Spelling pronunciation

Not to be confused with pronunciation spelling.

A spelling pronunciation is the pronunciation of a word according to its spelling, at odds with a standard or traditional pronunciation. Words spelled with silent letters (e.g. island, knife), or traditionally pronounced with reduced vowels or omitted consonants (e.g. cupboard, Worcester), may be subject to a spelling pronunciation.

If a word's spelling was standardized prior to sound changes that produced its "traditional" pronunciation, a spelling pronunciation may reflect an even older pronunciation. This is often the case with compound words (e.g. waistcoat, cupboard, forehead). It is also the case for many words with silent letters (e.g. often[1]), though not all—silent letters are sometimes added for etymological reasons, to reflect a word's spelling in its language of origin (e.g. victual, rhyming with little[2][3] but derived from Late Latin victualia). Some silent letters were added on the basis of erroneous etymologies, as in the cases of the words island[4] and scythe.

Spelling pronunciations are generally considered incorrect next to the traditionally accepted, and usually more widespread, pronunciation. If a spelling pronunciation persists and becomes more common, it may eventually join the existing form as equally acceptable (for example waistcoat[5] and often), or even become the dominant pronunciation (as with forehead and falcon). If a rare word is more often encountered in writing than in speech, the spelling pronunciation may be assumed by most, while the traditional pronunciation is maintained only by older or educated individuals.

Prevalence and causes

Large numbers of easily noticeable spelling pronunciations only occur in languages such as English where spelling tends not to indicate the current pronunciation. Spelling pronunciations can arise in any language when the majority of the populace only obtain enough education to learn how to read and write, but not enough to understand when spelling is not indicating modern pronunciation; in other words, many people do not clearly understand the relationship between spelling and pronunciation.

On the other hand, spelling pronunciations are also evidence of the reciprocal effects of spoken and written speech on each other.[6] Indeed, there is quite a bit of truth in this in the sense that many spellings represent older forms and corresponding older pronunciations. Some spellings, however, are not etymologically correct.

Though many people may believe (to various degrees of accuracy) that the written language is "more correct", this (in turn) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the written language affecting and changing the spoken language if a spelling does not represent an older pronunciation.[6]

Examples of English words with common spelling pronunciations

Opinions about spelling pronunciation

Spelling pronunciations give rise to varied opinions. Often those who retain the old pronunciation consider the spelling pronunciation to be a mark of ignorance or insecurity. Those who use a spelling pronunciation may not be aware that it is one, and consider the historically authentic version to be slovenly, since it "slurs over" a letter. Conversely, the users of some innovative pronunciations such as "Febuary" (for February) may regard the historically (and phonetically) authentic version as a pedantic spelling pronunciation.

Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933) reports that in his day there was a conscious movement among schoolteachers and others encouraging people to abandon anomalous traditional pronunciations and "speak as you spell". According to major scholars of early modern English (Dobson, Wyld et al.), already in the 17th century there was beginning an "intellectual" trend in England to "pronounce as you spell". This presupposes a standard spelling system which was beginning to form at that time. Similarly, quite a large number of "corrections" slowly spread from scholars to the general public in France, starting several centuries ago.[16]

Others would argue that this trend, though understandable from a socio-psychological point of view, is, from a strictly linguistic perspective, irrational, since writing was invented to represent the sounds of the language and not vice versa. (Although it would be helpful in efforts to standardize the language and minimize dialectical drift.) According to this belief, there is no good reason to "speak as one spells", but there are many good reasons to "spell as one speaks", i.e., to reform the orthography of a language whenever it does not render its pronunciation clearly and unambiguously – which is the task of a writing system. How easy such a reform would be in practice is quite another matter.

A different variety of spelling pronunciations are phonetic adaptations, i.e., pronunciations of the written form of foreign words within the frame of the phonemic system of the language that accepts them: an example of this process is garage ([ɡaʀaːʒ] in French) sometimes pronounced [ˈɡæɹɪd͡ʒ] in English. Such adaptations are quite natural, and often preferred by speech-conscious and careful speakers.

In children and foreigners

Children who read a great deal often produce spelling pronunciations, since, assuming they do not consult a dictionary, they have only the spelling to indicate the pronunciation of the words they encounter which are uncommon in the spoken language. Well-read second language learners may also produce spelling pronunciations.

In some instances a population in a formerly non-English speaking area may retain such second language markers in the now native-English speaking population. For example, Scottish standard English is replete with spelling mispronunciations from when Scots was subsumed by English in the 17th century.

However, since there are many words which one reads far more often than one hears, the point also affects adult native-language speakers. In such circumstances, the "spelling pronunciation" may well be more comprehensible than any other. This, in turn, leads to the language evolution mentioned above. What is a spelling pronunciation in one generation often becomes standard in the next.

