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I confess! Being a non-native speaker, I struggle a lot especially when I come across a new word. And I wonder how do native speakers pronounce perfectly even though they read the word for the very first time. There should be some rule/technique? I'm not sure.

Let's take a case.

If I see a word having 'ch' for the very first time, how do I guess it? Remember, I don't have dictionary. Nor do I have access to this great site when I encounter that word. For example,

Take the word 'chariot'. Being a non-native with quite limited knowledge of orthography, I know that 'ch' is pronounced as in 'Charles'

But then, imagine, I came across the word 'charade'. Undoubtedly, for me, it is 'ch (as in Charles)-re-d-s'. But then, actually, 'ch' there is 'sh' (as in Shane).

It's not just 'ch' but it goes for 'g' as well. 'G' as in 'goat' or 'g' as in 'gymnastic'. Is there any source that teaches how to pronounce a letter if it is placed after/before certain letter? Is there any such rule? The one I remember is when a word ends with 'mb', you don't pronounce 'b'. 'Bomb', 'Comb', 'Tomb' and many other words ending with 'b'.


There are a few more words that add another nail in the coffin of my pronunciation complexity!

penis (pee, and not as in 'pen')
asthma (no 'th' pronounced)
Dengue (dengeee)
and many more...

  • 25
    The joys of a non-phonemic language – laureapresa Jun 12 '15 at 8:08
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    Even for native speakers, the relation between spelling and pronunciation is sometimes baffling, so don't worry :) I have seen an internet discussion once, after the introduction of the Segway transporter where it appeared that many native speakers never made the link between the name of that thing and the (obscure?) word segue. Many professed to knowing _ the word _segue and even using it in writing, but thing of that word as sounding something like seeg. I have also heard native speakers talk about an "ehpytohm" when they meant an epitome. – oerkelens Jun 12 '15 at 9:06
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    @JMB - My favourite personal example (as a native English speaker): I used to think there were two rivers in London - the Thames (pronounced with a th like in "this", and ames like in "fames") and the Tems (which I never realised I'd never seen written down). I was probably about 10 years old before I found out! – AndyT Jun 12 '15 at 11:06
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    @MaulikV Even well educated native speakers mispronounce unfamiliar words all of the time. Epitome, hearth, facade, and soooo many more. If they are lucky, a friend or coworker will politely and discreetly inform them of the mispronunciation. As a nonnative speaker, we would expect more mispronunciations of these words, and again, hopefully you would be discreetly informed of the mispronunciation. It's a wretched system of doing things, but we're too lazy to look unfamiliar words up in the dictionary for their pronunciations. – Jason Patterson Jun 12 '15 at 13:50
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    It takes a lifetime. You start by getting it right 50% of the time. Then 90% of the time. Then 95%, 99%, 99.5%, 99.9%, etc. You never get to 100%! – CJ Dennis Jun 12 '15 at 13:52

10 Answers 10

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+50

By analogy with words you already know. In more detail, you guess mainly by recognizing morphemes, taking into account the three main spelling systems that exist within English and taking into account common phonetic pressures that alter pronunciations. Educated guessing cannot be reduced to rules, of course, but I can give you a feel for it with a scattering of examples.

Morphemes

Morphemes are the smallest elements of a word that have a meaning. For example, -ing and -tion are morphemes, as in going and information. If you know a lot of morphemes, you will be good at guessing pronunciation, because morphemes are usually spelled in only one or two ways, and their pronunciation in one word usually works by analogy with their pronunciation in other words.

For example, if you've seen -tion carrying that meaning in a number of words, you intelligently guess that it's pronounced the same way in a word you've never seen before, such as, say, transubstantiation. By analogy with relation, generation, acceleration, and many similar words, even transmission, which has the other spelling of the morpheme and is preceded by a different vowel, you can reasonably guess that conflagration has the stress on the second a. And you can intelligently guess that informational has the stress on -mā-.

This doesn't give you the correct pronunciation in every single case—equation is slightly different—but this is fundamentally how English spelling and pronunciation work: by analogy with related words, where having the same morpheme is the most important kind of relation.

Etymological spelling

English actually has three main spelling systems, corresponding to its three main root languages: Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek.

