How do native speakers 'guess' the pronunciation of the letters in a word they see for the first time?

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I confess! Being a non-native speaker, I struggle a lot especially when I come across a new word. And I wonder how do native speakers pronounce perfectly even though they read the word for the very first time. There should be some rule/technique? I'm not sure.

Let's take a case.

If I see a word having 'ch' for the very first time, how do I guess it? Remember, I don't have dictionary. Nor do I have access to this great site when I encounter that word. For example,

Take the word 'chariot'. Being a non-native with quite limited knowledge of orthography, I know that 'ch' is pronounced as in 'Charles'

But then, imagine, I came across the word 'charade'. Undoubtedly, for me, it is 'ch (as in Charles)-re-d-s'. But then, actually, 'ch' there is 'sh' (as in Shane).

It's not just 'ch' but it goes for 'g' as well. 'G' as in 'goat' or 'g' as in 'gymnastic'. Is there any source that teaches how to pronounce a letter if it is placed after/before certain letter? Is there any such rule? The one I remember is when a word ends with 'mb', you don't pronounce 'b'. 'Bomb', 'Comb', 'Tomb' and many other words ending with 'b'.


There are a few more words that add another nail in the coffin of my pronunciation complexity!

penis (pee, and not as in 'pen')
asthma (no 'th' pronounced)
Dengue (dengeee)
and many more...

Maulik V

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 66 188

25The joys of a non-phonemic language – laureapresa – 2015-06-12T08:08:52.867

1Yes, 'joy' for the natives, 'nightmares' for a sincere student like me :P @writingthesis – Maulik V – 2015-06-12T08:09:35.123

1Well I am not a native, but non-phonemic languages amuse me :) – laureapresa – 2015-06-12T08:13:31.537

1I just go with the flow. As a young lad I was met with hoots of laughter as I talked about a "mouse tache" (pron: /tayche/), a word I was reading out loud from a book. Naturally, I realised a split second too late that it was "moustache" (/mə-stăsh/). Don't even get me started on reading Lenin (Le-NIN and not LEN-in)... – JMB – 2015-06-12T08:17:47.147

14Even for native speakers, the relation between spelling and pronunciation is sometimes baffling, so don't worry :) I have seen an internet discussion once, after the introduction of the Segway transporter where it appeared that many native speakers never made the link between the name of that thing and the (obscure?) word segue. Many professed to knowing _ the word _segue and even using it in writing, but thing of that word as sounding something like seeg. I have also heard native speakers talk about an "ehpytohm" when they meant an epitome. – oerkelens – 2015-06-12T09:06:18.247

3Some children were taught phonics there are indeed spelling rules that cover many situations. Some linguists who should know better like to claim that there is no relationship between English spelling and English pronunciation, – Brian Hitchcock – 2015-06-12T10:59:46.670

3Take a look at some adult literacy programs. These are for native speakers who failed to learn to read as children. You will find that they all use phonics to some degree, to teach the sounds of common letter combinations. Some of these illiterate adults went to schools who practiced the absurd theory that every word should be learned "by sight" (i.e., by rote memorization). There are too many words in the language to do it that way! – Brian Hitchcock – 2015-06-12T11:06:27.677

15@JMB - My favourite personal example (as a native English speaker): I used to think there were two rivers in London - the Thames (pronounced with a th like in "this", and ames like in "fames") and the Tems (which I never realised I'd never seen written down). I was probably about 10 years old before I found out! – AndyT – 2015-06-12T11:06:28.843

1@MaulikV - not a full answer so I'll make this a comment. One useful rule is that if there is a double consonant in the middle of a word, then the vowel before is a "short" sound; if there is a single consonant then the vowel before is a "long" sound. Compare "hopping" to "hoping". At the end of a word, the letter e changes the vowel sound preceding it to lenghten. Compare "man" with "mane". – AndyT – 2015-06-12T11:09:45.453

2Most native speakers pick up these rules instinctively and don't actually consciously know them. One of the ways to test for dyslexia is to give a native speaker a made-up word and see if they pronounce it "right" - dyslexics (often) don't instinctively learn the rules and have to be taught them. I'm not dyslexic, and the only reason I consciously know the double consonant rule is that my dyslexic friend told me after he'd been taught it! – AndyT – 2015-06-12T11:11:43.570

One final thing to say - "rules" of English pronunciation only ever work about two thirds of the time. This is because our words come from a mix of historic languages, each with their own (different) pronunciation rules. – AndyT – 2015-06-12T11:13:54.050

1Btw your last rule isn't infallible. "iamb" is pronounced either with or without a final "b". – Steve Jessop – 2015-06-12T13:32:00.067

7@MaulikV Even well educated native speakers mispronounce unfamiliar words all of the time. Epitome, hearth, facade, and soooo many more. If they are lucky, a friend or coworker will politely and discreetly inform them of the mispronunciation. As a nonnative speaker, we would expect more mispronunciations of these words, and again, hopefully you would be discreetly informed of the mispronunciation. It's a wretched system of doing things, but we're too lazy to look unfamiliar words up in the dictionary for their pronunciations. – Jason Patterson – 2015-06-12T13:50:55.077

5It takes a lifetime. You start by getting it right 50% of the time. Then 90% of the time. Then 95%, 99%, 99.5%, 99.9%, etc. You never get to 100%! – CJ Dennis – 2015-06-12T13:52:20.453

