Is English a phonetic language? Yes. No. Maybe. If it was as phonetic a language as Hindi or Spanish, we would speak it just as we spell it. Instead, we have the silent k’s (knowledge, knight, kneel) and g’s (gnash, gnostic, gnome), the moody oe sound (shoes, does, goes), and the troublesome th (Thames, Thomas, thyme). And proper nouns, let’s not even get started with those!
In this Word Nerd, we’re not even veering into the treacherous territory that is accent. Or slang. Or how the language evolves and shape-shifts through history. We’re agreeing that English is a weird language. One that has frustrated many new learners and non-native speakers, who saw the gaping chasm between spelling and speaking, and fell headlong into it.
One of them, Gerard Nolst Trenité, penned a poem “In the Chaos”. The poem is a new learner’s rant on just how exasperating English pronunciation is! While Trenite catalogues many oddities, he saves the most perverse for the last stanza– the ough sounds.
Finally, which rhymes with enough—
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is: GIVE IT UP!!!
We can hardly fault Trenite with feeling frustrated. The ough sound is, by far, the most variable in the language. It has at least six pronunciations in North American English and ten in British English. Trenite’s four lines have seven pronunciations of the ough sound (to rhyme with bracketed words): enough (ruff); though (toe); through (true), plough (bow); dough (doe); cough (coffin); hiccough (cup).
Non-native speakers are not the only ones who have felt like giving up. William Thomas Goodge, an English writer and journalist, wrote “Ough – A Phonetic Fantasy”. Listen to it here. The fun in the poem is that the words, if pronounced as they’re supposed to, completely betray the rhyme scheme!
English seems to have a bug when it comes to pronunciation. And it’s more than likely that you will embarrass yourself at one point or the other. There is an anecdote of an English academic who, at her retirement, spoke of things going “oar-y”. It was after some confusion that students understood she meant “a-wry”.
So, when you mispronounce something, remember not to be too hard on yourself. Also, try not to be too harsh with others when they do. You can be the pronunciation police, if you play the good cop!
By Skendha Singh