In other languages

In French, the modern pronunciation of the 16th-century French author Montaigne as [mɔ̃tɛɲ], rather than the contemporary [mɔ̃taɲ], is a spelling pronunciation.

When English club was first borrowed into French, the approved pronunciation was /klab/, as being a reasonable approximation of the English. The standard then became /klyb/ on the basis of the spelling, and later, in Europe, /klœb/, deemed closer to the English original.[17] The standard pronunciation in Quebec French remains [klʏb]. Similarly, shampooing "product for washing the hair" at the time of borrowing was /ʃɑ̃puiŋ/; now it is /ʃɑ̃pwɛ̃/

In Hebrew, the word חֵטְא ([χe̞t], meaning 'sin') is sometimes pronounced [ˈχe̞tä], as suggested by its spelling, especially by children. Other examples of spelling pronunciations are the Sephardic כָּל ([ˈkol], meaning all) being pronounced as [ˈkäl] and צָהֳרַיִם ([ˈtso.oɣäjim], meaning noon) being pronounced as [ˈtsä.oɣäjim] due to how the kamatz katan vowel point (אָ), which indicates [o] is visually identical to kamatz which indicates [ä] : see Sephardi Hebrew.

In Italian, a few early English loanwords are pronounced according to Italian spelling rules. These include water ('toilet bowl', from English water (closet)), pronounced [ˈvater], and tramway, pronounced [tranˈvai]. The Italian word ovest ('west') comes from a spelling pronunciation of French ouest (which, in turn, is a phonetic transcription of English west); this particular instance of spelling pronunciation was only possible before the 16th century, when letters u and v were still indistinct. A few foreign proper names are normally pronounced according to the pronunciation of the original language (or a close approximation of it), but they retain an older spelling pronunciation when uses as parts of Italian street names. E.g., the name of Edward Jenner retains their usual English pronunciation in most contexts, but Viale Edoardo Jenner (a main street in Milan) is pronounced [ˈvjale edoˈardo 'jɛnner]. The usage of such old-fashioned spelling pronunciations is probably encouraged by the custom of translating given names when naming streets after foreign people (as e.g. Edoardo in place of Edward, or Giorgio in place of George for Via Giorgio Washington).

In Spanish, the "ch" in some German words and surnames is pronounced // or /ʃ/ instead of /x/. Bach is correctly pronounced [bax], and Kuchen is [ˈkuxen], but Rorschach is [ˈrorʃaʃ] rather than [ˈrorʃax], Mach is [maʃ] or [matʃ], and Kirchner is [ˈkirʃner] or [ˈkirtʃner]. Other spelling pronunciations are club pronounced [klub], iceberg pronounced [iθeˈβer] in Spain (in American Spanish, it's pronounced [ˈaisberɡ]),[18] and folclor and folclore as translations of folklore, pronounced [folˈklor] and [folˈkloɾe]. Also in Spanish, the acute accent in the French word élite is taken as a stress mark and the word is pronounced [ˈelite].

When Polish borrow words from English with spelling preserved, the pronunciation tends to follow the rules of Polish. Words such as "marketing" are pronounced as spelled instead of the more faithful "markytyng".

In Vietnamese, the letter "v" as an initial consonant is often pronounced like a "y" ([j]) in the central and southern varieties. However, in formal speech, speakers will often revert to the spelling pronunciation, which is also increasingly being used in casual speech as well.

Books and articles

See also


  1. 1 2 often in the American Heritage Dictionary
  2. victuals in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. victual in Oxford Dictionaries
  4. island in the American Heritage Dictionary
  5. "Definition for waistcoat - Oxford Dictionaries Online (World English)". Oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
  6. 1 2 Michael Stubbs, Language and Literacy: the Sociolinguistics of Reading and Writing. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 31-32
  7. Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 560.
  8. Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 317.
  9. Algeo, John (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th edn, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, p. 46.
  10. John Wells (2010-07-16). "OED note on history of "clothes"". Phonetic-blog.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
  11. Wells, J. C. (2008). Longman Pronunciation Dictionary, 3rd edn, Harlow, UK: Longman, p. 297.
  12. Algeo, John (2010). The Origins and Development of the English Language, 6th edn, Boston, MA: Wadsworth, p. 142.
  13. Claypole, Jonty (Director); Kunzru, Hari (Presenter) (2003). Mapping Everest (TV Documentary). London: BBC Television.
  14. Everest, Mount – Definitions from Dictionary.com (Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2006)
  15. See "The Fight for English" by David Crystal (p. 172, Oxford University Press) and the entry for "antarctic" in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  16. Peter Rickard, A History of the French Language: 1989
  17. "Trésor de la langue française". Cnrtl.fr. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
  18. "DPD 1.Ş edición, 2.Ş tirada" (in Spanish). Buscon.rae.es. Retrieved 2012-05-27.
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