4For years and years I used the verb misle (pronounced my-zul)- meaning to intentionally give someone false information. (I don't like that guy - he is always misling people. He's a misler. He tried to misle me!) I used it in speech (it is a fun word to say) and I used it in formal writing, and no one ever asked me what it meant. I never looked it up, but I saw it in books all the time - usually in past tense. Then, when I was in my twenties, I realized how similar the past tense of misle is to the past tense of mislead: Misled. I had been misling/misleading myself. – Adam – 2015-06-12T17:49:45.413

1English isn't easy. We've taken many parts of various languages and thrown them together into a big jumbly mess. Often, pronouncation comes from looking for patterns of spelling to see which way to go. you see 'ois', french, 'ph', probably greek/latin. 'ei', probably a latin root word. Charade is a word though, that pretty much every misses the first time. It doesn't have a french look so it is very easy to 'ch' the beginning. What a fun time. – Michael Dorgan – 2015-06-12T17:53:06.853

2@Steve Jessop: Indeed, I think that last 'mb' rule is just plain wrong. Certainly I pronounce the 'b' in all those words. It's not strongly voiced, as it would be if it were at the start of the word, but 'bom' does not sound exactly the same as 'bomb'. – jamesqf – 2015-06-12T18:10:10.033

2bourgeois (pronounced "booj wah") is a fun one. No native speaker would guess that correctly. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft – 2015-06-12T20:25:07.110

Lol -" berg-juice" is what comes to mind at first glance before I recognized the word :) – Michael Dorgan – 2015-06-12T20:56:27.147

1@BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft: But would a native speaker of French? And just be grateful that you don't have to deal with Gaelic spelling :-) – jamesqf – 2015-06-12T20:57:04.933

4Please don't closevote this question. It's one of the best ever posted on ELL! The other question asks, essentially, "how do you know the pronunciation from reading?" This one asks "how do you guess?" That's a very interesting and insightful way to frame the question, and it's led to much more informative answers. The other question mostly got answers in terms of abstract rules; this one's gotten several in terms of analogies with already-known words. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-12T21:53:15.530

2@oerkelens I read segue as seeg; when the Segway came out I learned better, but I still feel "seeg between topics" is more correct, even though I know it isn't. @Adam hey, I used to read misled as mizzled and didn't connect it to the spoken sound miss-led for a long time. Short answer: native speakers guess and get it wrong all the time, but we have a much larger background knowledge of "words we've heard before" to work with. – TessellatingHeckler – 2015-06-12T21:54:12.170

@BenKovitz I agree that both questions got many good answers, but I still feel that they're both answers to the same question, not two different questions. How can we best keep them "linked", then, so that interested people know to read both? – Dan Getz – 2015-06-13T03:26:12.620

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@DanGetz I think the surest way to keep this question from getting deleted is to keep it open. Please allow me another go at persuading you that the two questions are different: Notice that the most accurate answer to the other question is probably this, which simply refutes the premise of the question. But that answer would not make sense in response to this question.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-13T04:57:38.363

2@BenKovitz rereading some more, I agree that the answers here are better answers for this question than the ones there. – Dan Getz – 2015-06-13T05:09:22.010

For what it's worth I always read "albeit" as "all-byte", the same way "height" is pronounced "hyte"... even though it's "all-be-it". Same thing with "freight", which I always imagine as being pronounced as "fright". And if I had to say it in speech (which I don't normally), I would probably say it wrong... even though I know that's not the correct pronunciation. So no, don't expect to get everything right, and don't expect that everyone does either... – user541686 – 2015-06-13T09:48:35.197

1Don't forget the simply illogical choir Unless you hear it being said while a person is reading the word aloud, I'd say nobody would know how this word is pronounced. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:00:27.487

No mention of "silent" letters as in debt, interesting, chocolate, and eczema

– Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:08:41.633

@Mari-LouA interesting and chocolate only have silent letters for some speakers. AmE speakers often pronounce every vowel in those words. And I don't think eczema has any silent letters, but the second e is very lightly pronounced. – Aaron Brown – 2015-06-14T09:06:01.817

2While the English language is strange, it can be understood through thorough thought, though. – Mutantoe – 2015-06-14T09:23:01.497

@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft I'd have upvoted it 1000 times for that comment of yours. ELL did not allow me! :) I'll never forget that word now. Thanks a TON. – Maulik V – 2015-06-15T05:04:56.940

3The main advantage native speakers have is that if enough of them get it wrong in the same way, that makes them right. – RemcoGerlich – 2015-06-15T08:04:27.260

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Even president Obama misprounces stuff. see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNr66HHhMjs

– Ivo Beckers – 2015-06-15T09:28:46.233

@IvoBeckers I cannot believe this. This is so so so so very tricky! I'm feeling so proud posting this question here that is getting me priceless tips and information. Thanks you all native speakers. love... – Maulik V – 2015-06-15T09:37:09.873

1A recent favourite of mine is gauge. What the heck is that u doing there? – gerrit – 2015-06-15T09:59:11.133

@gerrit The biggest blow to my medical mind was 'asthma' where there's no 'th' pronounced. I mean, I thought I should tear off my medical degree. And trust me, even pulmonologists and super specialists here in India STILL don't know the pronunciation of this very famous disease. Dengue, Rendezvous, lingerie, penis are a few more to add complexity. – Maulik V – 2015-06-15T10:13:07.940

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@MaulikV Actually, the OED lists /ˈæsθmə/ as the first (most standard) pronunciation of asthma. The way to understand what's happening is that speakers feel a phonetic pressure to simplify the /sθm/ because this is not a normal English consonant cluster (as happens in many words from Greek). Some speakers bow to this pressure more than others.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T22:03:10.717

