‘nigh, near’ + gebūr ‘inhabitant, peasant, farmer’).

In some English words, there are no primary vowels at all (the ‘primary’ vowels being a ,e, i, o and u) – like ‘rhythm’, ‘sky’, ‘hymn’ and ‘why’ – and others without consonants – ‘euouae’ and ‘iouea’! That, combined with the fact that vowels and vowel pairings can represent a variety of vocal sounds, makes pronunciation a funny thing when it comes to English. Many, like Shaw, have argued that spellings should be standardised, and should better represent the physical sounds of speech. There are even people who solely use the ‘phonetic transcription’ method of spelling – i.e. spelling words the same way they are said by combining phonemes – although this is not recognised as ‘standard’ form of English for everyday use. Thus:

‘PUSH’ would be denoted as ‘/pʊʃ/’

‘PRESSURE’ becomes ‘/preʃə/’

‘PLEASURE’ translates into ‘/pleʒə/’

Although this system seeks to create a universal system and certainly has its uses, arguably there is a far simpler alternative emerging naturally from our technology-based culture. By this, I am referring to the use of ‘text-speak’ – the abbreviations and acronyms being used by the younger generation of Internet and mobile phones. Though, as a language lover, there is a part of me that wants to scream ‘NOOOOOOOOOO!‘ every time I see someone type ‘LOL’ instead of actually laughing, or use ‘I LUV U’ or ‘I ❤ U’ as an expression of endearment, I have to admit that this language is very efficient. It has had to be, really – the limitations of SMS messages initially, and Twitter ‘tweets’ more recently, meant that communications were limited to 160 characters.

The combination of letters with numbers, in particular, serves as an effective way to denote vocal sounds. This even works for several words at a time. For instance:

‘LATER’ can be shortened to ‘L8R’

‘TODAY’ can shrink down to ‘2DAY’

Similarly, ‘TONIGHT’ can be shortened to ‘2NITE’

‘TO YOU’ can be abbreviated to ‘2 U’

‘Ex-boyfriend’ or ‘ex-girlfriend’ are reduced to ‘X-BF’ , ‘X-GF’, or even more simply, the ‘X’

Vowels can be eradicated completely from words, and yet they still make sense – ‘TLK’ means ‘talk’, ‘WK’ means ‘week’, an so on. It’s like taking the flagstones out of an archway, and finding it still standing – I can’t quite get used to it, and yet it’s something of a marvel. However, I have to confess that this style reminds me eerily of Newspeak (from George Orwell’s novel, 1984 – something I discuss in more detail here). I worry that we might lose some of our diversity; that words will gather dust and be forgotten, and in such a digital age, will anyone bother to try and revive them?

I hope so, Readers. I hope so…

Do you have any examples of funny spellings or variations of pronunciation you’d like to share? If so, leave a comment below.

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16 thoughts on “What a Beautiful Language #2: Variations in Spelling and Pronunciation (Oddities and Inconsistencies)

  1. My Corner of the Library

    This is a brilliant article! Thanks for the great info. This is exactly why I love the English language and the linguistics of learning language. It is truly amazing to look back at the English language and its cultural past!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A fine, wide-ranging post, to which I’d only add a couple of points.

    When I did a TEFL certificate we had to get to grips with the phonetic alphabet, though my memory of it has several gaps now. The main problem with this useful tool is regional pronunciation, for example the ‘u’ in ‘push’ or ‘put’ is short for those from Cumbria, and the city of Bath in RP just sounds too affected if you’re from north of Birmingham.

    The second point is that the formation of textspeak (TXTSPK as I suppose I should write it) is similar to Middle East languages like Arabic or Hebrew in the omission of most vowels — which can lead, as I understand it, to ambiguities, which further leads to poetry and puns (the positive aspect) or insults (the negative). Textspeak can be similarly ambiguous, witness David Cameron’s assumption (and mine, initially!) that LOL is ‘lots of love’ rather than ‘laughing out loud’ or similar. Luckily it’s possible to avoid any faux pas by using the same media that gave rise to textspeak in the first place.

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    • Both very good points – the problem with ‘text speak’ is that it’s becoming so widespread that the people now using it don’t often understand the rules. I overheard a mother on the bus call her son a ‘n00b’ – when he challenged her on what it meant, she thought it was a mild insult (like, perhaps, calling him a boob). He laughed solidly for the remainder of the journey!

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  3. When I learned English in school in the 1970s, I was amused by the following unpredictable set of “ough” pronunciations: tough — though — through. When my knowledge of German had reached a sufficiently advanced level, I saw the etymological connections to: Tucht — doch — durch. Suddenly the English spellings made more sense.

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  4. “I worry that we might lose some of our diversity; that words will gather dust and be forgotten, and in such a digital age, will anyone bother to try and revive them?”

    I think that the internet can allow for diversity of words and spellings – for example, I often see people online writing in the Scots they speak, with words and spellings they could never use in their standardised schools or workplaces.

    Tom Leonard’s poetry is an interesting accompaniment to this post. I hope to write soon on Leonard and voice. I wonder on which dialect or accent new ‘phonetic’ spellings of English would be modelled…

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    • That’s actually a very good point. Leonard identifies a clearly Scottish voice in poems like the Six O’clock News, but it’s hard to imagine an all-encompassing English equivalent…

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  5. Good day from the other side of the pond. Thank you for following my blog. I see we both selected the same WordPress design. Having been in the “writing biz” for nearly 50 years (no that is neither my bones nor a rocking chair creaking; most likely some crickets in your fields), I am at the opposite side of the spectrum from you. I look forward to your journey as a writer. In fact, I think I will use your excellent excursion in English etymology as a topic for an upcoming blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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