Every learner of English has struggled with English pronunciation at some point in their lives. Unlike many other languages, English sometimes seems to be completely illogical in the way words are pronounced. Take ‘wind’ and ‘mind’ for example.  Both words end on the letters ‘-ind’ so you would think that they are pronounced the same way, but they are not. Here is how you pronounce them correctly: ‘wɪnd’ and ‘mʌɪnd’.

 

An unusual poem

Thankfully, English learners are not the only ones who struggle with pronunciation. English has so many irregularities that sometimes even native speakers are not sure how to say a word. The poem ‘The Chaos’ by Gerard Nolst Trenité contains about 800 of the most difficult irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation and it is said that 90% of native speakers are not able to pronounce every word of it correctly. Here are the first three verses:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

You can find the whole poem with a complete phonetic notation here or if you prefer to hear the poem, here is a video of a native English speaker reading it out loud.

 

The history of English pronunciation

There are a few reasons why English spelling and pronunciation is so complicated, but all of them can be traced back to the history of the English language. First of all, English is a very old language and a standardized spelling system was adopted early on. Since then, the pronunciation of the words has changed a lot, but the spelling has stayed almost the same. This means most of the silent letters that aren’t pronounced today, like ‘k’ in ‘knife’ or ‘g’ in ‘night’, are there because they used to be pronounced in Old English. They are relics of how the language was pronounced before. Scottish is the accent that is still closest to Old English.

Also, the English language ‘borrowed’ a lot of things from other languages. For example, they adopted both the Roman and the Germanic alphabet (known as runes) for their words. The problem with this is that there are some sounds in English that don’t exist in those alphabets, such as ‘th’ in the Roman alphabet, and so a new letter from a different alphabet or a combination of letters was used for that sound. English speakers also ‘borrowed’ words from other languages. That is why you can find a lot of French words in English such as ‘region’ and ‘garage’. Some people still pronounce them similar to French, while others assimilate the pronunciation to other English words. All of these things together make the spelling and pronunciation of English very confusing. That’s why, we continually teach pronunciation as part of our General English classes.

If you are an advanced English speaker and are interested in hearing more about the history of English pronunciation, listen to the podcast by Oxford professor Simon Horobin.

 

How can I improve my pronunciation?

If you would like to practice your pronunciation, there are lot of interesting resources online that can help you. For example, the Oxford dictionary has a detailed guide to English pronunciation. The Alba English phonetic chart, the BBC’s “The sounds of English” videos and the British Council interactive phonemic chart could also be useful to you. If you are looking for something more fun, you could check out this video about how UK place names are pronounced.

We have also prepared a guide with some interesting words for Alba English students: street names in Edinburgh, Alba English teacher names, places in Scotland and whisky names. In Scotland the use of Gaelic words (especially for names) is very common. This is why some of these words are very unusual. Here is how they are pronounced:

 

Street Names in Edinburgh

Boroughloch Street - near the Meadows in Edinburgh

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Buccleuch Street - near the Meadows in Edinburgh

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Sciennes Street - close to Alba English School

French

German

Italian

Spanish

 

Alba English Teacher Names

Hugh - Academic Manager

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Jenny - School Director

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Suzy - Teacher

French

German

Italian

Spanish

 

Places in Scotland

Edinburgh - Where our school is located!

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Eilean Donan Castle - a castle on the west coast of Scotland

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Isle of Skye - an island off the west coast of Scotland

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Scone Palace - a palace near Perth

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Whisky names

Auchentoshan

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Bruichladdich

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Bunnahabhain

French

German

Italian

Spanish

Glen Garioch

French

German

Italian

Spanish

 

 

Hopefully, these tips will bring some clarity for you into the chaos of English pronunciation!

Christina

 


Some interesting vocabulary:

illogical (Adj)

= without sense

trace back (V)

= to find the origin of something

adopt (V)

= start using something new, usually some kind of system. (It also means to take a child into your family and become the their parent).

relic (N)

= an object that has survived from the past

assimilate to (V)

= adapt, integrate. This is often used when describing the process of immigrants adapting to and integrating into a new country or community.

That's why (I)

= this expression means “for this reason”. “That is why” is much more common and natural than “for this reason”. That’s why we are telling you this!

 

N = noun, V = verb, Adj. = adjective, Adv. = adverb, I = idiom