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@MaulikV Rendezvous and lingerie are borrowed directly from French, and have French pronunciation (actually pretty Anglicized). Penis comes from Latin and has the usual difficulty with Latin words: the spelling doesn't indicate vowel length. The information is just not there in the spelling, even for someone who knows Latin. For the /ē/, there aren't even common patterns you can exploit to make an educated guess. (The unstressed second syllable is easy, though.) Dengue has a bizarre etymology, starting in Swahili and going through Spanish.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T22:25:05.720

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@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft Actually, in AmE, the r in bourgeois is usually pronounced. It's actually somewhat predictable: the /rʒw/ sequence of consonants is unnatural in English, so speakers feel a pressure to simplify it. Writing tends to be more stable, so after a few hundred years, the resulting altered pronunciations are not that big a surprise.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T22:35:40.903

@BenKovitz: I have never once heard the r pronounced in 'bourgeois' in American English, and the audio files in the link you posted corroborate that. Apparently it is commonly pronounced in British English, though. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft – 2015-06-15T22:47:33.243

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@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft Hey, that's my friend Dvortygirl's pronunciation! Most sources seem to say that the r is gone from the BrE pronunciation. Here's what the OED lists: Brit. /ˈbʊəʒwɑː/ , /bʊəˈʒwɑː/ , /ˈbɔːʒwɑː/ , /bɔːˈʒwɑː/ , U.S. /bʊrˈʒwɑ/ , /ˈbʊrʒwɑ/. The pressure to drop the r is stronger in non-rhotic accents, of course.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T23:27:02.477

Answers

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By analogy with words you already know. In more detail, you guess mainly by recognizing morphemes, taking into account the three main spelling systems that exist within English and taking into account common phonetic pressures that alter pronunciations. Educated guessing cannot be reduced to rules, of course, but I can give you a feel for it with a scattering of examples.

Morphemes

Morphemes are the smallest elements of a word that have a meaning. For example, -ing and -tion are morphemes, as in going and information. If you know a lot of morphemes, you will be good at guessing pronunciation, because morphemes are usually spelled in only one or two ways, and their pronunciation in one word usually works by analogy with their pronunciation in other words.

For example, if you've seen -tion carrying that meaning in a number of words, you intelligently guess that it's pronounced the same way in a word you've never seen before, such as, say, transubstantiation. By analogy with relation, generation, acceleration, and many similar words, even transmission, which has the other spelling of the morpheme and is preceded by a different vowel, you can reasonably guess that conflagration has the stress on the second a. And you can intelligently guess that informational has the stress on -mā-.

This doesn't give you the correct pronunciation in every single case—equation is slightly different—but this is fundamentally how English spelling and pronunciation work: by analogy with related words, where having the same morpheme is the most important kind of relation.

Etymological spelling

English actually has three main spelling systems, corresponding to its three main root languages: Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek.

Anglo-Saxon

In an Anglo-Saxon word, a vowel needs to be followed by two consonants or a consonant at the end of a word in order to be short. For example, batted vs. bated, chipped vs. griped. You know that mob is /mǒb/, not /mōb/, because of this pattern. In Anglo-Saxon words, it's as if every vowel wants to be long, but gets cut short by a terminal consonant. In Anglo-Saxon words, ch is usually pronounced /tʃ/, the "native" pronunciation.

Latin

Not so in words from Latin. Risible is /ˈrĭz.ə.bl/, not /ˈrīz.ə.bl/, and there's really no way to guess that, except perhaps by a rather superficial analogy with divisible and visible. Words from Latin usually follow pretty regular spelling, but in many cases you can't tell whether a morpheme's vowel will be long or short from its spelling—though often you can make a good guess by analogy with other words.

The soft pronunciations of c and g before i and e began in Latin, and were only introduced into English with the Norman invasion. So, Latin-derived words are normally pronounced that way, and most of the exceptions come from Anglo-Saxon, such as get, girl, and together. Anglo-Saxon words like bagged and bagging use the doubled g to indicate that the preceding vowel is short, so the g stays hard. Exaggerate and suggest come from Latin, so you know not to expect their soft g to make a good precedent for Anglo-Saxon words.

Greek

Words from Greek have a distinct spelling system, where English letters correspond to Greek letters: ch stands for the Greek letter χ; ph stands for the Greek letter φ; k stands for the Greek letter κ; th stands for θ; etc. The Greek sounds of these letters are approximated by English phonemes, as in chrysanthemum, metaphor, photon, system, synchronize, autarky, etc. Notice that ch in Greek-derived words is pronounced /k/. Greek consonant clusters that don't occur in English get reduced, as in psychology, bdellium, and pneumonia (but not sphere: we allowed /sf-/ to start a syllable in order to absorb that word). Eu- in Greek words is a morpheme meaning "good", and is pronounced /ju-/, as in eulogy and euphemism. Leonhard Euler is German, so you learn not to make an analogy between his name and Greek words.

The main difficulties with Greek-derived words involve the letters g and y, especially when they occur together. In Greek-derived words, g stands for the Greek letter γ, which we would normally represent in speech with a hard g as in gynecology and gigabyte, but phonetic pressures and misunderstandings have usually set precedents that make it soft, as in gymnasium and gyroscope. It goes silent when it's part of a reduced, un-English consonant cluster, as in gneiss. In the middle of Greek-derived words, y stands for υ, but at the end, it stands for -εια, which means the same as Anglo-Saxon -ness. The Greek vowel υ doesn't correspond well to any English vowel. Usually it's pronounced as a short /ĭ/, but English phonetic pressures sometimes shape it into a long /ī/, as in hypothesis, psychology, and papyrus. The -gy ending is a morpheme, pronounced /-dʒē/ (unstressed), found in energy, synergy, biology and even analogy, the main concept that explains how English works!

