No wonder English is difficult for new learners

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Main Question or Discussion Point

What a difference a single letter makes. The 'o' sound is different in these words:
  • comb -- rhymes with "foam"
  • bomb -- rhymes with "Tom"
  • tomb and womb -- rhyme with "doom" (or the Welsh word "cwm", one of very few examples where 'w' has a vowel sound)
More examples:
  • some
  • dome
And these:
  • hook
  • hoot
There's not much logic here, as far as I can see. Other languages are much more straightforward in their pronunciation. For example, in Spanish and Italian, most letters have a single pronunciation, or there is a simple rule to guide you when there are two pronunciations (e.g., Spanish cerca is pronounced "sairka", with 's' sound for first 'c' and 'k' sound for second 'c'.)

Pronunciation in Russian is likewise very predictable. The only exceptions I can think of are the noun/adjective suffix ого (transliterated as "ogo" but pronounced "ovo") or the surname suffix ев (transliterated as "ev" but pronounced as "ov" for historical reasons).
 

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  • #2
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Maybe some pronunciations cause a problem. In many cases, I find that I cannot understand whether the person pronounced a 'd' or a 'b'. American and British spellings are also different. As a kid, I faced problems with 'color' and 'colour'.

But I don't think it's difficult if one learns it in childhood days. The older a person grows, the more difficult it becomes to learn a language.

I did not face too many problems learning the language, perhaps because I learnt it as a kid. But I do find myself in a fix sometimes with grammar and spellings. Nesfield's grammar book and Oxford dictionary comes handy in such cases. I am a Bengali by birth, but nowadays, without learning the international language, you won't be able to go anywhere (unless your country self-sufficient like the Japanese :wink:)
 
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  • #3
opus
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One that has always annoyed me was the use of G. Like Giraffe or Golf. Makes no sense!
 
  • #4
phinds
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One of the reasons for this is that English, more than most languages, has taken LOTS of words from LOTS of different languages. I can't remember the exact quote but someone once said that while other languages borrow a word here and there from other languages, English chases them down an alley and mugs them.

EDIT: found it. It's by James Nicoll, who said:
The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.
 
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  • #5
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Russian has dialects, too, and many "o" sound like an "a" as the last vowel in Спаси́бо.

My favorite comment on this mess is a quotation of George Bernard Shaw:
"Ghot" is pronounced "Fish": gh - as in laugh, o - as in women, and t - as in nation.

I do not think the import of foreign words is the reason. If so, the many Latin words would be pronounced like Italian or Spanish, but they are not. The same holds for German imports. I frequently look up the origin of words and am regularly surprised how many English words have origins in (medieval) Old German, similar to Dutch. You can literally see the different derivations (English, Dutch, German) those words took. All of these three languages simply took another path of pronunciation (sound shift). E.g. the Scottish people often sound as if they spoke some kind of German. The language which is spoken at the German coast line is again very similar to English. If you read Shakespeare in his original words, it sounds far more German than English. The same holds true for some old Gospels.
 
  • #6
PeroK
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What a difference a single letter makes. The 'o' sound is different in these words:
  • comb -- rhymes with "foam"
  • bomb -- rhymes with "Tom"
  • tomb and womb -- rhyme with "doom" (or the Welsh word "cwm", one of very few examples where 'w' has a vowel sound)
More examples:
  • some
  • dome
And these:
  • hook
  • hoot
I always pronounce "oo" the same. I guess you say something like "huck" for "hook".

The one you forgot is:

Bone
Done
Gone
 
  • #7
Stephen Tashi
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There's not much logic here, as far as I can see. Other languages are much more straightforward in their pronunciation.
Perhaps there are reasons, even if there is no logic.

How did "ble" come to be pronounced like "bel" ? - "able", "eidible", "noble", "soluble"

Perhaps a French proununciation was lost, but the French spelling was kept ?
 
  • #8
PeroK
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E.g. the Scottish people often sound as if they spoke some kind of German.
My grandmother, who was from Aberdeen, used words like "fecht" for fight, "gang" for "go" and "bocht" for "bought".

The original influence was more Norse than German, I believe.
 
  • #9
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It's even worse: schedule and schedule are pronounced differently! I think issue, too.
 
  • #10
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The original influence was more Norse than German.
Probably, but still the same family. I referred more to the pronunciation: Scottish people often pronounce vowels as we would do. I can't say that I could understand them (interviews with John Higgins are terrible!), but it definitely doesn't sound English, and yes, "ch" is a good example! Btw., we have an old version of "fought" in use: "ficht" related to "fechten - focht - gefochten".
 
  • #11
PeroK
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Probably, but still the same family. I referred more to the pronunciation: Scottish people often pronounce vowels as we would do. I can't say that I could understand them, but it definitely doesn't sound English, and yes, "ch" is a good example! Btw., we have an old version of "fought" in use: "ficht".
We also tend to pronounce words more literally. Like "cat" instead of "ket"; "iron" with a rolled "r", not "i'on"; "saw" without an "r", not "sawr". Also, I say "tortoise" and "raspberry", pronouncing every letter with glottal stops, not "taughtus" and "raazbri".

