Sunday, April 27, 2014

Exploring spelling and pronunciation, Part 1

Complex, yes. But impossible?

The complexity of English spelling undoubtedly poses problems for both foreign learners and native speakers.
While some languages, like Spanish for example, have a clear relationship between spelling and sound, this is not always the case with English. Where Spanish has more or less one letter for each sound, English can use anywhere between one and four - let's take the sound /u:/, it can be expressed with one letter - who, with two letters - too, with three letters - Hugh, and with four letters - through.
And in English, the same letter can have several different sounds, for example a in - can, cane, car, care.
Because many of the most commonly used words in English have apparently irregular spelling, it can sometimes look as though English has no spelling rules at all. It has been estimated, however, that roughly 80% of words follow regular patterns, and that's what I want to explore in this series of posts, as well as looking at some of the main irregularities.
In this first post, I'll be looking at the sounds represented by one vowel in simple one-syllable words.

Why is English spelling so complex?

There are three main reasons for the complexity of English spelling

1. Diversity of roots

English is somewhat of a mongrel language, borrowing from everywhere:
  • It started off with a group of Germanic dialects coming together to form Anglo-Saxon (often referred to as Old English) between the fifth and ninth centuries AD.
  • Then from 1066, England was taken over by French-speaking Normans. At first, this reduced the importance of English, with French being the language of the elite.
  • Around 1200, the Norman elite lost most of their lands in France, and started to speak English themselves, but bringing a lot of Norman French (Anglo-Norman) words with them. Meanwhile, Latin remained the language of the Church and of official documents. Many educated people of the period were trilingual, speaking what was now Middle English, French and Latin.
  • During the fourteenth century, English started to regain its importance in public life, and at the same time the Frenchh of Paris (rather than that of Normandy) became fashionable, and an even larger group of French words were accepted into English.
  • In the following two centuries, as part of the Renaissance, English intellectuals took an enormous interest in Latin and Greek, introducing thousands of Latin and Greek words into English, often keeping something very close to their original spelling.
  • And more recently, English has borrowed words from just about every culture it has come into contact with. While many languages adapt the spelling of these loan words to their own spelling systems, English often keeps the spelling of the original language.
According to Wikipedia, words of French (or Norman) derivation account for anywhere between 28% and 41% of English words, Germanic languages (Anglo-Saxon and Norse) between 25% and 33%, with Latin accounting for between 15% and 28%, and Greek around 5%. But it's also true that we get our grammar and our most commonly used words from Anglo-Saxon.

2. The Great Vowel Shift

Between about 1400 and 1700, something strange happened, and nobody is quite sure why. The way many vowel sounds were pronounced changed. It was a gradual process, but one that some people even noticed at the time. This has happened in other countries, but apparently not to the same extent as in Britain.
By this time, however, spelling was becoming increasingly standardised, and it didn't change to reflect the new sounds.

3. Some spelling is based more on grammar than sound.

Some spelling reflects the grammatical function of a word rather than its sound. Two of the more obvious examples of these are Past simple -ed and and the letter s in Third person singular.
Every EFL student knows that Past simple -ed has three possible pronunciations: /d/ - lived, /t/ - walked, and /ɪd/ - shouted. Three different sounds represented by one spelling convention.
Something similar happens with s in Third person plural. It can be soft /s/ - works, or hard /z/ - plays, depending on the previous letter(s). But we spell both the same.
Finally, in some word families, we keep the spelling of the common root although the sound might change - compare the s sound in television - /ʒ/, and televise /z/.
These conventions are often useful when determining a word's grammatical function.

Vowel sounds in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)

Standard British English uses twenty vowel sounds, seven short vowels, five long vowels, and eight diphthongs:
short vowelslong vowels
æ - cat ɑ: - car
e - egg
ɪ - fish ɪ: - tree
ɒ - clock ɔ: - horse
ʌ - up
ʊ - bull u: - boot
ə - computer ɜ: - bird


- train əʊ - phone - bike - owl
ɔɪ - boy ɪə: - ear - chair ʊə - tour
You can hear the individual sounds at BBC Learning English

The structure of one syllable words

In this post I'm going to be looking at one syllable words with a single vowel. One syllable words follow one of three patterns:
  • V-C - vowel + consonant - am, on
  • C-V-C - consonant + vowel + consonant - cat, dog, sun
  • C-V - consonant + vowel - be, go
The consonant components can consist of more than one consonant, for example we can have bed, but also bred; had, but also hard. These consonant clusters can sometimes influence the pronunciation of the vowel before or after them, but I'll be looking at that more closely in a later post.