Can you really guess the origin of an unknown word?

You might wonder, "How am I supposed to guess which language a word came from?" It's surprisingly easy. Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek words tend to have a very different "feel" to them, and the spellings of the words tend to follow patterns that are fairly easy to recognize. Noticing the different styles of words from each main root language is an important part of mastering English, including its huge vocabulary of synonyms. There are, of course, a few words that picked up spellings by "false etymology", such as ache and ptarmigan, but happily, it doesn't matter, because if you guess these words' pronunciations by the usual analogies, you'll be right. These spellings were established by people trying to follow the same analogies.

By the way, roughly 20–30 years ago, many schools stopped teaching children about classical roots and how they're spelled. Consequently, a lot of natives today don't know much about it consciously. So, with this clue, you can learn to do better than a lot of natives! Some kids are still being taught, though, as evidenced by the questions asked in this contest of guessing the spelling of a word (which is harder than guessing the pronunciation from the spelling). Here's an excellent article by an expert on dyslexia, about the true complexity of English spelling and what's involved in learning it.

Conflicting precedents

Precedents can conflict. For example, you can make a good educated guess about impious by noticing its three morphemes: im-, meaning negation; pi-, meaning reverence or dutifulness, by analogy with pious and piety; and -ous, making an adjective in a Latin style. So, a pretty good guess is to pronounce it /ǐm.ˈpī.əs/. However, impious can also be understood as following the precedent of the Latin word impius. The phonetic pressures in Latin put the stress on the first syllable, and we usually feel the same pressures in English words that come from Latin. In fact, the English word impious, pronounced /ˈǐm.pē.əs/, was borrowed directly from Latin in the 16th century. That pronunciation has been echoed ever since. The -ous spelling in impious is a slightly stretched analogy with Latin borrowings that follow a different pattern. Consequently, both pronunciations are in use today, /ˈǐm.pē.əs/ being more standard. (I prefer /ǐm.ˈpī.əs/, since it communicates the morphemes more clearly. Someone who's never heard it before will easily understand the meaning. /ˈǐmp.ē.əs/ misleadingly echoes imp.)

Pressures

I knew a native speaker who mispronounced fruition as /ˈfru.ʃən/. He was going by analogy with fruit. But /ˈfru.ʃən/ is a somewhat uneducated guess. The correct pronunciation, /fru.ˈǐʃ.ən/, better reflects both the etymology and the pressure from -tion to put stress on the preceding vowel. The spelling of fruit reflects the fact that it can break up when used as a morpheme in a larger word. And we see the same pattern established in circuit/circuitous and other -uit- words.

There is another factor at work here, too, which helps a lot for guessing pronunciations. Experience teaches you that common pressures will likely have removed the second syllable from /ˈfru.ĭt/, but these pressures don't occur in fruition. In English, there's a pressure to merge those last two syllables at the end of a word, as in biscuit, pursuit and circuit. Explaining phonetic pressures is a complex subject, but it's like everything else in English: it works by analogies and precedents, and you get a feel for it from experience. What's relevant here is that the unstressed short vowel has a hard time holding its own against the preceding long, stressed vowel without help from another consonant; the terminal -t offers only very weak support.

The word intuit is the only word of this pattern that has kept that unstressed syllable. I think people continue to pronounce it because the words intuitive and intuition are much more common, so when people use the unusual verb intuit, they feel some pressure to echo the corresponding syllable in the familiar words in order to be understood. I have heard people attempt /ǐn.ˈtut/, independently inventing the word during conversation, and then draw back from it because it sounds weird and doesn't clearly indicate the connection with intuition. There is also pressure to avoid echoing the slightly silly verb "toot".

Since pronunciation is shaped by interaction between many pressures, if you pay attention to those pressures, you are in a good position to guess the pronunciations of unknown words.

Analogies, not rules

Some people harp on the fact that English spelling doesn't follow rules, as if this were proof that English is "illogical" or completely without order. Really, though, the English language works like English common law: by precedents, not rules. When deciding new cases, or when inventing new words, people try to be consistent with previous cases or with the spellings of words already in the language. Old cases and familiar words can't pre-decide every aspect of a new case, of course. Law and language accumulate over the centuries, one case and one word at a time, embodying subtlety and hopefully wisdom beyond what could be captured by any fully articulated system of rules.

As you get to know the language better, you can often guess pronunciation from spelling pretty accurately, especially with "big" words. When I was in the 2nd grade (age 7), I was given a test where I had to guess the pronunciations of a long list of words, up to "college level". I got nearly all of them right, despite not knowing, at that age, anything about etymological spelling—and despite not having encountered most of the words before. I could usually see some sort of analogy with a word I already knew, and I made an educated guess. That's how it works.

The moral of all this is that you should not memorize rules. You should not even memorize the few rules that happen to be true. Memorizing rules runs against the spirit of the language. What you should do is make analogies from specific words to specific words that you already know how to pronounce. Occasionally you'll guess wrong—and that will teach you a new precedent, which you will apply in new situations. Eventually, gradually, you learn to perceive English spellings with acuity. (You can probably guess that it's /ə.ˈcju.ĭ.tē/, despite the spelling's ambiguity, because of its congruity with annuity and gratuity.)