Anglo-Saxon

In an Anglo-Saxon word, a vowel needs to be followed by two consonants or a consonant at the end of a word in order to be short. For example, batted vs. bated, chipped vs. griped. You know that mob is /mǒb/, not /mōb/, because of this pattern. In Anglo-Saxon words, it's as if every vowel wants to be long, but gets cut short by a terminal consonant. In Anglo-Saxon words, ch is usually pronounced /tʃ/, the "native" pronunciation.

Latin

Not so in words from Latin. Risible is /ˈrĭz.ə.bl/, not /ˈrīz.ə.bl/, and there's really no way to guess that, except perhaps by a rather superficial analogy with divisible and visible. Words from Latin usually follow pretty regular spelling, but in many cases you can't tell whether a morpheme's vowel will be long or short from its spelling—though often you can make a good guess by analogy with other words.

The soft pronunciations of c and g before i and e began in Latin, and were only introduced into English with the Norman invasion. So, Latin-derived words are normally pronounced that way, and most of the exceptions come from Anglo-Saxon, such as get, girl, and together. Anglo-Saxon words like bagged and bagging use the doubled g to indicate that the preceding vowel is short, so the g stays hard. Exaggerate and suggest come from Latin, so you know not to expect their soft g to make a good precedent for Anglo-Saxon words.

Greek

Words from Greek have a distinct spelling system, where English letters correspond to Greek letters: ch stands for the Greek letter χ; ph stands for the Greek letter φ; k stands for the Greek letter κ; th stands for θ; etc. The Greek sounds of these letters are approximated by English phonemes, as in chrysanthemum, metaphor, photon, system, synchronize, autarky, etc. Notice that ch in Greek-derived words is pronounced /k/. Greek consonant clusters that don't occur in English get reduced, as in psychology, bdellium, and pneumonia (but not sphere: we allowed /sf-/ to start a syllable in order to absorb that word). Eu- in Greek words is a morpheme meaning "good", and is pronounced /ju-/, as in eulogy and euphemism. Leonhard Euler is German, so you learn not to make an analogy between his name and Greek words.

The main difficulties with Greek-derived words involve the letters g and y, especially when they occur together. In Greek-derived words, g stands for the Greek letter γ, which we would normally represent in speech with a hard g as in gynecology and gigabyte, but phonetic pressures and misunderstandings have usually set precedents that make it soft, as in gymnasium and gyroscope. It goes silent when it's part of a reduced, un-English consonant cluster, as in gneiss. In the middle of Greek-derived words, y stands for υ, but at the end, it stands for -εια, which means the same as Anglo-Saxon -ness. The Greek vowel υ doesn't correspond well to any English vowel. Usually it's pronounced as a short /ĭ/, but English phonetic pressures sometimes shape it into a long /ī/, as in hypothesis, psychology, and papyrus. The -gy ending is a morpheme, pronounced /-dʒē/ (unstressed), found in energy, synergy, biology and even analogy, the main concept that explains how English works!

Can you really guess the origin of an unknown word?

You might wonder, "How am I supposed to guess which language a word came from?" It's surprisingly easy. Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek words tend to have a very different "feel" to them, and the spellings of the words tend to follow patterns that are fairly easy to recognize. Noticing the different styles of words from each main root language is an important part of mastering English, including its huge vocabulary of synonyms. There are, of course, a few words that picked up spellings by "false etymology", such as ache and ptarmigan, but happily, it doesn't matter, because if you guess these words' pronunciations by the usual analogies, you'll be right. These spellings were established by people trying to follow the same analogies.

By the way, roughly 20–30 years ago, many schools stopped teaching children about classical roots and how they're spelled. Consequently, a lot of natives today don't know much about it consciously. So, with this clue, you can learn to do better than a lot of natives! Some kids are still being taught, though, as evidenced by the questions asked in this contest of guessing the spelling of a word (which is harder than guessing the pronunciation from the spelling). Here's an excellent article by an expert on dyslexia, about the true complexity of English spelling and what's involved in learning it.

