How can native English speakers read an unknown word correctly?

98

33

I have learned English for many years, and from the first day I began to learn it I know the dictionary is necessary for the study. One of the important aspects is that English words, unlike German and Spanish, usually can not be read correctly without phonetics. But recently, I talked with some native speakers and they told me they can read any word directly and rightly even though they never learned it before. I just want to know how they can do that -- there is no ordinarily acceptable method to read an English word?

monika

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 981

English is mostly written/read rather than spoken/heard – Ormoz – 2015-09-26T10:37:07.993

Non-native speaker who became fluent. Most of it for me comes from having encountered those words before, and the words I don't know are usually more complex ones (i.e. not from Old English but from Latin or Greek) that I can figure out with basic prefix/suffix patterns. – user3932000 – 2016-04-14T04:12:07.013

I don't know how right they were but when French car company Renault started selling in USA they pronounced it the way it is written as we all tend to and not as "Runoo" or "Re-no" which is its actual French pronunciation. – Rolen Koh – 2016-12-15T05:03:06.300

86The native speakers who told you that are wrong. – snailplane – 2014-10-19T07:47:51.407

37You might as well ask the converse question at the same time: how can native English speakers spell words correctly? Answer: they don't. – 200_success – 2014-10-19T07:57:53.177

4This is an exaggeration! There are some letter patterns and some vocabulary roots out there to help but in no way can they pronounce any word with certainty. – learner – 2014-10-19T10:59:20.943

31

Maybe you want to ask those native speakers to read aloud this: http://www.learnenglish.de/pronunciation/pronunciationpoem.html

– Matthias – 2014-10-19T21:55:41.773

3@Matthias Signed up just to upvote your comment. That's solid gold! – Angew is no longer proud of SO – 2014-10-20T08:06:17.107

16Even the best English linguist will make mistakes in some word - it's true that an educated native speaker can guess/work out the vast majority of words from experience and similar words, but there is absolutely no way to be sure. Even linguistic areas for which there are 'rules' have exceptions. It's the weakness of the language when learning it, but also perhaps the most English thing about it – Jon Story – 2014-10-20T08:50:51.637

1

no, they don't pronounce it correctly https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-famous-names-of-people-and-places-that-are-constantly-mispronounced

– phuclv – 2014-10-20T09:39:28.580

7

@Matthias: As I could not find an attribution on the linked site: This poem is The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité.

– Wrzlprmft – 2014-10-20T12:05:12.973

23I am a native English speaker (born and lived there for 25 years) with multiple university degrees, and I regularly mis-pronounce unfamiliar and uncommon words, and the occasional fairly-common word too.

I suspect that the people you had asked have never read anything particularly complicated, or were fibbing a bit. – Mark K Cowan – 2014-10-20T12:07:28.310

1@Wrzlprmft The author is mentioned at the very end, but the title is indeed missing. Thanks for adding this. I didn't know the title myself before. – Matthias – 2014-10-20T12:19:01.347

4On an advanced level, English words usually are phonetic. The true exceptions to this, such as the words "one" and "Wednesday", are almost always basic vocabulary and are learned early on. Other words, even if they don't look or come across like they're phonetic, ultimately are phonetic from a pretty intricate, etymology-based system underlying their spellings, and this system is gradually picked up on by people who speak English. Essentially you'll notice a word's spelling falls into one "style" or another, and you'll use that style's phonetics to figure out the word's pronunciation. – Panzercrisis – 2014-10-20T17:09:09.503

6To those who wish to close this question as "too broad" or "primarily opinion based": I disagree, mainly because the answer happens to be "they can't". If it were possible but difficult, then it would have been too broad. – 200_success – 2014-10-20T18:23:24.110

3If you know the etymology of the word (did it come from French, or German, or Latin?) then you have a better chance at guessing (guestimating?) the pronunciation, but that doesn't mean you're right. I'm a native speaker too, like @MarkKCowan, and I also mis-pronounce unfamiliar words. – Ming – 2014-10-21T01:15:26.573

8

One word: ghoti

– Dennis – 2014-10-21T04:33:47.287

2I probably pronounce Estonian more clearly than English (ignoring my accent), despite spending only 10 months there (and counting) vs. 25 years in the UK. If only Estonian grammar was as simple as the pronunciation... – Mark K Cowan – 2014-10-21T06:46:33.540

2@Dennis I thing you're ghoti-ing for upvotes there :D – Mark K Cowan – 2014-10-21T06:48:22.793

3

Ask those native speakers how the would pronounce the Dunning-Kruger effect.