Ben Kovitz

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 25 752

4This is a fantastic answer, and articulates something I have long recognized in how I handle things, but have never been able to explain to foreign friends (or even native speakers who struggle with spelling – oddly enough, I don’t know any native speakers who struggle to pronounce most words, seeing the spelling, but the reverse operation can be difficult even for natives). Anyway, I wonder if French does not deserve its own section: obviously, French itself is coming from Latin, but the spellings and pronunciations can be very different – and English frequently uses them. – KRyan – 2015-06-12T19:49:48.897

@KRyan It's interesting to hear another person observe that most natives don't have trouble (as adults, at least) inferring pronunciations from spellings. I once asked two Taiwanese friends to guess the pronunciations of some obscure Chinese characters they'd never seen before—and they guessed right every time. Chinese characters don't even have letters, but they do contain hints about both pronunciation and meaning, which a person can combine into an educated guess about both—just like English! As for French, I think French vs. direct-from-Latin imports do cause some confusion—like "impious"! – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-12T20:38:40.303

choir looks French but it's pronounce "quire" . There's nothing easy about guessing where a word originated from, because even if you can tell, it's no guarantee that you get the pronunciation correct. And garage has three different pronunciations according to the dialect you speak. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:12:13.523

@Mari-LouA Did you get the impression from the answer that it offers guarantees? I was trying to make clear, explicitly and by example, that this is about guessing, and there's no way to always guess right – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-13T21:20:28.357

"How am I supposed to guess which language a word came from?" It's surprisingly easy. Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Greek words tend to have a very different "feel" to them" Your answer is only a rough guide, because if a learner knows that Paris is a French word, they will mispronounce it, the English added the -s sound. I have heard many an Italian speaker say "Paris" as if it were French (pari), (in Italian it's parigi). – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:21:26.887

And then: Some people harp on the fact that English spelling doesn't follow rules, as if this were proof that English is "irrational" or completely without order Duh, right on! :) It is illogical, there are patterns but that's all you can say about English spelling and pronunciation. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:26:57.427

1@BenKovitz I haven't read the whole answer but I figure that it's along the lines of using common sense (guessing by analogy, with some knowledge related to etymology for more sophisticated speakers). Having said that, I think the question overlooks one crucial thing: How often do native speakers discover a new word by reading? (especially, a not-so-rare word) And, when that happens, how long will native speakers have to assume guessing the pronunciation before they will a) hear the word pronounced by their peers or the media, b) look it up in a dictionary, or c) ask someone who knows? – Damkerng T. – 2015-06-14T08:33:21.250

1@iain The highest compliment possible on StackExchange! Much appreciated. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-14T08:35:25.777

@DamkerngT. Excellent point. I've been thinking that another key factor here is that there are about 500 words with irregular spellings, and once you master them, you stop having so many difficulties—though the difficulties never completely stop, especially with place names. When I moved to San Francisco, I had to learn from the natives that Gough is /gaf/ and stress is on the second syllable of Clement. Probably an important social function of odd pronunciations is to distinguish insiders from outsiders. Anyway, I'm not sure of that 500 number. Have you heard of research on this number? – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-14T08:41:53.093

I haven't. Thank you for mentioning that! It's a good pointer for me to discover more interesting things. In return for your information, here are two pages I think particularly interesting: Words most commonly misspelled by children in Year 8 and under, and English spelling: 4,219 unpredictably spelt common words.

– Damkerng T. – 2015-06-14T08:50:15.677

1@DamkerngT. About how often natives take the trouble to check their guesses, I think it varies enormously, depending on how much the native cares. My friend who said "fruition" got a lot of his vocabulary from wide reading and made many errors like that in speech. He kept a huge dictionary open in his living room, but never checked pronunciations. Probably another factor is discouragement: the fake "rules" taught in school often "teach" people that they can't master spelling, and schools don't teach the real principles. The real principles are messy but at least they're understandable. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-14T08:50:37.490

@DamkerngT. About how often natives come across unfamiliar words, I think that varies enormously, too. I think most adult native vocabularies range from 10,000 to 40,000 words—a huge range! Many people just don't read much, and some never stop. As a 40+ adult, I probably pick up a new word every few days. Last week, I learned corynebacterium. I correctly guessed that the y would be pronounced ī and the first e would be ē, based on intuition for phonetic pressures! But I also checked it. ;) – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-14T09:15:26.440

1

I stumbled upon this. Not exactly 500 words, but could be a good pointer: "According to Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf (1966), half of all English words can be spelled accurately on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone, [...] These patterns, though, are somewhat complex and must be learned (e.g., when to use "ck" as in back and when to use "k" as in book). Another 34 percent of English words would only have one error if they were spelled on the basis [...] The authors estimated that only four percent of English words were truly irregular.

– Damkerng T. – 2015-06-14T10:26:56.237

Speaking of the greater San Francisco area, I never knew how to pronounce Marin County until I heard the late Robin Williams say it on, I think, The Actor's Studio. Later, when I worked in the mapping field, I called Marin County and asked them how to pronounce the name of their county--because none of my colleagues thought I was pronouncing it right. Also @DamkerngT. But this is not so unusual for place names we are unfamiliar with, even when we are following patterns or logical processes. – None – 2015-06-14T23:51:40.087

The answer could perhaps be clarified for the nonnative speaker to indicate that most (90% or more?) native speakers, including college graduates, do not realize that there are major spelling systems within English (I am not agreeing with you about how many). This answer could appear to give the impression to the nonnative spealer that most native speakers are consciously aware of these spelling systems, or consciously notice that "the different styles of words" come "from each main root language". – None – 2015-06-15T00:29:06.430

