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...and yet they are pronounced very differently.

/ˈslɔtər/ vs /ˈlɑːftə(r)/ For those who don't read 'pronunciation': Slaw-ter vs Laff-ter

Similarly: Homographs (words spelled identically but pronounced differently) run into the same issue for an English language learner.

Examples:

After weeks in the desert the troops began to desert their fellows.

You can lead someone into a dark alley and then club them with a lead pipe.

She wound the bandage around his head wound (after he was hit with a lead pipe for deserting his fellows).

What is the best way to explain to a learner of English why the pronunciation differences exist and how to avoid the trap presented by homographs and other near-homographs (like s/laughter)?

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As a learner, I think one good way (it works for me) to avoid the trap is to learn English by Listening/Speaking, rather than Reading/Writing. (As a result, I don't really map the spelling directly to the sounds, I just know "this is how a word would sound like and it should be spelled like this or that" which is helpful in all four tasks: LSRW.) As for why, I usually don't bother to find the reasons, given that there are some. –  Damkerng T. May 29 at 21:36
    
What @Damkerng said. If it's remotely possible, more time spent listening/speaking must be better than reading/writing when you're trying to learn any language. That's how native speakers learn their first language, so it pretty much stands to reason that's the "natural" way. Not to mention which I would hazard a guess that for historical reasons English has far more inconsistent written forms than most major languages today. –  FumbleFingers May 29 at 22:07
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I once met a man whose last name was Gough. Reading his name tag, I had no idea how to prononce it! (I thought, "Does it rhyme with cough, tough, dough, or bough?") –  J.R. May 29 at 23:13
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@David - Conceivably, it could vary in the U.S. As an example, I grew up around a family named Grenier; they pronounced it gra-NEER. Years later, I met a colleague whose family had retained the original (French) pronunciation gren-YAY. I don't know if any Gough families in the U.S. have let their name pronunciation drift to something other than GOFF, but Fumble's hypothetical point is well-taken. –  J.R. May 30 at 10:57
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I'd like to note that you don't need difficult words to demonstrate this feature of English. Most beginners know how to pronounce Bye!, by, and baby. Just point this out for them would work. :-) –  Damkerng T. May 30 at 19:02

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

The best way to explain why the same letter patterns are pronounced differently in different words is just to explain the actual historical reasons for it. You'll have to choose the timing and the amount of detail to suit your students, but here are the main facts:

  1. The Latin alphabet had about 23 letters but Anglo-Saxon and Middle English had about 45 phonemes. This meant that the same letters had to stand for multiple sounds. This especially causes ambiguity with vowels, which is why 'ou' and 'au' are particularly troublesome. Latin had no 'aw', short 'o͝o', or short 'ă' sound, and no letters for them. The two-letter combinations 'sh', 'ch', 'th', and 'dg' represent consonants not found in Latin. Anglo-Saxon writers represented hard and soft 'th' by two runic letters, 'þ' and 'ð', but not very consistently, and they fell out of use shortly after printing began. There's lots more, but you get the idea: too many phonemes and not enough letters due to imposing the Latin alphabet onto English.

  2. Most silent letters stand for sounds that have entirely dropped out of modern English. For example, knight was pronounced /kniçt/. Modern English no longer has /ç/ (like German Ich), and in Modern English, /kn/ can't start a syllable. (A few dialects still retain these sounds, though.) This is why 'gh' is particularly ambiguous: sometimes it was dropped, and sometimes it shifted to /f/.

  3. The use of 'o' to represent short 'ŭ' before 'v', 'n', and 'm', as in oven, ton, and come, developed when 'u' and 'v' were both the same letter. 'vv' and 'vn' were written as four short, vertical strokes—just like 'nn' or 'nu'. 'vm' was five vertical strokes, just like 'mv'. Writing the 'ŭ' as 'o' in these circumstances clarified the writing at the expense of complicating the spelling rules.

  4. Anglo-Saxon and Middle English pronunciation varied a great deal from region to region, so there was no way to make a single spelling for all the regional pronunciations. Indeed there was no standardization of spelling in Middle English. Standard spellings didn't take root until dictionaries started coming out in the 1600s, and not really until Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755. Standardization tended to favor the London pronunciation, but occasionally froze one region's pronunciation with another region's spelling; bury is the most famous example.