– Zano – 2014-10-22T12:21:48.780

1I once moved to a town where the people living there couldn't even agree about the proper pronunciation of the town's name... In addition, my last name is quite rare, and the people in the UK with that last name come from three very different ethnicities. So I have no idea how the other two would pronounce the same name. – gnasher729 – 2014-10-23T16:24:02.410

Answers

90

Unlike in some other languages, English spelling tends to reflect the developmental history of the word rather than its pronunciation. Therefore, it takes more learning and practice to pronounce English words. After learning the basic rules, you also need to learn some exceptions, and with enough practice, you may be able to spot some patterns.

Given that English is built on Greek, Latin, Anglo-Saxon / Norse, and French influence, and continues to assimilate words from other languages, it helps to consider which set of pronunciation rules to apply depending on the word's origin. For example, "ch" in words of Greek origin (e.g. psyche) would generally have a /k/ sound. In words taken from French during an earlier period (e.g. chief), "ch" would have a /tʃ/ sound. Later French borrowings (e.g. chef) would have a softer /ʃ/ sound.

Even with lots of experience, any English speaker who claims to be able to read any word correctly is lying. Here is a whole thread on Reddit full of words that people have mispronounced for years. Some examples include:

  • hyperbole, epitome, synecdoche
  • draught
  • lingerie, macabre, melee
  • segue
  • açai
  • awry
  • victuals
  • quinoa
  • chalcedony

I'd also add

  • row (in the sense of a fight)
  • chassis

No amount of experience would ever help you guess the British pronunciation of "lieutenant".

Part of the difficulty is, believe it or not, deliberately introduced. In words like "scent" and "debt", silent letters were added to make them fit their etymology.

Your only consolation is that English is still easier to read than Chinese.


Have you figured out the pronunciation of the words above? Here are the answers!

/haɪˈpɝːbəli/ /ɪˈpɪt.ə.mi/ /sɪˈnɛkdəki/
/dɹɑːft/
/ˌlɑn.(d)ʒəˈɹeɪ/ /məˈkɑːbɹə/ /mɛˈleɪ/
/ˈsɛɡweɪ/
/ˈa.saj/
/əˈɹaɪ/
/ˈvɪtəlz/
/ˈkinˌwɑ/
/kælˈsɛdəni/
/raʊ/
/ˈtʃæsi/ or /ˈʃæsi/
/lɛfˈtɛnənt/

200_success

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 7 829

2(Native US speaker.) Do you have a source for the pronunciation of açai? My pronunciation (based on portuguese) has three syllables, with accent on the last, as in /a.sa'i/, which also matches Wiktionary. – Mario Carneiro – 2016-06-18T01:24:42.233

1

@MarioCarneiro Here is one source, but perhaps yours is more proper. Either way, it reinforces my point that the pronunciation of English words is not obvious. =)

– 200_success – 2016-06-18T02:23:30.087

@200_success Two that my family still teases me about mispronouncing: adrenal and adrenaline. Very English, not proper. I'd like to think they've given more people than just me, trouble. – Matthew Willcockson – 2018-08-20T06:51:36.327

All of those words were easy to pronounce, although I'd never seen synecdoche, açai, or chalcedony – Alec Alameddine – 2019-08-12T09:12:46.403

34If you had never seen the words "laughter" and "daughter", it is unlikely that you would guess correctly the pronunciation of one, and impossible to guess both correctly. – gnasher729 – 2014-10-19T15:52:46.027