Short vowels - consonant + vowel + consonant

There are seven short vowel sounds - five of them - /æ/, /e/, /ɪ/, /ɒ/, /ʌ/ - give us the basic vowel sounds generally used for one syllable words consisting of C-V-C and ending in:
  • Single consonants - b,d,g,m,n,p,s,t,x
  • Some double consonants - ck, nd, ng, sh
  • Some double consonants (but not after a or o) - ld, st
Stressed first syllables of longer words also often have the short vowel sound
  • a - /æ/
    am, as
    cab, bad, sag, ham, can, lap, has, hat, tax
    back, cash, hang, sand,
    camera, manager
  • e - /e/
    bed, beg, hen, bet, sex
    best, send
    general, dressing
  • i - /ɪ/
    if, it
    bid, gig, him, sin, tip, his, pit
    lift, fish, miss, ring, silk
    history, sister
  • o - /ɒ/
    go, so (but NB exception - do)
    cod, log, hop, dot, box
    loft, sock, song
  • u - /ʌ/
    up, us
    rub, bud, hug, sum, run, cup, but
    buck, huff, rust
The other two short vowel sounds are:
  • /ʊ/ - there's usually a slight difference in pronunciation depending on whether it is followed by t or l(l), but the same symbol is used for both.
    put, bull, full, pull
    foot, soot, wool
  • /ə/, known as the schwa, which is the sound we use for unstressed vowels, and which we will look at a bit later.
Note - Short vowels are not usually found in those syllables ending in r, w or y), which we will look at in a moment.

Variation 1: consonant + vowel + consonant + e

Now look what happens when we add e, er, ed or ing to these simple consonant + vowel + consonant words. The short vowel sound turns into a diphthong, or in the case of u, into a long vowel preceded by /j/:
  • a /eɪ/
    cane, hate, gape
  • e /ɪ:/
    cede, gene, mete
  • i /aɪ/
    bite, line
  • o /əʊ/
    hope, code
  • u /ju:/
    fume, lure, pure, tube
Note 1 - There are very few words with e that fit this pattern:
Note 2 -ve - Words never end in v, which needs to be followed by e. There is no clear pattern: a couple of words ending in -ave and -ive keep the short vowel sound - have, give, live, others change - gave, wave, five, hive. One syllable words ending in -ove have several different pronunciations: /əʊv/ - cove, wove, /ʌv/ - dove, love, /u:v/ - move
Note 3 - When -ing forms are derived from words ending in e, the e is usually dropped.
Note 4 - If we want to keep the short vowel sound before -ing or -e, we usually need to double the consonant:
  • canning, gapped
  • better
  • bitten,
  • sodden
  • supper

Variation 2: vowel + consonant + e

There are a few words consisting of V-C syllables + e where the same thing happens, but to a lesser extent, and with quite a few exceptions.
  • a /eɪ/
    age, ale, ape (but exceptions - are, awe, axe)
  • e /ɪ:/
    eve (but mainly exceptions - ewe, eye)
  • i /aɪ/
    ice, ire
  • o /əʊ/
    ode, owe (but exceptions - one, ore)
  • u /ju:/

Long vowels 1: consonant + vowel + r (+)

Following the vowel with r also changes the sound of the vowel, giving us the long vowel sounds ɑ:, ɜ: and ɔ:.
  • a - /ɑ:(r)/
    car, star, far
    bark, dart, hard
    (exceptions: /ɔ:(r)/ ward, warm, warn)
  • e - /ɜ:(r)/
    fern, herb, nerd
  • i - /ɜ:(r)/
    fir, sir
    bird, firm , girl
  • o - /ɔ:(r)/
    fore, horse, store
  • u - /ɜ:(r)/
    burn, hurt, purr, surf

