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English is not Phonetic

Josef Essberger

Some languages are "phonetic". That means you can look at a written word and know how to pronounce it. Or you can hear a word and know how to spell it. With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound.

It is important to understand that English is not a phonetic language. So we often do not say a word the same way it is spelled.

Some words can have the same spelling but different pronunciation, for example:

  • I like to read [ri:d].
  • I have read [red] that book.

Some words have different spelling but the same pronunciation, for example:

  • I have read [red] that book.
  • Red [red] is my favourite colour.

(You can also listen to these four sentences here.)

Students sometimes ask: "Why is English so difficult to pronounce?" This is really the wrong question. The right question would be: "Why is English so difficult to spell?"

All languages are spoken first and written second. If you only speak English, it is very easy to pronounce. The difficulty comes when you write English and then try to speak it the same way as you write it. When you practise pronunciation, try to forget about written English. Think only about the sound of the words.

To illustrate this point, we say that the spelling "ough" can be pronounced with seven different sounds. But this is the wrong way to put it. It would be better to say that the seven different sounds can be represented in writing by the same spelling. So you see that it cannot help at all to think about "ough". It's much more helpful to think about the seven sounds:

  1. though (like o in go)
  2. through (like oo in too)
  3. cough (like off in offer)
  4. rough (like uff in suffer)
  5. plough (like ow in flower)
  6. ought (like aw in saw)
  7. borough (like a in above)*

Think and practise the sounds of English. Afterwards, you can say how silly the spelling is. It is English spelling that causes the difficulty, not English pronunciation!

* In American English "borough" is pronounced bur-oh (like o in go).

© 2001 Josef Essberger. Revised 2019