  5. Silent 'e' was pronounced in Middle English. It's silent in Modern English but still retains two roles in spelling: softening preceding 'c' and 'g', and making the previous vowel long if both stressed and separated from the 'e' by only one consonant. The latter is due to a rule of Anglo-Saxon pronunciation that a stressed vowel is long before one consonant and another vowel, and short before two consonants and another vowel. This is why we have a lot of doubled letters in words of Anglo-Saxon origin: to indicate that the preceding vowel should not go long; for example, ban becomes banned.

  6. The business with soft and hard 'c' and 'g' comes from changes in the pronunciation of Latin that occurred in Europe somewhere around 200–600 A.D. This convention came to English with the Norman invasion of 1066. The Norman invasion also brought English the great majority of its modern vocabulary, and its basically French spellings for all the new words. French had nothing like the aforementioned rule of doubled consonants and short vowels. This is why we write liberty and lateral (French-style spelling) rather than libberty and latteral (Anglo-Saxon-style spelling).

  7. Johnson's dictionary cemented the convention of spelling words to reflect their etymology. Hence the "three spelling systems" in my first attempt at an answer. Johnson goofed on a lot of his etymologies and introduced a number of inadvertent inconsistencies, some of which have stuck and some of which are forgotten. There hasn't been much standardization for spelling words that come from languages other than Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek. Competing standards for Hebrew, for example, result in Chanukah as well as Hanukkah; the situation with Arabic is a catastrophe. But overall, Johnson's approach is the modern approach: choosing spellings to distinguish roots with different meanings while trying to respect old precedents, making reasonable compromises between many competing concerns.

  8. Noah Webster's dictionaries of 1806–41 got rid of a number of irregularities and simplified a number of French-style spellings, resulting in the divide between American and British spelling. Webster adhered to the principle of etymological spelling, following it more consistently than before. For example, he changed the the British/French -ise suffix to the more etymologically faithful -ize.

To summarize: English spelling arose first from a Procrustean fit to an alphabet without enough letters, and accumulated lots of tweaks and compromises to adapt to problems like invaders with a new language and changes in pronunciation. Eventually, a mostly etymology-based spelling system emerged which turned the "more phonemes than letters" problem into a virtue: using the different ways of spelling the same sound to represent morphemes rather than phonemes consistently (except for all those aforementioned irregularities).

Hopefully, as each quirk of spelling comes up, you can provide just enough history so that students can at least understand the reason for it. They might find some reasons disappointing, as in the case of slaughter, and they might find others enlightening, like why improvise doesn't have a 'z'. Either way, understanding the reasons for English spelling makes it a whole lot easier to learn and remember. It should at least clear the feeling of hopelessness that descends when it starts looking like English spelling is nothing but exceptions.

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I always appreciate a historical context. Thank you, Ben. –  Alexander Jun 1 at 20:05
    
If I could pick multiple answers I would. This one provides extra relevant detail, which I appreciate! –  Alexander Jun 3 at 15:02

It is mostly a matter of historical accident. From the outset English spelling represented a compromise between competing native, French and Latin schemata. In Middle English spelling began to be standardized, informally; but this was a time when actual pronunciation was changing very rapidly. As the process went forward both pronunciations and spellings continued to change, often in very different directions, with competing dialectal versions and analogy between similar words and different morphological forms of the same word exerting varying influences.

And once a spelling was in place "installed base" constraints kept it there: the only people concerned with spelling were people who could read and write, and they naturally resisted any change which would cut them off from their literary tradition or require them to learn new standards.

Consequently, for a very large proportion of English words the relationship between spelling and pronunciation today is largely historical.

And there really is no way to "avoid the trap". There are patterns which historical linguists recognize, but they have no predictive value; you can only know what pattern applies after the fact, by comparing the written and spoken forms.

I'm afraid your students are going to have to learn spellings and pronunciations the same way native speakers do: by reading and hearing them, and by looking them up.