Great for lots of real examples, useful detail, pulling the reader in, and the denoument effect. Great post! – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-10-20T00:18:59.833

That Reddit thread is solid gold. I admit, I mispronounced 'facade' and 'hyperbole' for years. – Damien H – 2014-10-20T05:24:47.233

Another topic about words that have been pronounced incorrectly https://www.quora.com/What-are-some-famous-names-of-people-and-places-that-are-constantly-mispronounced

– phuclv – 2014-10-20T09:40:41.437

2@LưuVĩnhPhúc Those are all proper names, though, and many of them are decidedly foreign. – 200_success – 2014-10-20T09:44:03.807

2No, there are lots of English words, even common nouns in that question – phuclv – 2014-10-20T11:05:37.323

1While this is a good answer, it's strength is reduced due to the number of foreign words in the list. Synecdoche is greek, lingerie is French, segue is Italian and that 'açai' word doesn't even use English letters. – mcalex – 2014-10-21T05:40:18.033

2@mcalex Are they really foreign words? If so, what would be the expressions for those concepts in English? Does synecdoche have a different status that hyperbole? – 200_success – 2014-10-21T05:41:33.100

16@mcalex English doesn't have many words of its own. Many are borrowed, but not foreign. Apple calls the motions between apps on the iPhone a segue, and my wife has a collection of both undergarments and lingerie. I eat burritos, but I don't speak Spanish; calamari, but I don't speak Italian; sushi, but I don't speak Japanese; baklava, but I don't speak Turkish; gyro, but I don't speak Greek. Food alone seems to have more foreign words than American-made, not to mention various crafts, tools, toys, vehicles, etc. And I melee and parley often. – phyrfox – 2014-10-21T06:11:15.463

another example: "chassis" – Octopus – 2014-10-21T08:01:53.990

@mcalex Oddly, açai seems to also be English, despite the letters. Although it's acceptable to simply type "acai", as far as I know

– Izkata – 2014-10-21T20:50:44.170

1One can add slaughter to the comment of @gnasher729. – Millie Smith – 2014-10-21T21:14:06.807

1@Izkata For one thing most people don't know how to make their keyboards produce the letter ç. For another, most English speakers never use accented letters when writing English because the only words that would have them are loan-words. – Pharap – 2014-10-28T23:35:33.850

41

Native speakers of English who already have good vocabularies can correctly guess how to pronounce most words, but not all words. There are a number of patterns that help:

  • Most "complicated" words are built out of shorter prefixes, roots, and suffixes. These prefixes, roots, and suffixes follow patterns.
  • English has patterns for how to stress the various syllables of long words.

Also, even if a native English speaker has never read a particular word, they may have heard it (or a related word) on the radio, on television, in school, or in a church sermon. So they might subconsciously know how to pronounce the word.

Native English speakers with poor vocabularies are often not familiar with some of the roots and suffixes. They also tend to read very little. Fewer of their pronunciation guesses are likely to be right.

But even native English speakers with good vocabularies guess wrong about some words. One lady I know tells about how she used to think that "tarantula" was pronounced "tare-ann-too-luh" (instead of "tuhRanchYouLuh") and "debris" was pronounced "DebRiss" (instead of "DehBree").

In the United States, most native speakers spend literally hundreds of hours in school learning spelling. In the process, they learn rules for which combinations of letters are pronounced like other letters, and which letters can be silent. (9 - 13 years of school * 170 - 180 school days per school year * 45 - 60 minutes of English class per school day * 15 - 25 percent of time on spelling and vocabulary = 200 - 500 hours of spelling and vocabulary practice.)