Conflicting precedents

Precedents can conflict. For example, you can make a good educated guess about impious by noticing its three morphemes: im-, meaning negation; pi-, meaning reverence or dutifulness, by analogy with pious and piety; and -ous, making an adjective in a Latin style. So, a pretty good guess is to pronounce it /ǐm.ˈpī.əs/. However, impious can also be understood as following the precedent of the Latin word impius. The phonetic pressures in Latin put the stress on the first syllable, and we usually feel the same pressures in English words that come from Latin. In fact, the English word impious, pronounced /ˈǐm.pē.əs/, was borrowed directly from Latin in the 16th century. That pronunciation has been echoed ever since. The -ous spelling in impious is a slightly stretched analogy with Latin borrowings that follow a different pattern. Consequently, both pronunciations are in use today, /ˈǐm.pē.əs/ being more standard. (I prefer /ǐm.ˈpī.əs/, since it communicates the morphemes more clearly. Someone who's never heard it before will easily understand the meaning. /ˈǐmp.ē.əs/ misleadingly echoes imp.)

Pressures

I knew a native speaker who mispronounced fruition as /ˈfru.ʃən/. He was going by analogy with fruit. But /ˈfru.ʃən/ is a somewhat uneducated guess. The correct pronunciation, /fru.ˈǐʃ.ən/, better reflects both the etymology and the pressure from -tion to put stress on the preceding vowel. The spelling of fruit reflects the fact that it can break up when used as a morpheme in a larger word. And we see the same pattern established in circuit/circuitous and other -uit- words.

There is another factor at work here, too, which helps a lot for guessing pronunciations. Experience teaches you that common pressures will likely have removed the second syllable from /ˈfru.ĭt/, but these pressures don't occur in fruition. In English, there's a pressure to merge those last two syllables at the end of a word, as in biscuit, pursuit and circuit. Explaining phonetic pressures is a complex subject, but it's like everything else in English: it works by analogies and precedents, and you get a feel for it from experience. What's relevant here is that the unstressed short vowel has a hard time holding its own against the preceding long, stressed vowel without help from another consonant; the terminal -t offers only very weak support.

The word intuit is the only word of this pattern that has kept that unstressed syllable. I think people continue to pronounce it because the words intuitive and intuition are much more common, so when people use the unusual verb intuit, they feel some pressure to echo the corresponding syllable in the familiar words in order to be understood. I have heard people attempt /ǐn.ˈtut/, independently inventing the word during conversation, and then draw back from it because it sounds weird and doesn't clearly indicate the connection with intuition. There is also pressure to avoid echoing the slightly silly verb "toot".

Since pronunciation is shaped by interaction between many pressures, if you pay attention to those pressures, you are in a good position to guess the pronunciations of unknown words.

Analogies, not rules

Some people harp on the fact that English spelling doesn't follow rules, as if this were proof that English is "illogical" or completely without order. Really, though, the English language works like English common law: by precedents, not rules. When deciding new cases, or when inventing new words, people try to be consistent with previous cases or with the spellings of words already in the language. Old cases and familiar words can't pre-decide every aspect of a new case, of course. Law and language accumulate over the centuries, one case and one word at a time, embodying subtlety and hopefully wisdom beyond what could be captured by any fully articulated system of rules.

As you get to know the language better, you can often guess pronunciation from spelling pretty accurately, especially with "big" words. When I was in the 2nd grade (age 7), I was given a test where I had to guess the pronunciations of a long list of words, up to "college level". I got nearly all of them right, despite not knowing, at that age, anything about etymological spelling—and despite not having encountered most of the words before. I could usually see some sort of analogy with a word I already knew, and I made an educated guess. That's how it works.

The moral of all this is that you should not memorize rules. You should not even memorize the few rules that happen to be true. Memorizing rules runs against the spirit of the language. What you should do is make analogies from specific words to specific words that you already know how to pronounce. Occasionally you'll guess wrong—and that will teach you a new precedent, which you will apply in new situations. Eventually, gradually, you learn to perceive English spellings with acuity. (You can probably guess that it's /ə.ˈcju.ĭ.tē/, despite the spelling's ambiguity, because of its congruity with annuity and gratuity.)