1@pazzo I agree that most people today don't know: it's a serious loss in the teaching of the traditions of English. Also, I wouldn't say there are exactly three; there are actually more. I hoped that my anecdote about the 2nd grade would hint that you don't need to consciously know about the multiple spelling systems to exploit them—but if you do know about them consciously, it helps (especially an ESL learner, who has less exposure). Still, I think you are right, and I'll add a note about this, though the answer is already very long and not intended to be exhaustive (since nothing could be). – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T00:41:29.973

@DamkerngT. What an extraordinary resource—thanks! I've wanted an accessible piece of writing that puts all the pieces of the puzzle together for a long time now. And it's on an ADHD site, of all places! I'll add the link to the answer. (The "4,219 words" turned out to be on a harping/reform site.) – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T00:58:15.353

2Ah, I finished reading this answer for the second time. Just one word - Excellent. Other answers are also good but for me, this the answer one. I'll select it but later, because I want more people to contribute. And yes, for you, it's a bounty! :) – Maulik V – 2015-06-15T05:00:33.540

@DamkerngT. Two years on, I find your interesting question. How often do native speakers discover a new word by reading? It depends on how much they read, especially when they are young. I grew up in a family of readers, and mispronunciations of words was common. One of my younger brothers, when an older teenager, pronounced the the word collegiate as co-LEG-ee-ut. When I corrected him he was embarrassed, and I told him it simply meant that he read a lot. As a child, I spoke the word misled correctly, but read it as MY-zuld, not realizing it was the same word! – BobRodes – 2017-06-10T22:52:42.470

@BobRodes I think you're right that it depends heavily on how much you read (and what you read). Intending to answer Damkerng's question, I tracked the new words I learned over two weeks last year. Here's what I got: advowson socage frankalmoign gurn spiv numpty torc mudra moblet breezeway crinoline (from speech; inferred spelling) advoutress fantod eyas autonymous nimiety blench condign emunctory. All but one was from reading. I wasn't sure of the pronunciations of advoutress and eyas; my top guess for eyas was wrong. I'm not sure how I guessed socage correctly. – Ben Kovitz – 2017-06-12T15:00:15.950

@BenKovitz Goodness. You can write a book, and call it "Finnigans Wake II." :) – BobRodes – 2017-06-13T06:43:58.703

40

I asked some native friends the same thing, and they told me their guesses are based on similar words. It is far from perfect (moon - door anyone?), but it is a start.

Also, the origin of the word may help. Charade is French, a mostly phonemic (that is, a letter or group of letters have the same sound no matter wher they are) language; in French ch is pronounced [ ʃ ] , so English words that derive from French will have this sound. French words are more common in English than words in other languages are, so Italian words like bruschetta (properly [bruˈsketta]) are pronounced as [/brʊˈʃɛtə/]. If you say the former, they will not understand.

Related (and to make your eyes, mind and ears bleed):

This poem

This piece

laureapresa

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 901

2+1 for those two links...excellent! though I knew the latter one. – Maulik V – 2015-06-12T08:54:03.320

13+1 for the obligatory link to The Chaos which should be linked in every question about the whims of English pronunciation. Note that it was not written by a native speaker :) – oerkelens – 2015-06-12T09:03:23.017

@oerkelens I wonder how many teenagers can read every word in The Chaos correctly the first time they read it. :-)

– Damkerng T. – 2015-06-12T13:19:13.757

4"If you say the former, they will not understand" -- actually, for that example a typical British English speaker who would eat bruschetta and use that word, will likely recognise the Italian pronunciation even if they don't use it themselves. The cadence of Italian might stump them if you get it really right, but I doubt the hard "ch" will in many cases. Bruschetta-eaters in other English-speaking countries might be different :-) – Steve Jessop – 2015-06-12T13:23:28.367

1@SteveJessop It's the same in the US, in my experience. – Jason Patterson – 2015-06-12T13:41:58.623

1+1 for guessing based on similar words. Most people subvocalize when they read. You can watch some people form the words with their mouths noiselessly while they're reading. Other readers hear a voice in the head speaking the words. We tend to have trouble reading words which pronunciations we don't know. I was reading the Reader's Digest version of Robin Hood and His Merry Men and thought that rogue rhymed with dialogue and epilogue. It wasn't until I moved to the Rogue Valley that I found out different. – Paul Rowe – 2015-06-12T15:49:32.440

2I think The Chaos is extremely misleading, and unnecessarily discouraging. The title and the ordering of the words are chosen to suggest that English spelling is utterly, well, chaotic, without order of any kind, purely a matter of "whim". If you look for chaos, you'll find it. And if you look for order, you'll find it, too. It just won't work by "rules". Please see my answer for more details. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-12T17:43:18.423

+1 because the links clearly illustrate there are no fixed rules when it comes to spelling and pronunciation. Because when a word is obviously Italian in origin, the English will pronounce it their way, regardless e.g. latte. I cringe silently whenever I hear a client order a /ˈlɑːteɪ/ in the UK. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-13T21:35:46.350

1No discussion of the pronunciation of English ch can be complete without considering chutzpah. – Pieter Geerkens – 2015-06-14T18:44:55.217

@Mari-LouA Let me rephrase my now-deleted comment and say instead: it is obvious to you that latte is of Italian origin. But I am not sure how it is supposed to be obvious to the English or to the American. These might be two separate cases given that England is part of Europe. – None – 2015-06-15T00:49:14.323

1@pazzo I'm sorry? Espresso, cappuccino, and latte are not obviously Italian loanwords? What has the UK being in Europe got to do with knowing the origin of these fairly recently acquired words? The USA has perhaps the largest Italian communities in the world outside of Italy. Are you saying that there are Americans who think latte is an Anglo-Saxon word? The whole structure of the word says the opposite, did any American or Englishman use the term latte thirty-five years ago? – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-15T03:53:55.303

