5/5/14

Preparing for the 'oposiciones': Spelling and pronunciation

Spelling and pronunciation

One of the most striking characteristics of English is the lack of correspondence between spelling and pronunciation. In ordinary orthography, the same letter can represent a variety of sounds, and different letters, alone or in combination, can represent the same sound. Take, for instance, the sequence ough, which can convey at least nine different sounds, as in dough, bough, lough, ought, cough, hiccough, rough, through and  thorough. Likewise, the graphemes e, ee, ea and ie can serve to represent one and the same phoneme in the words be, feel, pea and field. To highlight the absurdities of English spelling, the famous Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was reportedly fond of pointing out that fish might just as well be spelt ghoti. The rationale was very simple: gh as in tough, o as in women, and ti as in nation.
Among the major reasons for this inconsistency is that the English spelling system has remained relatively static since printing was introduced in 15th-century England, while pronunciation has changed a great deal since then. As a result, most English words carry, as it were, remnants of their original pronunciation in their spellings. Another reason is to be found in the plethora of loanwords that have entered English, and which have in turn carried with them unconventional phoneme combinations and exotic letter sequences. This state of affairs is perfectly illustrated by the following anonymous poem:

When the English tongue we speak,
Why is break not rhymed with freak?
Will you tell me why it's true
We say sew but likewise few?
And the maker of a verse
Cannot cap his horse with worse;
Beard sounds not the same as heard;
Cord is different from word;
Cow is cow but low is low;
Shoe is never rhymed with foe;
Think of hose and dose and lose;
And think of goose and not of choose;
Think of comb and tomb and bomb;
Doll and roll, home and some;
And since pay is rhymed with say,
Why not paid and said, I pray?
We have blood and food and good;
Mould is not pronounced like could:
Wherefore done but gone and lone?
Is there any reason known?
And in short it seems to me
Sounds and letters disagree.

It is therefore no wonder that the spelling of present-day English has become something of a nightmare for native speakers and foreign learners alike. Indeed, students whose first language follows very closely the ALPHABETICAL PRINCIPLE of one grapheme per phoneme and one phoneme per grapheme (like Spanish, Italian and Finnish) often feel frustrated by the chasm between spelling and pronunciation, and soon come to the conclusion that the written and spoken mediums of English have to be learned independently of each other. In doing so, the effort can be lessened considerably by resorting to a PHONETIC ALPHABET. This is a system of representation of speech in which each symbol stands for only one sound in an accurate way. For instance, the vowel sound which is written e in be, ee in feel, ea in pea and ie in field is represented by the phonetic symbol [i:]The rendering of speech sounds using a phonetic alphabet is known as TRANSCRIPTION.

From the book Transcribing English. The nuts and bolts of phonemic transcription by Antonio Lillo, ed. Comares, pp. 1-2. I strongly recommend Antonio Lillo's book to know everything about phonemic and phonetic transcription.

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