Monday, 15 June 2015

Spelling and Pronunciation Inconsistencies

Language presents many inconsistencies with the way we spell words.

For example:  'ough'
This is my favourite example, because we can pronounce it in so many different ways.
(Please note that American English may vary from the list below)

You probably think first of:
/in the word though
but then you have to consider how differently it sounds in these words:

/ɔː/ in the word thought
/ʌf/ in the word enough
// in the word through 
// in the word dough 
/ɒf/ in the word cough
/ə/ in the word thorough
/ʌp/ in the word hiccough 

You begin to think, how can they all have completely different sounds! Dough and cough are only one letter apart and sound nothing alike. The same with though and thought. We could consider writing them as they sound rather than their original spellings. Which we have done with the word hiccough, which is now commonly spelt hiccup, and neither are considered wrong. But the rest currently tend to be used in slang, such as thru and tho. Could these phonetic spellings eventually become the standard?

I'd assume not, as the words "scene" and "seen" sound exactly the same and are still spelt differently, plus they carry different meanings. The same with "ate" and "eight". Language isn't as simple as spelling it how it sounds. If we were being consistent then only one of the spellings would be seen as correct. 

Language also has words that are spelt the same but have multiple meanings, which are pronounced differently. (No wonder children struggle!) take: read, wind and tear. These words carry two different meanings whilst the spellings remain the same. Words like these must cause miscommunication at times. 

I want you to remember back to spelling tests at school, and those silent letters that tripped you up when you first tried to spell them! Take the words: knee, knife and knit, they all contain a silent k. Often people ask why we spell words with letters we don't pronounce. The answer, because we used to pronounce them. In Old English k-nee would have been how it was spoken, the spelling was a written representation of the speech of the time. Over the years it probably became easier to drop the k, and even though our pronunciation has changed, the spelling has not. It probably would make learning language easier if we omit the silent letters, and maybe in time that will happen. But for the next time you get told that the spelling of knee is incorrect or doesn't make sense, you can explain that it's just a result of language changing.


Thank you for reading my first linguistics post! Leave me a comment with which spellings always trick or confuse you, or what other linguistics blog posts you'd like me to do. - Kay x