English spelling – what a nightmare!

English spelling vs pronunciation – what a nightmare!


Hoang Vi Bui

Hochiminh City (formerly known as Saigon), Vietnam


English, as anyone knows it, has long been “notorious” for its spelling, which is said to be “unreliable”, or even “deceitful”: In one way it is spelled, but in quite another pronounced (just as meant to trap people). That can even be verified by our sixth-graders, when they soon get acquainted with English as a foreign language at school: The verb read, for example, is pronounced as /ri:d/, while its simple past and past participle (whose spelling does not change) are pronounced as /red/. There are still other similar blatant examples of “couples” that are identical in their written form but quite different in pronunciation (or homographs): lead (verb) /li:d/ ≠ lead (noun) /led/, tear (noun) /tɪə/ ≠ tear (verb) /teə/, bow (verb1/noun1) /ʊ/ ≠ bow (verb2/noun2) /baʊ/, wind (noun) /wɪnd/ ≠ wind (verb) /waɪnd/, wound (verb/noun) /wu:nd/ ≠ wound (simple past/past participle of wind) /waʊnd/, to name only a few.


However, similar “homographs” in English are not many. It is therefore not too challenging for you to memorize them; what truly causes you troubles in terms of the (lovely) “discrepancies” between English spelling and its pronunciation lies in this: Any of the six English vowel letters (A, E, I, O, U, Y) has several different phonetic values (in different words).


The letter I, for example, can be, at one time, pronounced as

/ɪ/ (It), yet, at another, as

/aɪ/ (wIne), and, at another still, as

/ɜ:/ (bIrd), or even as

/ə/ (fertIlize).


Anyway, compared to I, A is more “versatile”: It can be pronounced as

/a:/ (bAr, fAr), or

/æ/ (bAt, fAt), and

/e/ (mAny), or

/eɪ/ (fAte, gAte), yet also possibly as

/ɪ/ marriAge, carriAge), and

/ə/ (womAn, policemAn), or

/ɔ:/ (cAll, bAll),

or it may even be “ignored” as well (as in physicAlly).


The letter O is not less “tricky”: At times it is pronounced as

/ɒ/ (hOt, pOt), or

/ɔ:/ (Or), yet, at others, as

/əʊ/ (cOld, nO), and then, as

/ə/ (canOn), or

/a/ (nOw, cOw), and

/ʌ/ (lOve, dOne), or even

/ʊ/ (wOman), or – quite unexpectedly –

/ɪ/ (wOmen).


Clusters of vowel letters can be found as “shocking”, too: Here we can just name EA, which can be

/i:/ (mEAn, clEAn), yet can also be

/e/ (mEAnt, clEAnse), or

/ɪə/ (EAr, nEAr), and

// (bEAr, tEAr(away), and then

/ɜ:/ (EArn), or even

/a:/ (hEArt).


And OO, whose phonetic transcription can be

/u:/ (fOOd, fOOl), and then

/ʊ/ (fOOt, bOOk), or

/ʌ/ (flOOd, blOOd), and

/ɔ:/ (dOOr, flOOr), and also

/ʊə/ (pOOr), or even

/ə/ (whippOOrwill).


It is common not only for a beginner student of English to be “misled” by the spelling and pronounce it incorrectly, but also for a senior teacher who is afraid to check dictionaries to be “trapped” like anybody else: In order to check that, you could ask some English teachers to pronounce the following “pairs” (without opening a dictionary): knownrenown, wilderbewilder, wildebeestwild beast,… and see how “self-confident” they appear then.


Nonetheless, whether it sounds believable or not, the one who gets most impatient with the above-mentioned “vices” of English is neither you nor I (who have to learn it as a foreign language), but it turns out to be a native English-speaker –  yes, Bernard Shaw: He got so disappointed with the English spelling that he suggested that the word FISH not be spelled the way it now is, yet let us make it GHOTI, with GH pronounced as /f/ (like lauGH, enouGH), O – /ɪ/ (like wOmen), and TI – /ʃ/ (like naTIon), for example, whereas FISH as so far written looks much too mediocre, much too “honest”! Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1925, Bernard Shaw was not unreasonable, was he? But, very fortunately, nobody has ever been interested in reforming the English spelling system in the way he meant; otherwise, definitely, not only you or I but also those who are native English speakers would rather stay English illiterate!