Variation: consonant + vowel + r + e / ing

And as with other C-V-C syllables, adding e alters the sound, but in a different way again.
  • a - /eə(r)/
    care, stare, fare
    caring, staring, faring
  • e - /ɪə(r)/
    here, mere
    (exception /ɜ:(r)/ were)
  • i - /aɪə(r)/
    fire, sire
    firing, siring
  • o - /ɔ:(r)/
    fore, sore
    bored, soring
  • u - /jʊə(r)/
    cure, pure
    during, purer
    (exception /ʊə(r)/ sure, surer)

Long vowels 2: consonant + a + certain two consonant clusters

In the case of a, many double consonant combinations also have the effect of lengthening the vowel.
  • a - /ɑ:/
    bath, calm, can't, fast, hard, tart
Some of these, for example bath and can't, apply particularly to Standard British English, but not to American English, or to some regions of Britain.

Variation: consonant + a + certain two consonant clusters + e

  • a - /eɪ/
    bathe, haste

Long vowels 3: /ɪ:/ and /u:/

There are two other long vowel sounds, which are usually represented by two vowel clusters:
  • /ɪ:/
    feet, seat, tree
  • u:
    food, boot, soup, suit
I'll be looking at vowel clusters in a later post.

The letter y as a vowel

For consonant + vowel + consonant + y, see next section
At the beginning of a syllable, the letter y is a consonant - /j/ - yacht, yellow, yes. In the middle and at the end of a syllable, y functions as a vowel, behaving similarly to the letter i.
  • C + y + C - /ɪ/ - gym
  • C + y + C + e - /aɪ/ - hype, type
  • C + y + r + e - /aɪə(r)/ - byre, tyre
  • C + y + e - /aɪ/ - bye, dye, eye
  • C + y - /aɪ/ - by, my, sty, try

Consonant + vowel + y

  • a - /eɪ/ - day, hay, stay
  • e - /eɪ/ - hey, /ɪ:/ - key
  • o - /ɔɪ/ - boy, toy
  • u - /aɪ/ - buy, guy
Note - the sounds /ɪ/ and /ɪ:/ at the end of a word are always spelt with y, not i.

Syllables ending in w

Syllables ending in w don't follow the short vowel pattern:
  • a - /ɔ:/
    law, paw, saw
  • e - /ju:/
    few, new, pew
    (exception - /əʊ/ - sew)
  • o - /aʊ/
    cow, now, row
    - /əʊ/
    low, mow, row, tow

Basic vowel patterns

  • V-C = vowel + consonant
  • C-V-C = consonant + vowel + consonant
  • C-V = consonant + vowel
V-CC-V-CC-V-C + e/ingC-V + rC-V + re/ringC-V
aæam, ascan>caneɑ:(r)car>eə(r)careɑ:ma, pa
eeexhen>ɪ:geneɜ:(r)her>ɪə(r)hereɪ:be, we
iɪif, itbit>biteɜ:(r)sir>aɪə(r)hirehi, pi
oɒof, onhop>əʊhopeɔ:(r)forsoreəʊgo, so
uʌup, ustub>ju:tubeɜ:(r)fur>jʊə(r)cure
Note 1: - some main exceptions - put, pull, do
Note 2: - the letters a and o are also lengthened to ɑ: and əʊ: when followed by certain consonant clusters, eg bath, fast and cold, bolt
Note 3: - syllables ending in w and y are exceptions to this principle.
Note 4: - the lengthened sounds produced by adding e give us the pronunciation of the vowels themselves - A, E, I, O, U = , ɪ:, , əʊ, ju:. These are also often called long vowels, and are shown in American dictionaries and some websites with a line over them - ā, ē, ī, ō, ū


We can now see the basic principle behind the different pronunciation of the letter a in can, cane, car, care.
  • basic short vowel - /æ/ - can
  • vowel lengthened into a diphthong by adding e - /eɪ/ - cane
  • long vowel when followed by r - /ɑ:/ - car
  • which is itself lengthened into a different diphthong when followed by e - /eə/ - care
And the same thing happens, to a greater or lesser extent, with the other four vowels.
In the next post in this series, I want to look at the effect of consonant clusters before and after the vowel, and what happens when we have two vowels together in a C-V-C one syllable word.

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