  • 4
    This is a fantastic answer, and articulates something I have long recognized in how I handle things, but have never been able to explain to foreign friends (or even native speakers who struggle with spelling – oddly enough, I don’t know any native speakers who struggle to pronounce most words, seeing the spelling, but the reverse operation can be difficult even for natives). Anyway, I wonder if French does not deserve its own section: obviously, French itself is coming from Latin, but the spellings and pronunciations can be very different – and English frequently uses them. – KRyan Jun 12 '15 at 19:49
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    @BenKovitz I haven't read the whole answer but I figure that it's along the lines of using common sense (guessing by analogy, with some knowledge related to etymology for more sophisticated speakers). Having said that, I think the question overlooks one crucial thing: How often do native speakers discover a new word by reading? (especially, a not-so-rare word) And, when that happens, how long will native speakers have to assume guessing the pronunciation before they will a) hear the word pronounced by their peers or the media, b) look it up in a dictionary, or c) ask someone who knows? – Damkerng T. Jun 14 '15 at 8:33
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    @iain The highest compliment possible on StackExchange! Much appreciated. – Ben Kovitz Jun 14 '15 at 8:35
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    @DamkerngT. About how often natives take the trouble to check their guesses, I think it varies enormously, depending on how much the native cares. My friend who said "fruition" got a lot of his vocabulary from wide reading and made many errors like that in speech. He kept a huge dictionary open in his living room, but never checked pronunciations. Probably another factor is discouragement: the fake "rules" taught in school often "teach" people that they can't master spelling, and schools don't teach the real principles. The real principles are messy but at least they're understandable. – Ben Kovitz Jun 14 '15 at 8:50
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    Ah, I finished reading this answer for the second time. Just one word - Excellent. Other answers are also good but for me, this the answer one. I'll select it but later, because I want more people to contribute. And yes, for you, it's a bounty! :) – Maulik V Jun 15 '15 at 5:00
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I asked some native friends the same thing, and they told me their guesses are based on similar words. It is far from perfect (moon - door anyone?), but it is a start.

Also, the origin of the word may help. Charade is French, a mostly phonemic (that is, a letter or group of letters have the same sound no matter wher they are) language; in French ch is pronounced [ ʃ ] , so English words that derive from French will have this sound. French words are more common in English than words in other languages are, so Italian words like bruschetta (properly [bruˈsketta]) are pronounced as [/brʊˈʃɛtə/]. If you say the former, they will not understand.

Related (and to make your eyes, mind and ears bleed):

This poem

This piece

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    +1 for those two links...excellent! though I knew the latter one. – Maulik V Jun 12 '15 at 8:54
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    +1 for the obligatory link to The Chaos which should be linked in every question about the whims of English pronunciation. Note that it was not written by a native speaker :) – oerkelens Jun 12 '15 at 9:03
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    "If you say the former, they will not understand" -- actually, for that example a typical British English speaker who would eat bruschetta and use that word, will likely recognise the Italian pronunciation even if they don't use it themselves. The cadence of Italian might stump them if you get it really right, but I doubt the hard "ch" will in many cases. Bruschetta-eaters in other English-speaking countries might be different :-) – Steve Jessop Jun 12 '15 at 13:23
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    @SteveJessop It's the same in the US, in my experience. – Jason Patterson Jun 12 '15 at 13:41
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    I think The Chaos is extremely misleading, and unnecessarily discouraging. The title and the ordering of the words are chosen to suggest that English spelling is utterly, well, chaotic, without order of any kind, purely a matter of "whim". If you look for chaos, you'll find it. And if you look for order, you'll find it, too. It just won't work by "rules". Please see my answer for more details. – Ben Kovitz Jun 12 '15 at 17:43
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We guess. And we frequently guess wrong.

Your last sentence provides an excellent example: I know how to pronounce bomb, comb and tomb, but presented with a made up word like domb or fomb, I would have no idea which of those three words it should rhyme with.

With ch, the best rule I can come up with is, "Does this word look a bit French?"

Words that end in -che look French, e.g. moustache, gauche.

Words that end in -tch don't look French, e.g. catch, pitch, notch. (Note that these words may still be derived from French, but have been part of the language long enough to acquire an English spelling.)

Words that end in -ch where ch is preceded by a vowel look a bit Gaelic, e.g. loch, och, Sassenach.

The -ade ending on 'charade' looks a bit French to me (it reminds me of façade and marinade) so I would assume the French pronunciation is used.

