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How do you know how to pronounce words just by looking? For example

I read books

Could be either having read books in the past, or you are in the process of reading books at the moment. How do you know which without context? I know the English rule about stressing the first or second vowel in a word (apart from the Irish who pronounce the opposite, which interestingly is partly where their accent comes from) but that only works for words such as printer and not for words where two vowels follow one another, like read or thought.

Another point: Why do some combinations of letters change the sound. For example, after hearing the word book, you'd think it would be spelled buk or buc, and after hearing though and thought you would never guess that all their letters but one are common. Is there a reason for this other than language not been written down until recently when all the little quirks I have mentioned were already impregnated into the language.

To sum up:

  1. Is there a way of knowing the pronunciation of a word without context?
  2. Why do some combinations of letters change pronunciation depending on the word they are in?
  • 3
    1. Not really. Read a lot of books and watch movies and TV with the captions on. 2. There is no rhyme or reason to English spelling. (Their is know rime oar reason two English spelling.) – Robusto Jan 17 '17 at 20:08
  • 2
    You can't know which without the context. (Although I would tend to interpret I read books as present tense read until otherwise directed to, as by context–since the present tense can be used to talk about regular or habitual activities.) – green_ideas Jan 17 '17 at 20:28
  • Is this question answerable other than to shrug and say, "Because that's how English is?" – Andrew Jan 17 '17 at 22:05
  • @Andrew: Nope. But you should know that already. – Robusto Jan 18 '17 at 1:39
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Here are some basic facts:

  1. Some words follow a few predictable patterns; for example:
    hat, gate, pen, feet, pin, time, cot, cove, shut, flute.

  2. Other words appear to break the usual "rules"; for example:

    • have doesn't rhyme with save,
    • pint doesn't rhyme with lint,
    • done doesn't rhyme with bone,
    • roll doesn't rhyme with doll, and
    • put doesn't rhyme with shut.
  3. Some letter combinations have more than one possible pronunciation, such as:
    ow (cow, know), ea (head, eat), ear (earth, hearth, wear), oo (flood, mood),
    and ough (rough, through, though, thought).

  4. Some words are heteronyms, meaning they are spelled the same but are pronounced differently; for example wind, dove, sow, tear and read all have two valid pronunciations.

Now, your questions:

Is there a way to tell the pronunciation of a heteronym without context?

No. The best we can do is narrow it down to a couple possibilities.

Why do some combinations of letters change pronunciation depending on the word they are in?

Because English is anything but consistent. (There's actually a bit more to it than that, but it has to do with factors such as etymology, history, regional pronunciation, and linguistic evolution.)

When it comes to spelling and pronunciation, English seems to break more rules than it follows. That's just the way it is.

  • 1
    I can only endorse this answer. But the unpredictability of English pronunciation, although the bane of English learners (including young English schoolchildren), can be a joy once you come to grips with it! I regret the demise of etymology in the schools, as knowledge of the development of a word often gives clues as to its pronunciation. Only today I was doing a Times crossword, and met the word 'supply' in a clue. The obvious meaning was to do with providing or provisions, but the clue setter meant something less obvious -- in a supple manner! Different origins, different pronunciations! – Warren Ham Jan 18 '17 at 1:01
  • @WarrenH - That's an interesting take on it – to view it as an oddity to be appreciated and embraced, rather than as a source of frustration and vexation. – J.R. Jan 18 '17 at 10:19

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