Jasper

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 23 316

11Ugh. That's 200-500 hours of wasted time, compared to languages where knowing how to read/write includes knowing how to spell every word including ones that you've never seen or heard, and can be done in preschool or at the latest by 1st/2nd grade. – Peteris – 2014-10-19T12:03:06.223

13@Peteris Is it really wasted time? Chinese writing is even harder: it takes a lifetime to master. It does come with advantages of being highly compact and recognizable over time. In the case of English, idiosyncrasies in spelling are the price you pay for having a rich language that assimilates words freely from other languages. Variety is the spice of life! – 200_success – 2014-10-19T16:43:54.910

+1 Informative. "Native speakers of English who already have good vocabularies" When I read I find the word vocabulary almost always uncountable. Did you write it in the plural form in purpose? And if so, why? I checked the dictionary and found out that it could be countable but I have yet to see it in the plural form. ""debris" was pronounced "DebRiss" (instead of "DehBree")"!! +5 & kept in memory!! – learner – 2014-10-19T19:55:27.563

4@learner -- Each of these people has their own personal vocabulary. I used "vocabularies" to parallel "speakers". On the other hand, a group of people can have a shared "vocabulary". Sometimes such a shared vocabulary is called an "argot" or a "jargon" or "slang". – Jasper – 2014-10-19T20:18:31.753

2

@learner -- I am glad you liked the debris example. (http://ell.stackexchange.com/questions/30620 is a post about it.) Just to be clear, "tuhRanchYouLuh" and "DehBree" are the correct pronunciations.

– Jasper – 2014-10-19T20:23:00.993

6@200_success The ability to assimilate words has absolutely nothing to do with not having a set of writing rules. How do you think borrowed words appear in the languages which have such rules? – Malcolm – 2014-10-20T16:25:53.600

1@Malcolm The raw ability to assimilate words is not what English has in particular—all languages have that. What English has, and what 200_success said, is the ability to freely assimilates words. Not requiring translation into a native set of spelling rules permits much faster assimilation of words. (Witness açai, which was unknown to English vocabulary ten years ago but is now a household word.) Yes, there are languages where spelling and pronunciation are far easier, but English vocabulary dwarfs almost all other languages' vocabularies. It's a tradeoff; and not a competition anyway. – SevenSidedDie – 2014-10-22T01:58:59.140

@SevenSidedDie I'm not a liguist, of course, but it's very easy to spell the word so it sounds like in the foreign language if you have the pronunciation rules (at least judging by my native language, but probably others as well). It may be a factor, but I seriously doubt it's the main factor of the large number of borrowed words in English as opposed to other languages. – Malcolm – 2014-10-23T00:21:18.493

34

Some people may say that they can pronounce any new word they see, but they can't. A simple way to show that this claim isn't true, is to take the letter cluster : -ough

This can have nine different pronunciations in English. Here are some example words and pronunciations:

  • though /əʊ/
  • through /u:/
  • thought /ɔ:/
  • tough /ʌf/
  • thorough/ə/
  • bough /aʊ/
  • trough /ɒf/
  • hiccup/ hiccough /ʌp/
  • lough /ɒx/

So lets imagine that a native speaker sees a new word crough. How would they pronounce it? It's not possible to predict what a word like crough would sound like! It would be impossible!

Araucaria - Not here any more.

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 25 536

11English is hard to learn. Although it can be learned through tough thorough thought, though. – None – 2015-06-22T05:43:13.080

1I'm not sure I buy this hypothesis. As a native US speaker, seeing the word crough only one or two of the possible "ough" pronunciations is really reasonable. My guess would be /krʌf/ or maybe /krɒf/. It wouldn't be pronounced /krəʊ/ unless it was some old British mystery word. /kru:/ is totally unreasonable. /krɔ:/ doesn't even work phonetically, as you note there aren't any words like this with final "ough". Plain /ə/ only works in 'thorough' because it is a multi-syllable word. /kraʊ/ also only seems like an old english holdover. ... – Mario Carneiro – 2016-06-18T01:50:54.563

1..."hiccough" is an exception which is not shared by any other words. I can't say about lough, it's always spelt loch where I come from. When a new word is introduced, it comes with an etymology that guides the pronunciation. A new word spelled "crough" would almost certainly be pronounced "cruff" or "croff" if it was invented natively, but if it came from another language it could have a different pronunciation depending on how it is transliterated. – Mario Carneiro – 2016-06-18T01:51:17.470