When it comes to the letter g, however, we're often guessing. Where g is followed by a, o, u or a consonant it's usually a hard g, but there's no good rule for when it's followed by e, i or y. This has caused arguments about new words like 'gigabyte' or 'gif'. The inventor of the gif image format says it should be pronounced 'jif' but most of the world is still saying it with a hard g. In one of the Back To The Future films, Doc Brown says 'jigawatts', but in recent years this pronunciation has fallen out of favour and the 'giga' prefix uses the hard g.

  • good information, +1 for the last para! :) – Maulik V Jun 12 '15 at 12:40
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    I am a native English speaker and read a lot. It has happened many times in my life that I am familiar with a word, but only from reading it, and have guessed the wrong pronunciation. Then years later somebody actually says it to me. If I'm lucky I'll understand it was the word I'm familiar with, but sometimes I have to ask them what they mean. When they explain it I can connect it with the word I know. – Austin Jun 12 '15 at 15:57
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    I am a native speaker of English English, and somewhat fluent in American English. I know several words that have the same spelling in both dialects, but different pronunciations. – Patricia Shanahan Jun 13 '15 at 16:00
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    You don't need technology-related words to illustrate that idea. Just compare giggle with ginger (vs. jiggle). – Mehrdad Jun 15 '15 at 6:48
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    Interesting. I had always just assumed that the pronunciation in Back to the Future was just a mistake. I've literally never heard anyone else use it unless they were specifically making fun of that scene. I was born in '86, though, so maybe that usage died out before I was old enough to hear it commonly. – reirab Jun 15 '15 at 14:16
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We hear other people pronounce words; that's how we know how to pronounce every word you mention in your question.

We often don't pronounce a word correctly the first time we see it. We make our best guess, based on the pronunciation/spelling patterns we already know about and rely on. Sometimes doing this does not work.

How would you pronounce impious? First time I heard someone pronounce it the way it is 'supposed to be pronounced', I swore they were wrong or using some weird, alternate pronunciation. Turns out that were using the preferred standard pronunciation. But now most dictionaries have both pronunciations.

Also, pronunciations vary between among dialects.

As for charade(s), kids play the game and know how to say the word, at least according to one variation. I mean, it can rhyme with parade or par-rod.

Edit to reposition this paragraph: There are tons of words on Forvo awaiting English pronunciation that I've no idea how to pronounce--and the main reason is that I've never heard them pronounced before. A lot of these are people's names, difficult terms from Greek (mythology or medicinal), words originating from other foreign languages, characters or stars of popular TV shows, and names of cities in English-speaking countries other than the one I live in.

  • There's nothing wrong in saying "pronunciations vary between dialects". I actually think it's the better word than "among" in this case. Not quite sure why :) I think between fits better because you are comparing maybe two or three dialects together. Of course there are many more English dialects, but usually words can be pronounced up to three different ways . I can't think of a word that has four different pronunciations. – Mari-Lou A Jun 15 '15 at 5:05
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We attempt to pattern-match (both consciously and unconsciously) and are often wrong. While 'rules' of English spelling and pronunciation are sometimes broken more often than not, often by identifying the word's language of origin we can get close (If you watch the National Spelling Bee championship, you'll see them asking for the word's origin language for that very reason).

As an example (also see the other answers to this question), if I see a 'ph' in a word, I assume it to have Greek roots (because it's most likely either Greek or Latin and Latin doesn't have 'ph'), and I then infer more about the spelling: No silent 'e' at the end of words (as in 'hyperbole', 'epitome', etc.

Much of the time though, I'm wrong. Many times I've encountered a word in written use repeatedly and I learn what it means, but when I go to say it I'm completely wrong (sometimes others can figure out what I mean, but not always).

  • +1 for mentioning asking a word's origin at a spelling bee. That fact says a lot about how educated guessing of spellings and pronunciations works in English. – Ben Kovitz Jun 15 '15 at 7:22
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I would say that there are two things that we do. Both of them have been touched on already, but I want to stress the importance of both.

(1) We develop an intuition based on patterns. Once you've seen "night", "light" and "fight" you can probably get "sight" as well.

(2) We use our knowledge of the language to help us. If we've heard the word said out loud before, we might be able to recognise it the first time we see it. Especially if we use the patterns to help us.