The English are definitely "mundfaul" in other words.
 
  • #12
phinds
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The Polish maid was asked to polish the silver.
 
  • #13
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I always pronounce "oo" the same. I guess you say something like "huck" for "hook".
The "oo" diphthong has two pronunciations, at least in U.S. English, if not in Scottish English. "Hoot" has the long "oo" pronunciation, written as ##\text{H}\overline{\text{oo}}\text{t}##, and "hook" has the short "oo" pronunciation, written with an upward opening curved arc (can't find the LaTeX version of this symbol).

The one you forgot is:

Bone
Done
Gone
Well, I wasn't intending to include an exhaustive list of words.

Another that should be included is "women," where the 'o' is pronounced as if spelled "wimmen".

Along the same lines is the non-word "ghoti," pronounced "fish."
"gh" as in "tough"
"o" as in "women"
"ti" as in "station"
 
  • #14
PeroK
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The "oo" diphthong has two pronunciations, at least in U.S. English, if not in Scottish English. "Hoot" has the long "oo" pronunciation, written as ##\text{H}\overline{\text{oo}}\text{t}##, and "hook" has the short "oo" pronunciation, written with an upward opening curved arc (can't find the LaTeX version of this symbol).

"
Yes, that's the point that @fresh42 was making. Generally, Scots use fewer variations on vowel sounds than standard English (British or US).

In this we probably have some Norse/Germanic influence.

In fact, we tend to use pure vowel sounds, rather than dipthongs. Except in words like "oil". The oo sound is generally a pure vowel in a Scots accent.

For example, in "Two hooks suit you" I pronounce all those vowel sounds exactly the same!
 
  • #15
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In fact, we tend to use pure vowel sounds, rather than dipthongs.
Couldn't this also be due to Gaelic, which is very different from English? E.g. the "ch" sound doesn't exist in English, but it does in Gaelic (I suppose).
 
  • #16
StatGuy2000
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Couldn't this also be due to Gaelic, which is very different from English? E.g. the "ch" sound doesn't exist in English, but it does in Gaelic (I suppose).
The "ch" sound used to exist in Old English, but my understanding is that the sound disappeared through contact with French, which was introduced by the Normans (descendants of Vikings who had settled in what is now the region of Normandy in northwestern France) through the Norman Conquest of 1066.
 
  • #17
StatGuy2000
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Much of the peculiarities of the spelling in English can be traced to the introduction of the printing press in the 1470s, which led to the adoption of the standardization of English spelling which continued into the 16th centuries. The standard spelling was based on Middle English pronunciation (derived from Old English).

However, between the 14th and the 17th centuries, English had experienced what linguists refer to as the "Great Vowel Shift" which led to a change in pronunciation (which was not reflected in the standardization of the spelling), thus causing part of the discrepancy we see in English spelling.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift
 
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  • #18
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This is true. English pronunciation is not straightforward. I don't know what parts to stress. I have to memorize how words are pronounced. I also find that the letter 'r' in American English is the hardest to pronounce for me an a non native speaker. Also a flap T is tricky (they say it sounds like 'd', but for me it sounds more like an unstressed 'r')!!
 
  • #19
PeroK
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Couldn't this also be due to Gaelic, which is very different from English? E.g. the "ch" sound doesn't exist in English, but it does in Gaelic (I suppose).
If you think English spelling is difficult, you should try Gaelic. For example, there is a mountain in the Cairngorms called Beinn Mheadhoin, which is pronounced Ben Vane.
 
  • #20
jtbell
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Maybe some pronunciations cause a problem. In many cases, I find that I cannot understand whether the person pronounced a 'd' or a 'b'.
This sort of thing isn't unique to learning English. For example, many English-speakers can't distinguish between German 'u' and 'ü'. And there are the "tones" which have meaning in languages like Chinese.
 
  • #21
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there is a mountain in the Cairngorms called Beinn Mheadhoin, which is pronounced Ben Vane.
Really?! That is outstanding.
 
  • #22
PeroK
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Really?! That is outstanding.
It makes sense once you learn that: "v" is a relatively recent letter, so it's rendered by "bh" or "mh". The "dh", "th" and "gh" all act like the English "gh" in "night" and simply lengthen the vowel. That get's you to "vay-oin". Then, Gaelic generally seems to compress things, so it reduces all the way to "vane".
 
  • #23
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Ah, as "Siobhan" is pronounced like "She vaun"

I think you're right, Gaelic wins the spelling bee.
 
  • #24
PeroK
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  • #25
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The discussion of Welsh words brings to mind what an English teacher of mine back in about 7th grade said, listing the vowels in English -- "a, e, i, o, u, and y, and sometimes w." The first five are obvious, and y is used as a vowel in such words as "myth" and "abyss" and many others. She couldn't come up with an example where 'w' was used as a vowel.

Many years later I read of the Western Cwm on Mt. Everest. Cwm (pronounced "koom") is a Welsh word for a steep-sided hollow that is now part of English. That's the only example I've come up with where 'w' is used as a vowel.
 

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