Nifty fractal

English Is Not Phonetic

Native English speakers think that English is phonetic, that is: look at a word and you know how to say it; say and word and you know how to write it. Well, read some third grade papers, or talk to someone who had to learn English as a second language. It’s just not true.

English is only partly phonetic, as I learned while studying Japanese and Chinese. Japanese has three alphabets (plus the kanji), all of which are phonetic. Mandarin Chinese has a phonetic romanization called Pinyin. In all of these, the word always sounds like it looks like. English, not so much. That’s why kids spend 10 years doing spelling tests. If English were truly phonetic, you wouldn’t need spelling tests past second grade. Chinese students don’t have spelling tests for Pinyin, because any kid can tell you what the pinyin is for a word if they know how to pronounce it. (They do have character writing tests, though!)

I’ve been collecting some examples:
aisle / I’llSeriously, those two sound the same?!
aideOh, you thought this was pronounced “ide”? Noob!
islandLooks like “is land”, but when I read it to my baby brother that way my mom corrected me from another room clear down at the end of the hallway.
liar / lyre / lyraTo be fair, two of those are foreign words that got imported.
phonics / stephen / shepherdSame two leters, three different sounds!
woo / woodAdding the d changes the sound of oo
goo / goop / goodBut adding a p doesn’t change anything, so maybe the d is special?
moo / moodHah, that one works like you’d expect, gotcha! Flipping the w upside down apparently fixes the problem.
would / woodDifferent spelling, sound the same. Found that out on a third grade paper...
should / shoulderSame spelling, but add an er and the ou sounds different.
should / shoulder / throughGreat, now ou gets three different sounds!
no / now / knowSome predictability would be handy here...
bow / rowThese combine both sounds into the same spelling, with a different pronunciation depending on whether it is a noun or a verb! (bow down / violin bow; row the boat / there was quite a row downtown tonight).
ow / throwAdding letters really changes things...
ew / threw... except when it doesn’t.
threw / through / doHelp!
go / no / so / dod really seems to mess things up.
tom / tombNot only is the b silent, but it also changes the sound of the o!
put / putt / but / buttGolf is crazy.
toot / soot / putWhere I’m from, at least, soot (what’s in a chimney) and put have the same-sounding vowel.
toot / suit / newtThese don’t look anything the same! (Although depending on your dialect, newt might have more of an ew than oo sound.)
suit / suite / sweetI knew adding an e generally changes the vowel (except when it doesn’t: air / aire), but wow, I would have never expected that.
kernel / colonelThis might be the worst offender in the entire language!

The CIA ranks both English and Chinese as 5/5 in difficulty, but most people think Chinese is much harder. In Chinese you can’t read anything until learn several thousand characters, but in English, you can’t realistically read anything until you’ve heard several thousand words pronounced. At least it’s obvious you can’t read Chinese; English is deceptive. You think you can read it, until you get corrected every other word.

Try out the poem The Chaos by Gerard Trenité, himself a frustrated English learner. The majority of native English speakers cannot read this poem completely correctly (check your pronunciation here).