So, to use ssav's example, I might not be able to guess how "charade" is pronounced the first time I see it written down. But if I see the word used in a sentence, such as "the politician's talk was all just a charade" I might be able to get it right.

However, without (1), I will probably not guess correctly. But if I've seen words like attaché and parachute and I have the word in a sentence, I can probably put two and two together.

We get things wrong a lot though, especially if we've never encountered the word before and we've never heard it spoken. Then we might embarrass ourselves.

4

Since pronunciation changes over time, any system of spelling that was mapped to pronunciation at a point-in-time would eventually get out-of-sync with the way people are speaking.

The system of spelling also has to make a choice (explicitly or implicitly):

a) nominate a "standard" pronunciation, so that from the get-go the system would not map to regional variations in pronunciation; or

b) reflect regional pronunciation, so there would be many ways to spell the same word.

The latter was the case before English spelling was standardized. There are dozens of ways to spell the word for 'sister' in Old English, for example.

The Googles of the world would have a difficult time searching if a word might be spelled in a given text in any number of ways. All searches would have to be phonetic, and the search engine would have to understand the rules of regional pronunciation, and to the degree it did not, there would be misses and false positives galore.

It's possible to "get close" when guessing a pronunciation, but that's about it. If you don't recognize the word as a loan-word from another language, say, and so may be following some special rule, you won't stand much chance of guessing right. For example: depot. But for the most part, spelling of English words does follow some basic phonetic rules that can be learned.

  • The Semantic Web would solve Google's problems. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_Web – QuentinUK Jun 16 '15 at 10:00
  • @QuentinUK: To attach metadata to every instance of every word on the web, such that a spelling variant is thereby linked to the canonical spelling, seems highly impractical, although it is theoretically a solution to the problem. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 16 '15 at 12:54
  • P.S. I'll believe Google is capable of accomplishing this feat (without huge margins of error) when they improve their OCR'ing of older texts. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 16 '15 at 15:12
2

Native speakers usually already know the word when they first encounter it written down. So when they see it they guess the most likely readings. Then the one which sounds like a word they already know, especially if it fits the context, is the one that is read. So even native speakers can't read a word they are unfamiliar with. They have to look it up in a dictionary. In practice many don't bother because they will never say the word. For an unusual word they can write it in an essay. Sometimes a technical word can be used for years without knowing how to pronounce it.

In England there is a "University of Reading". Which even most English people can't read correctly unless they have heard of the town already.

  • In Monopoly there is Reading Railroad. 95% of Americans mispronouce it. – user6951 Jun 14 '15 at 23:09
  • @pazzo I did not know that. Now I wonder how many people are mispronouncing the Reading Rainbow. – Ben Kovitz Jun 15 '15 at 0:17
  • Perhaps only people from Reading mispronounce "Reading Rainbow"... shrugs – user6951 Jun 15 '15 at 0:34
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    But we pronounce it correctly if we live in Pennsylvania, where we have a town Reading with the same pronunciation as the one in England. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jun 15 '15 at 10:53
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I find it like a guess. Sometimes, it is wrong. I saw alot of natives say words in a different way. It could also be due to experience and matching to a similar word. A way to learn it would be:

Example word: Presentation

I break it up, To Present + a + tion

Most (if not all) tion suffixes have the same sound.

I am not exactly sure with the word Chariot though. That is just a matter of experience and dialect. I suppose to teach someone pronunciation, I would break it up into syllables. But Riot as a word sounds different than riot as a syllable of a different word.

0

I just take an educated guess based upon my knowledge of English since I'm a native speaker. A lot of times, I'm pretty much correct in my pronunciation because most English words have etymologies straight from Latin, French, Greek, etcetera that can be easily spotted. Also, many words have more than one pronunciation, so there's a chance that I hit one of them. There have been cases wherein I've learned a new word and assumed I was pronouncing it correctly until I was corrected or looked it up and I'm a native English speaker. Two English words that come to mind are "superfluous" and "contumelious". I never had trouble pronouncing their noun forms ("superfluity" and "contumely"), but for the longest time I mispronounced the adjective forms. I've mispronounced other words, but can't think of them off the top of my head. Again, I'm usually correct at guessing the pronunciation and even the definition from context clues, but that's probably because I'm a native speaker

protected by Maulik V Jun 15 '15 at 5:01

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