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I have learned English for many years, and from the first day I began to learn it I know the dictionary is necessary for the study. One of the important aspects is that English words, unlike German and Spanish, usually can not be read correctly without phonetics. But recently, I talked with some native speakers and they told me they can read any word directly and rightly even though they never learned it before. I just want to know how they can do that -- there is no ordinarily acceptable method to read an English word?

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    The native speakers who told you that are wrong. – snailcar Oct 19 '14 at 7:47
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    You might as well ask the converse question at the same time: how can native English speakers spell words correctly? Answer: they don't. – 200_success Oct 19 '14 at 7:57
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    Maybe you want to ask those native speakers to read aloud this: learnenglish.de/pronunciation/pronunciationpoem.html – Matthias Oct 19 '14 at 21:55
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    Even the best English linguist will make mistakes in some word - it's true that an educated native speaker can guess/work out the vast majority of words from experience and similar words, but there is absolutely no way to be sure. Even linguistic areas for which there are 'rules' have exceptions. It's the weakness of the language when learning it, but also perhaps the most English thing about it – Jon Story Oct 20 '14 at 8:50
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    I am a native English speaker (born and lived there for 25 years) with multiple university degrees, and I regularly mis-pronounce unfamiliar and uncommon words, and the occasional fairly-common word too. I suspect that the people you had asked have never read anything particularly complicated, or were fibbing a bit. – Mark K Cowan Oct 20 '14 at 12:07
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Unlike in some other languages, English spelling tends to reflect the developmental history of the word rather than its pronunciation. Therefore, it takes more learning and practice to pronounce English words. After learning the basic rules, you also need to learn some exceptions, and with enough practice, you may be able to spot some patterns.

Given that English is built on Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon / Norse, and French influence, and continues to assimilate words from other languages, it helps to consider which set of pronunciation rules to apply depending on the word's origin. For example, "ch" in words of Greek origin (e.g. psyche) would generally have a /k/ sound. In words taken from French during an earlier period (e.g. chief), "ch" would have a /tʃ/ sound. Later French borrowings (e.g. chef) would have a softer /ʃ/ sound.

Even with lots of experience, any English speaker who claims to be able to read any word correctly is lying. Here is a whole thread on Reddit full of words that people have mispronounced for years. Some examples include:

  • hyperbole, epitome, synecdoche
  • draught
  • lingerie, macabre, melee
  • segue
  • açai
  • awry
  • victuals
  • quinoa
  • chalcedony

I'd also add

  • row (in the sense of a fight)
  • chassis

No amount of experience would ever help you guess the British pronunciation of "lieutenant".

Part of the difficulty is, believe it or not, deliberately introduced. In words like "scent" and "debt", silent letters were added to make them fit their etymology.

Your only consolation is that English is still easier to read than Chinese.


Have you figured out the pronunciation of the words above? Here are the answers!

/haɪˈpɝːbəli/ /ɪˈpɪt.ə.mi/ /sɪˈnɛkdəki/
/dɹɑːft/
/ˌlɑn.(d)ʒəˈɹeɪ/ /məˈkɑːbɹə/ /mɛˈleɪ/
/ˈsɛɡweɪ/
/ˈa.saj/
/əˈɹaɪ/
/ˈvɪtəlz/
/ˈkinˌwɑ/
/kælˈsɛdəni/
/raʊ/
/ˈtʃæsi/ or /ˈʃæsi/
/lɛfˈtɛnənt/

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    If you had never seen the words "laughter" and "daughter", it is unlikely that you would guess correctly the pronunciation of one, and impossible to guess both correctly. – gnasher729 Oct 19 '14 at 15:52
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    @LưuVĩnhPhúc Those are all proper names, though, and many of them are decidedly foreign. – 200_success Oct 20 '14 at 9:44
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    No, there are lots of English words, even common nouns in that question – phuclv Oct 20 '14 at 11:05
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    @mcalex Are they really foreign words? If so, what would be the expressions for those concepts in English? Does synecdoche have a different status that hyperbole? – 200_success Oct 21 '14 at 5:41
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    @mcalex English doesn't have many words of its own. Many are borrowed, but not foreign. Apple calls the motions between apps on the iPhone a segue, and my wife has a collection of both undergarments and lingerie. I eat burritos, but I don't speak Spanish; calamari, but I don't speak Italian; sushi, but I don't speak Japanese; baklava, but I don't speak Turkish; gyro, but I don't speak Greek. Food alone seems to have more foreign words than American-made, not to mention various crafts, tools, toys, vehicles, etc. And I melee and parley often. – phyrfox Oct 21 '14 at 6:11
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Native speakers of English who already have good vocabularies can correctly guess how to pronounce most words, but not all words. There are a number of patterns that help:

  • Most "complicated" words are built out of shorter prefixes, roots, and suffixes. These prefixes, roots, and suffixes follow patterns.
  • English has patterns for how to stress the various syllables of long words.