1I am saying @Mari-LouA that there are plenty of Americans, most of our populace in fact, who do not know that latte is a word coopted from Italian. – None – 2015-06-15T03:56:34.970

@pazzo The majority of Americans don't know? I don't believe it, it's like saying that Americans believe they invented the pizza. Now, I'm sure that some do think that, and in a sense they have created their own style of pizzas but the word is obviously of Italian origin. If latte followed the English rules of pronunciation it would be pronounced like the word "late", with a silent -e, and the "a" pronounced as /ei/. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-15T04:04:04.697

Think of "mat" and "matte" the latter is pronounced /mat/. "Mate" on the other hand is pronounced /meɪt/, and "maté" is pronounced /ˈmateɪ/. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-15T04:13:28.293

34

We guess. And we frequently guess wrong.

Your last sentence provides an excellent example: I know how to pronounce bomb, comb and tomb, but presented with a made up word like domb or fomb, I would have no idea which of those three words it should rhyme with.

With ch, the best rule I can come up with is, "Does this word look a bit French?"

Words that end in -che look French, e.g. moustache, gauche.

Words that end in -tch don't look French, e.g. catch, pitch, notch. (Note that these words may still be derived from French, but have been part of the language long enough to acquire an English spelling.)

Words that end in -ch where ch is preceded by a vowel look a bit Gaelic, e.g. loch, och, Sassenach.

The -ade ending on 'charade' looks a bit French to me (it reminds me of façade and marinade) so I would assume the French pronunciation is used.

When it comes to the letter g, however, we're often guessing. Where g is followed by a, o, u or a consonant it's usually a hard g, but there's no good rule for when it's followed by e, i or y. This has caused arguments about new words like 'gigabyte' or 'gif'. The inventor of the gif image format says it should be pronounced 'jif' but most of the world is still saying it with a hard g. In one of the Back To The Future films, Doc Brown says 'jigawatts', but in recent years this pronunciation has fallen out of favour and the 'giga' prefix uses the hard g.

ssav

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 6 644

good information, +1 for the last para! :) – Maulik V – 2015-06-12T12:40:56.207

9I am a native English speaker and read a lot. It has happened many times in my life that I am familiar with a word, but only from reading it, and have guessed the wrong pronunciation. Then years later somebody actually says it to me. If I'm lucky I'll understand it was the word I'm familiar with, but sometimes I have to ask them what they mean. When they explain it I can connect it with the word I know. – Austin – 2015-06-12T15:57:12.010

Indeed, and pronunciations are even subject to change. Dictionaries even list multiple acceptable pronunciations of the same word in many cases. As long as your pronunciation is "close enough", you're likely to be understood, especially if there are enough cues in context. – talrnu – 2015-06-12T16:02:35.500

Many's the time my partner and me have resorted to online talking dictionaries to resolve disputes about how words are pronounced. – ssav – 2015-06-12T22:13:59.300

If someone came out with a comb for fur and called it a "fomb", then would you know which word it rhymes with? That's how English spelling works. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-13T05:13:44.660

Actually, in AmE, in my experience, marinade is pronounced with a long a, and I'm pretty standard in terms of TV accent. – WhatRoughBeast – 2015-06-13T12:10:25.243

1I am a native speaker of English English, and somewhat fluent in American English. I know several words that have the same spelling in both dialects, but different pronunciations. – Patricia Shanahan – 2015-06-13T16:00:45.737

3You don't need technology-related words to illustrate that idea. Just compare giggle with ginger (vs. jiggle). – user541686 – 2015-06-15T06:48:45.063

1Interesting. I had always just assumed that the pronunciation in Back to the Future was just a mistake. I've literally never heard anyone else use it unless they were specifically making fun of that scene. I was born in '86, though, so maybe that usage died out before I was old enough to hear it commonly. – reirab – 2015-06-15T14:16:06.077

Just realised I had the pronunciation of "giggle" wrong all this time ... +1 to you for that – BiAiB – 2015-06-17T08:05:56.733

10

We hear other people pronounce words; that's how we know how to pronounce every word you mention in your question.

We often don't pronounce a word correctly the first time we see it. We make our best guess, based on the pronunciation/spelling patterns we already know about and rely on. Sometimes doing this does not work.

How would you pronounce impious? First time I heard someone pronounce it the way it is 'supposed to be pronounced', I swore they were wrong or using some weird, alternate pronunciation. Turns out that were using the preferred standard pronunciation. But now most dictionaries have both pronunciations.

Also, pronunciations vary between among dialects.

As for charade(s), kids play the game and know how to say the word, at least according to one variation. I mean, it can rhyme with parade or par-rod.

Edit to reposition this paragraph: There are tons of words on Forvo awaiting English pronunciation that I've no idea how to pronounce--and the main reason is that I've never heard them pronounced before. A lot of these are people's names, difficult terms from Greek (mythology or medicinal), words originating from other foreign languages, characters or stars of popular TV shows, and names of cities in English-speaking countries other than the one I live in.

user6951

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation:

There's nothing wrong in saying "pronunciations vary between dialects". I actually think it's the better word than "among" in this case. Not quite sure why :) I think between fits better because you are comparing maybe two or three dialects together. Of course there are many more English dialects, but usually words can be pronounced up to three different ways . I can't think of a word that has four different pronunciations. – Mari-Lou A – 2015-06-15T05:05:13.700

7

We attempt to pattern-match (both consciously and unconsciously) and are often wrong. While 'rules' of English spelling and pronunciation are sometimes broken more often than not, often by identifying the word's language of origin we can get close (If you watch the National Spelling Bee championship, you'll see them asking for the word's origin language for that very reason).

