Just a couple of weeks ago ABC News came out with an updated list, state-by-state, of America’s most misspelled words. Our faculty had great fun clicking on each other’s respective home state and seeing how our kinfolk ranked. It was pretty comical. Even more so was the ensuing banter over which words we were surprised to find misspelled, and which misspelled words seemed perfectly natural.
It didn’t take us long to bring the conversation back to a more serious note. After all, spelling and pronunciation are inextricably linked and, when English isn’t someone’s first language, both can be painfully difficult. Our clients could be the first to describe the seemingly illogical nature of English spelling and, by default, pronunciation.
Why are spelling and pronunciation so doggone difficult? Allow me to be direct: It’s not you, nor your colleagues, nor anyone who speaks English, be it their mother tongue or as a second language. Plain and simple, it’s the language.
Many languages are phonetic, where each letter is pronounced in only one way. English is not. One letter can be pronounced in a truly inordinate number of ways. In fact, there isn’t a letter in the English alphabet that can be pronounced in less than two distinct ways. (This includes silent versions. Think ‘p’ in the word ‘receipt’, ‘b’ in the word ‘numb’, and ‘l’ in the word ‘salmon’.) Now let’s narrow it down from the entire alphabet to just vowels. Take the letter ‘o’. There’s ‘o’ as in ‘cot’, ‘coffee’, ‘cool’, ‘cook’, ‘come’, ‘co-op’, ‘cope’, ‘cow’, ‘coil’, and on and on and on. Is it any wonder why folks in Colorado have difficulty spelling the word ‘tomorrow’? Heck, both the words ‘Colorado’ and ‘tomorrow’ are spelled with an ‘o’ that’s pronounced in three different ways.
As we can see, relying on pronunciation as a guide for correct spelling, and spelling for effective pronunciation, is arguably not the best strategy. For pronunciation, when it’s the case of a specific word or two, try howtopronounce.com. For spelling, good ol’ Webster’s Dictionary may still be the best game in town.
I heard a delightful interview on NPR last week with Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herse, founders of the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL). Deck and Herse explained that typos are often caused by the discrepancies between the way English words are spelled and the way they’re pronounced. Any student of American accent training can surely sympathize, if not from the spelling side of the equation, than from the pronunciation side.
Members of the TEAL team recognize that, unfortunately, a solid 14% of English words are not spelled phonetically. Yikes! How can a student of English pronunciation training possibly contend with this? Thankfully, the situation is less dire than it may seem.
Part of the Accent Reduction Institute’s methodology is to address this situation head on. Contrary to what we may think, non-phonetic spelling patterns often correspond to “mini” pronunciation rules. And there are many! Once we identify these rules, pronunciation becomes a far less daunting task.
For example, let’s take the letter ‘t’. It can be pronounced in the following ways: “t” (as in time, two, and test); “d” (as in party, sorted, and Carter); “sh” (as in fraction, nation, and solution); “ch” (as in nature, future and fracture), and the list goes on. It’s fascinating (if you’re an English aficionado like I am) to recognize that these different pronunciations consistently conform to hard-and-fast spelling rules. While I won’t bore you with the entire canon of English spelling-pronunciation law, I’ll share just one: When the letter ‘t’ is between an ‘r’ and a vowel, as in the word “mortar”, the ‘t’ is pronounced like a ‘d’. This is just one of many examples where seemingly non-phonetic spelling patterns are actually key pronunciation rules. With a little instruction, pronunciation patterns become easy as pie.
The process of learning pronunciation rules reminds me of the last time I bought a car. When I finally decided on a Ford Escape, suddenly parking lots and highways were full of them…it appeared they were everywhere! The same goes for pronunciation. Once you realize that the letter ‘t’ between two vowels is pronounced like a ‘d’ (as in the word “water”) you’ll notice this mini-rule popping up in every other sentence. Soon you’ll find yourself saying “liter” like “leader” and “atom” like “Adam”. English pronunciation doesn’t need to be as daunting as it first appears. To quote Shakespeare, one of our great English masters, “There really is a method to the madness!”
Perhaps the biggest complaint about English pronunciation is that words are not always pronounced the way they’re spelled. But while this is true, many words are pronounced the way they’re heard. This is called onomatopoeia. An example, for those of us who grew up with Batman and Robin, are the infamous “Bang”, “Boom”, and “Ka-bam”. Others include “goop” and “glop” – the distinction being one of total subjectivity! Imagine the words “goop” and “glop”. Doesn’t a clear visual immediately come to mind?
If you’re fascinated by language like we are, you may find it interesting that many words relating to the same theme often use the same consonants. For example, in Bill Bryson’s book, The Mother Tongue, Bryson notes that words having to do with wetness tend to start with sp: spill, splatter, splash, spray, spigot; words that have to with movement often begin with fl: flap, flail, flick, flee, etc.
In fact, every language under the sun has a number of onomatopoeic words and sounds. This makes sense. With roughly 200+ vowels and 600+ consonants used around the world, languages have a variety of sounds to choose from. Learn about onomatopoeic sounds from around the world. It will make you pause and wonder…why does an American rooster say “cock-a-doodle-doo” and a Filipino rooster say “tiktilaok”? The way we hear sounds differ from region to region, language to language. My personal favorite is from Hawaii. It’s a word that describes lava that’s dangerously hot but not quite molten:“ah-ah”.
Who could say it better than that?