1I had to guess how to pronounce "chough" (a type of bird) when I first read it, as I'd never heard it used. Somewhat predictably, it rhymes with "tough". – Chappo Hasn't Forgotten Monica – 2018-10-12T12:00:49.577

@MarioCarneiro Well, drum roll ... it's pronounced /kru:/! (English has never been very reasonable) ;-) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2018-10-12T13:14:45.643

1The actress Susanne Crough pronounced her name like "crow", which would be /kɹoʊ/. (Or In British English, /kɹəʊ/). – AndyB – 2019-07-11T05:26:31.377

Wow. I'm glad I use American English (just four possibilities). – Ypnypn – 2014-10-19T18:28:01.017

5I think you might have six!: /oʊ/ as in "though" (cf. toe). /uː/ as in "through" (cf. true). /ʌf/ as in "rough" (cf. ruffian). /ɒf/ as in "cough" (cf. coffin). /ɔː/ as in "thought" (cf. taut). /aʊ/ as in "bough" (cf. to cow). (stolen off wikipedia!) But still much better than nine! :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-10-19T18:34:40.337

2I speak American English and the only one on the list that I don't duplicate is thorough.... but even then I put a schwa in thoroughness. I think it's the same for British and American. – hunter – 2014-10-21T09:02:58.657

@hunter That's interesting, I wonder why Wiki (who one should never trust) syas at least six for Gen Am. I'm wondering if it's because of the spelling as opposed to the pronunciation? – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-10-21T09:30:04.470

1I suspect it has to do with the caught/cot merger. But even for those, it seems to me that all on this list would be different. – hunter – 2014-10-21T09:37:47.423

That's a very dated way to spell hiccup. @hunter the idea of pronouncing caught the same way as cot somewhat horrifies me. – Pharap – 2014-10-28T23:52:36.253

@Pharap me too, it's just the worst. – hunter – 2014-10-29T13:29:36.020

Don't forget hough (‘hock’), and if we include place names also Coughlin (‘cauklin’), Ayscough (‘ask you’), and Colcolough (‘coakly'). That's at least 13 ways. – Janus Bahs Jacquet – 2015-01-30T00:41:45.037

15

I can pronounce any word I see written, but I have no way of knowing whether I'm doing so correctly!

The irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation are mostly with the shorter and more regularly used words. Longer words tend to stick to more established patterns. If you've got a long word that starts with "pn", "ps", or "pt", it's fairly safe to assume the "p" is silent. If it starts with "pr" or "pl", it won't be silent. And so on, and so forth.

tobyink

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 526

5

You can guess with high accuracy, but it is nothing more than a logical guess.
There are many patterns in English that are repeated so many times that you can guess the pronunciation but English is a global language with words derived from all over the world.

For example: Cage, mage, wage, sage... all follow the same pattern pronounced "...eij" but if "Kage" from Japanese became mainstream in English which is pronounced "Kah-geh" then this rule would still work most of the time but not always,

so yeh you can guess with high accuracy because of patterns, but not always know.

Damien Golding

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 241

6How about the 'mage' in damage** ? :) – Araucaria - Not here any more. – 2014-10-21T09:31:31.597

6Or marriage or mirage... – RemcoGerlich – 2014-10-21T20:14:49.983

Yeh I'm sure there are many examples with difficult to trace origins :). I kept the examples as simple as possible. My opinion is that English is too irregular for a global language and should be regulated to some extent. Many will probably disagree but then many of those either grew up with the language or another similar language. – Damien Golding – 2014-10-22T03:52:27.070

4

About 80 percent of English is pronounced as a native speaker would guess from basic rules. Some of the other words are easy to get if you know something about their origin. (One reason English is difficult is its absorption of a very large loanword vocabulary starting literally over 1200 years ago.) Even though we butcher the rest of the word compared to the original, champagne and chamois start as they do in French. So if I see a word I don't know beginning 'ch' that I guess it is of French origin…

To take just one example elsewhere on this thread (and there are many here), no one could ever get both laughter and daughter without peeking at a dictionary.