Also, even if a native English speaker has never read a particular word, they may have heard it (or a related word) on the radio, on television, in school, or in a church sermon. So they might subconsciously know how to pronounce the word.

Native English speakers with poor vocabularies are often not familiar with some of the roots and suffixes. They also tend to read very little. Fewer of their pronunciation guesses are likely to be right.

But even native English speakers with good vocabularies guess wrong about some words. One lady I know tells about how she used to think that "tarantula" was pronounced "tare-ann-too-luh" (instead of "tuhRanchYouLuh") and "debris" was pronounced "DebRiss" (instead of "DehBree").

In the United States, most native speakers spend literally hundreds of hours in school learning spelling. In the process, they learn rules for which combinations of letters are pronounced like other letters, and which letters can be silent. (9 - 13 years of school * 170 - 180 school days per school year * 45 - 60 minutes of English class per school day * 15 - 25 percent of time on spelling and vocabulary = 200 - 500 hours of spelling and vocabulary practice.)

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    Ugh. That's 200-500 hours of wasted time, compared to languages where knowing how to read/write includes knowing how to spell every word including ones that you've never seen or heard, and can be done in preschool or at the latest by 1st/2nd grade. – Peteris Oct 19 '14 at 12:03
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    @Peteris Is it really wasted time? Chinese writing is even harder: it takes a lifetime to master. It does come with advantages of being highly compact and recognizable over time. In the case of English, idiosyncrasies in spelling are the price you pay for having a rich language that assimilates words freely from other languages. Variety is the spice of life! – 200_success Oct 19 '14 at 16:43
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    @learner -- Each of these people has their own personal vocabulary. I used "vocabularies" to parallel "speakers". On the other hand, a group of people can have a shared "vocabulary". Sometimes such a shared vocabulary is called an "argot" or a "jargon" or "slang". – Jasper Oct 19 '14 at 20:18
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    @learner -- I am glad you liked the debris example. (ell.stackexchange.com/questions/30620 is a post about it.) Just to be clear, "tuhRanchYouLuh" and "DehBree" are the correct pronunciations. – Jasper Oct 19 '14 at 20:23
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    @200_success The ability to assimilate words has absolutely nothing to do with not having a set of writing rules. How do you think borrowed words appear in the languages which have such rules? – Malcolm Oct 20 '14 at 16:25
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Some people may say that they can pronounce any new word they see, but they can't. A simple way to show that this claim isn't true, is to take the letter cluster : -ough

This can have nine different pronunciations in English. Here are some example words and pronunciations:

  • though /əʊ/
  • through /u:/
  • thought /ɔ:/
  • tough /ʌf/
  • thorough/ə/
  • bough /aʊ/
  • trough /ɒf/
  • hiccup/ hiccough /ʌp/
  • lough /ɒx/

So lets imagine that a native speaker sees a new word crough. How would they pronounce it? It's not possible to predict what a word like crough would sound like! It would be impossible!

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    I think you might have six!: /oʊ/ as in "though" (cf. toe). /uː/ as in "through" (cf. true). /ʌf/ as in "rough" (cf. ruffian). /ɒf/ as in "cough" (cf. coffin). /ɔː/ as in "thought" (cf. taut). /aʊ/ as in "bough" (cf. to cow). (stolen off wikipedia!) But still much better than nine! :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 19 '14 at 18:34
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    I speak American English and the only one on the list that I don't duplicate is thorough.... but even then I put a schwa in thoroughness. I think it's the same for British and American. – hunter Oct 21 '14 at 9:02
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    I suspect it has to do with the caught/cot merger. But even for those, it seems to me that all on this list would be different. – hunter Oct 21 '14 at 9:37
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    English is hard to learn. Although it can be learned through tough thorough thought, though. – user20662 Jun 22 '15 at 5:43
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    I'm not sure I buy this hypothesis. As a native US speaker, seeing the word crough only one or two of the possible "ough" pronunciations is really reasonable. My guess would be /krʌf/ or maybe /krɒf/. It wouldn't be pronounced /krəʊ/ unless it was some old British mystery word. /kru:/ is totally unreasonable. /krɔ:/ doesn't even work phonetically, as you note there aren't any words like this with final "ough". Plain /ə/ only works in 'thorough' because it is a multi-syllable word. /kraʊ/ also only seems like an old english holdover. ... – Mario Carneiro Jun 18 '16 at 1:50
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I can pronounce any word I see written, but I have no way of knowing whether I'm doing so correctly!

The irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation are mostly with the shorter and more regularly used words. Longer words tend to stick to more established patterns. If you've got a long word that starts with "pn", "ps", or "pt", it's fairly safe to assume the "p" is silent. If it starts with "pr" or "pl", it won't be silent. And so on, and so forth.

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You can guess with high accuracy, but it is nothing more than a logical guess.
There are many patterns in English that are repeated so many times that you can guess the pronunciation but English is a global language with words derived from all over the world.