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Only today I had to do a bit of a double-take when I realised I was going to have to fill in straffing as a crossword answer. I've discovered OED lists straff as an alternative form of strafe, but haven't yet found anyone who would pronounce that answer word the way the spelling strongly suggests. I dunno about "The Devil wears Prada" - seems to me "The Devil is a lexicographer" (with a special hatred of Anglophones! :) –  FumbleFingers May 29 at 22:20
    
Thank you for the thorough analysis, StoneyB :) –  Alexander May 30 at 3:07
    
The duplication of consonants is a bit varied, too. Consider worshipping/worshiping, labelling/labeling, travelling/traveling, etc. Straffing is a new one to me, though, and it's a bit different, as it has a long vowel sound, whereas the others are short. –  Joshua Taylor May 30 at 16:23
    
If I could pick multiple answers, I would. Thank you, StoneyB. –  Alexander Jun 3 at 15:04

Say, expecting fraud and trickery:
Daughter, laughter and Terpsichore,
Branch, ranch, measles, topsails, aisles,
Missiles, similes, reviles.

(From Gerard Nolst Trenité's "The Chaos" (1922), either the best or worst thing ever written about the idiosyncratic pronunciation of English, depending on your point of view.)

Personally, the single most important thing I have found in analogous situations (and even in learning English, my mother tongue) is to have the potential points of confusion pointed out explicitly and expressly clarified. You might say:

Yes, slaughter and laughter are one letter different, but they are pronounced very differently. They do not rhyme. Because English.

Hammer home the point that English pronunciation is, fundamentally, arbitrary. Historical explanations are our "Just-So" stories and our so-called "rules" are heuristics at best. By all means, use them where they have mnemonic value, but don't believe in them.

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I had in fact come across Gerard's "The Chaos" while researching this question... personally, I'm leaning towards 'best', but that's just me :) –  Alexander May 30 at 3:05
    
+1. Because English –  Krom Stern May 30 at 5:34
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@Codeswitcher, this ". Because English." is likely to become a catchphrase. Would you mind if I started using it? Of course, with credits to you included. –  András Hummer May 30 at 8:10
    
This reminds me of a half-remembered limerick illustrating the different -ough endings: There was a young lady from Slough / Who had a most terrible cough / ??? / ??? / I do hope that she will pull through . I would love for someone to be able to recall / attribute it. –  steeldriver May 30 at 13:15
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@AndrásHummer Oh, please do! I've been thinking it ever since I joined ELL, and I'd love to see it catch on. Because it's so true. –  Codeswitcher May 30 at 15:29

Everyone who learns English needs to know that English has different spelling rules for each language that it borrows from. English is mainly a combination of three languages:

  1. The core of English is a relatively small vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon words. When spellings were standardized, the spellings of the Anglo-Saxon words reflected a variety of different regional pronunciations in England. These pronunciations are long gone but the spellings remain. This is where we get laughter, slaughter, rough, tough, thought, ought, might, night, knight, eight, two, bury, and nearly all English words with "irregular" spellings. There really aren't very many of these words in common use, but they are very commonly used, and you do have to memorize them one-by-one.

  2. The great majority of English comes from Latin via French. Almost all of these words have regular spelling. For example: liquid, library, labor, legislate, languish, liberty, latent, lateral. However, pronunciation alone doesn't dictate the spelling. Each word-element with a distinct meaning has its own spelling. For example, -tion in Latin-derived words is pronounced /ʃən/ and means that the word is a noun made from a verb, as in organization. There's a little irregularity because the Latin rules are still followed in English, so you have transmission rather than transmition or transmitation, and, as in Latin, there's often no hint about whether a vowel should be long or short (as in lateral).

  3. A small but important set of English words comes from Ancient Greek. For example, metaphor, synthesis, synchronize, democracy, idiosyncrasy, monarchy, monopoly, kleptomaniac, chrysanthemum. Most of these words have regular spelling, too, but the English letters are chosen to reflect the Greek letters in the words they came from. In synthesis, the syn- root means together, the y reflecting the Greek letter upsilon, and the -sis root means about the same as the Latin -tion, the i reflecting the Greek letter iota.

You don't have to know all the details of what came from what, but you do have to know that English spelling works by reflecting the etymological roots of each word. Each root has its own spelling, which indicates both meaning and pronunciation. English spelling is actually a pretty sophisticated compromise between purely representing meaning, like Chinese characters, and purely representing pronunciation, which varies by region and changes over the centuries.

English spelling isn't so much irregular as complicated (except for that small set of famous Anglo-Saxon words, of course). This reflects its huge vocabulary, the other languages it borrows from, its literate history, and its enormous geographic spread.

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