Andrew Lazarus

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 141

Other languages also borrow a lot, but do not keep the original spelling. – Anixx – 2015-10-14T05:11:12.070

Indeed laughter is just wrong phonetically. – Joshua – 2016-06-17T15:33:28.057

15Approximately 65% of statistics are made up on the spot. – WinnieNicklaus – 2014-10-20T19:41:56.907

Unfortunately, this statistic carries a lot of political baggage. Those who go for a very high number are advocates of phonics complaining that the lower numbers are lies of those who prefer "whole word" instruction in English. I happen to think that phonics works better for most children learning English, but even in a child's vocabulary there are words like laughter and daughter, of which at least one is not spelled phonetically (or, indeed, both). If memory serves, 80 percent is the number from the phonics side's champion polemic "Why Johnny Can't Read". But his followers gild the lily. – Andrew Lazarus – 2014-10-27T05:30:55.527

The idea of learning English phonetically makes me think of Japanese Engrish. – Pharap – 2014-10-29T00:07:57.077

4

I misspell things on a daily basis. English is pretty bad in this way. I didn't realize how bad English is until I started studying Spanish and Korean. I'd say a lot of Americans don't realize that spelling shouldn't be hard. Most people in the US (75% estimated, no one knows) are monolingual sadly so I'd say a lot of people don't know how bad it is until you explain it to them. But even then, they just shrug. What are they supposed to do about it?

The English classes I remember as a kid didn't ever compare English to anything. It was studying grammar trees and famous books. I think it would have been more interesting if it was like a world religions thing.

Just today I spelled plaguing three ways until I got it right and I'm a native English speaker. Other words I get wrong or have to slow down to type/write: privilege, February, occasionally.

How do I check? How do I find out if I'm right? I just did this today: I googled for "Neil degrasse Tyson" to see if I spelled it correctly. I don't know how to spell his whole name. English first names are pretty common. So I know "neil" and "tyson". Sometimes last names are already other words, like West, Burns, Bush, Love. In that case, you get lucky.

Unknown words aren't very common for native speakers honestly. Reading is the easiest thing. I read Spanish the best and can hardly produce it. Some people would call fancy words "SAT words". SAT is a national test with a vocabulary section in the U.S. (I don't know if this is well-known). It's another way of saying "overly fancy" or "show off" words. Maybe the person is just trying to demonstrate how smart they are or maybe they really do use "SAT words" often. From person to person, it's hard to say. To this point, there are common words and then "fancy words" to some extent. At some level of education, I'd say there are very rarely uncommon words for native English speakers but this is just an anecdote.

If you make up new words, you find that the rules fall apart and English shows it's true confusing nature. I've used this example in the past. Take these two words: tainted and mountain. How do you pronounce this new word: mountainted. Most people I've asked say "moun-tane-ted" even though mountain is "moun-ten".

squarism

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 181

3

I started learning English when I was 10 when I moved to the US. Even now, after 30 years of continual living in the US, though I speak with the same pronunciation as native born English speakers, I still find that:

1) When encountering a new word (usually names of foreign cities but pronouncing it as a native American English speaker would) I found that I sometimes tend to initially pronounce it closer to the way it would have sounded in my native language. Maybe (fairly common percent) to (an even higher percent) of time I will get it right the first time.

2) I found that I still count, subtract, add, multiply and divide in my head by revering back to my native tongue, since that's how I memorized the multiplication table (I guess).

3) My dreams are in English.

4) "Little voice in my head" is a mix of both languages, both spoken through the implant after I was abducted, but I never really thought about whether the language choice is random or based on some organic pattern.

NickNo

Posted 2014-10-19T07:21:32.553

Reputation: 181

Regarding internal voice and the language of thoughts judging from my experience it depends on the imaginable addressee. – Anixx – 2015-10-14T05:14:17.993

1Abducted by aliens? – Pharap – 2014-10-29T00:10:09.450