For example: Cage, mage, wage, sage... all follow the same pattern pronounced "...eij" but if "Kage" from Japanese became mainstream in English which is pronounced "Kah-geh" then this rule would still work most of the time but not always,

so yeh you can guess with high accuracy because of patterns, but not always know.

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    How about the 'mage' in damage ? :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 21 '14 at 9:31
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    Or marriage or mirage... – RemcoGerlich Oct 21 '14 at 20:14
  • Yeh I'm sure there are many examples with difficult to trace origins :). I kept the examples as simple as possible. My opinion is that English is too irregular for a global language and should be regulated to some extent. Many will probably disagree but then many of those either grew up with the language or another similar language. – Damien Golding Oct 22 '14 at 3:52
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About 80 percent of English is pronounced as a native speaker would guess from basic rules. Some of the other words are easy to get if you know something about their origin. (One reason English is difficult is its absorption of a very large loanword vocabulary starting literally over 1200 years ago.) Even though we butcher the rest of the word compared to the original, champagne and chamois start as they do in French. So if I see a word I don't know beginning 'ch' that I guess it is of French origin…

To take just one example elsewhere on this thread (and there are many here), no one could ever get both laughter and daughter without peeking at a dictionary.

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    Approximately 65% of statistics are made up on the spot. – WinnieNicklaus Oct 20 '14 at 19:41
  • Unfortunately, this statistic carries a lot of political baggage. Those who go for a very high number are advocates of phonics complaining that the lower numbers are lies of those who prefer "whole word" instruction in English. I happen to think that phonics works better for most children learning English, but even in a child's vocabulary there are words like laughter and daughter, of which at least one is not spelled phonetically (or, indeed, both). If memory serves, 80 percent is the number from the phonics side's champion polemic "Why Johnny Can't Read". But his followers gild the lily. – Andrew Lazarus Oct 27 '14 at 5:30
  • The idea of learning English phonetically makes me think of Japanese Engrish. – Pharap Oct 29 '14 at 0:07
  • Other languages also borrow a lot, but do not keep the original spelling. – Anixx Oct 14 '15 at 5:11
  • Indeed laughter is just wrong phonetically. – Joshua Jun 17 '16 at 15:33
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I misspell things on a daily basis. English is pretty bad in this way. I didn't realize how bad English is until I started studying Spanish and Korean. I'd say a lot of Americans don't realize that spelling shouldn't be hard. Most people in the US (75% estimated, no one knows) are monolingual sadly so I'd say a lot of people don't know how bad it is until you explain it to them. But even then, they just shrug. What are they supposed to do about it?

The English classes I remember as a kid didn't ever compare English to anything. It was studying grammar trees and famous books. I think it would have been more interesting if it was like a world religions thing.

Just today I spelled plaguing three ways until I got it right and I'm a native English speaker. Other words I get wrong or have to slow down to type/write: privilege, February, occasionally.

How do I check? How do I find out if I'm right? I just did this today: I googled for "Neil degrasse Tyson" to see if I spelled it correctly. I don't know how to spell his whole name. English first names are pretty common. So I know "neil" and "tyson". Sometimes last names are already other words, like West, Burns, Bush, Love. In that case, you get lucky.

Unknown words aren't very common for native speakers honestly. Reading is the easiest thing. I read Spanish the best and can hardly produce it. Some people would call fancy words "SAT words". SAT is a national test with a vocabulary section in the U.S. (I don't know if this is well-known). It's another way of saying "overly fancy" or "show off" words. Maybe the person is just trying to demonstrate how smart they are or maybe they really do use "SAT words" often. From person to person, it's hard to say. To this point, there are common words and then "fancy words" to some extent. At some level of education, I'd say there are very rarely uncommon words for native English speakers but this is just an anecdote.

If you make up new words, you find that the rules fall apart and English shows it's true confusing nature. I've used this example in the past. Take these two words: tainted and mountain. How do you pronounce this new word: mountainted. Most people I've asked say "moun-tane-ted" even though mountain is "moun-ten".

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I started learning English when I was 10 when I moved to the US. Even now, after 30 years of continual living in the US, though I speak with the same pronunciation as native born English speakers, I still find that:

1) When encountering a new word (usually names of foreign cities but pronouncing it as a native American English speaker would) I found that I sometimes tend to initially pronounce it closer to the way it would have sounded in my native language. Maybe (fairly common percent) to (an even higher percent) of time I will get it right the first time.

2) I found that I still count, subtract, add, multiply and divide in my head by revering back to my native tongue, since that's how I memorized the multiplication table (I guess).

3) My dreams are in English.

4) "Little voice in my head" is a mix of both languages, both spoken through the implant after I was abducted, but I never really thought about whether the language choice is random or based on some organic pattern.

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    Abducted by aliens? – Pharap Oct 29 '14 at 0:10
  • Regarding internal voice and the language of thoughts judging from my experience it depends on the imaginable addressee. – Anixx Oct 14 '15 at 5:14

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