As an example (also see the other answers to this question), if I see a 'ph' in a word, I assume it to have Greek roots (because it's most likely either Greek or Latin and Latin doesn't have 'ph'), and I then infer more about the spelling: No silent 'e' at the end of words (as in 'hyperbole', 'epitome', etc.

Much of the time though, I'm wrong. Many times I've encountered a word in written use repeatedly and I learn what it means, but when I go to say it I'm completely wrong (sometimes others can figure out what I mean, but not always).

Hilton Shumway

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 171

+1 for mentioning asking a word's origin at a spelling bee. That fact says a lot about how educated guessing of spellings and pronunciations works in English. – Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T07:22:47.193

5

I would say that there are two things that we do. Both of them have been touched on already, but I want to stress the importance of both.

(1) We develop an intuition based on patterns. Once you've seen "night", "light" and "fight" you can probably get "sight" as well.

(2) We use our knowledge of the language to help us. If we've heard the word said out loud before, we might be able to recognise it the first time we see it. Especially if we use the patterns to help us.

So, to use ssav's example, I might not be able to guess how "charade" is pronounced the first time I see it written down. But if I see the word used in a sentence, such as "the politician's talk was all just a charade" I might be able to get it right.

However, without (1), I will probably not guess correctly. But if I've seen words like attaché and parachute and I have the word in a sentence, I can probably put two and two together.

We get things wrong a lot though, especially if we've never encountered the word before and we've never heard it spoken. Then we might embarrass ourselves.

Au101

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 1 138

4

Since pronunciation changes over time, any system of spelling that was mapped to pronunciation at a point-in-time would eventually get out-of-sync with the way people are speaking.

The system of spelling also has to make a choice (explicitly or implicitly):

a) nominate a "standard" pronunciation, so that from the get-go the system would not map to regional variations in pronunciation; or

b) reflect regional pronunciation, so there would be many ways to spell the same word.

The latter was the case before English spelling was standardized. There are dozens of ways to spell the word for 'sister' in Old English, for example.

The Googles of the world would have a difficult time searching if a word might be spelled in a given text in any number of ways. All searches would have to be phonetic, and the search engine would have to understand the rules of regional pronunciation, and to the degree it did not, there would be misses and false positives galore.

It's possible to "get close" when guessing a pronunciation, but that's about it. If you don't recognize the word as a loan-word from another language, say, and so may be following some special rule, you won't stand much chance of guessing right. For example: depot. But for the most part, spelling of English words does follow some basic phonetic rules that can be learned.

Tᴚoɯɐuo

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 116 610

The Semantic Web would solve Google's problems. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_Web

– QuentinUK – 2015-06-16T10:00:31.950

@QuentinUK: To attach metadata to every instance of every word on the web, such that a spelling variant is thereby linked to the canonical spelling, seems highly impractical, although it is theoretically a solution to the problem. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-06-16T12:54:57.813

P.S. I'll believe Google is capable of accomplishing this feat (without huge margins of error) when they improve their OCR'ing of older texts. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-06-16T15:12:43.517

2

Native speakers usually already know the word when they first encounter it written down. So when they see it they guess the most likely readings. Then the one which sounds like a word they already know, especially if it fits the context, is the one that is read. So even native speakers can't read a word they are unfamiliar with. They have to look it up in a dictionary. In practice many don't bother because they will never say the word. For an unusual word they can write it in an essay. Sometimes a technical word can be used for years without knowing how to pronounce it.

In England there is a "University of Reading". Which even most English people can't read correctly unless they have heard of the town already.

QuentinUK

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 451

In Monopoly there is Reading Railroad. 95% of Americans mispronouce it. – None – 2015-06-14T23:09:44.030

@pazzo I did not know that. Now I wonder how many people are mispronouncing the Reading Rainbow.

– Ben Kovitz – 2015-06-15T00:17:48.800

Perhaps only people from Reading mispronounce "Reading Rainbow"... shrugs – None – 2015-06-15T00:34:27.833

1But we pronounce it correctly if we live in Pennsylvania, where we have a town Reading with the same pronunciation as the one in England. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-06-15T10:53:26.213

1

I find it like a guess. Sometimes, it is wrong. I saw alot of natives say words in a different way. It could also be due to experience and matching to a similar word. A way to learn it would be:

Example word: Presentation

I break it up, To Present + a + tion

Most (if not all) tion suffixes have the same sound.

I am not exactly sure with the word Chariot though. That is just a matter of experience and dialect. I suppose to teach someone pronunciation, I would break it up into syllables. But Riot as a word sounds different than riot as a syllable of a different word.

John K

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 256

0

I just take an educated guess based upon my knowledge of English since I'm a native speaker. A lot of times, I'm pretty much correct in my pronunciation because most English words have etymologies straight from Latin, French, Greek, etcetera that can be easily spotted. Also, many words have more than one pronunciation, so there's a chance that I hit one of them. There have been cases wherein I've learned a new word and assumed I was pronouncing it correctly until I was corrected or looked it up and I'm a native English speaker. Two English words that come to mind are "superfluous" and "contumelious". I never had trouble pronouncing their noun forms ("superfluity" and "contumely"), but for the longest time I mispronounced the adjective forms. I've mispronounced other words, but can't think of them off the top of my head. Again, I'm usually correct at guessing the pronunciation and even the definition from context clues, but that's probably because I'm a native speaker

Nicholas Castagnola

Posted 2015-06-12T08:06:33.017

Reputation: 272