It's hard to say

11 July 2006
7:45 AM

Give yourself a little test. Pronounce the following words aloud:

If you were uncertain about some of the words, welcome to the majority of English speakers. If you said them all correctly (and you may want to double check because there are some tricky ones), congratulations.

I put forth this exercise to point out a difference between English and Spanish that astonished me when I thought about it. In English it’s entirely possible—even normal—for educated, intelligent, native speakers to encounter written words that they cannot pronounce. The quiz doesn’t show that people are ignorant, just that they haven’t heard certain words before. Even if you were able to pronounce the above words, it wasn’t because of your superb grasp of phonics, but rather because you had heard the words before and memorized the pronounciation associated with the written form. If a basic English speaker saw the words without ever having heard them spoken, it’s all but certain that he could not get them right on the first try. Maybe this seems to be nothing more than stating the obvious. Perhaps.

The remarkable thing is that it would be impossible to duplicate this exercise in Spanish. If I gave any educated Spanish speaker a list of Spanish words, no matter how obscure, he would be able to pronounce them on the first try. The pronunciation and stress of any Spanish word is transparent from the written form. In any Spanish word, an ‘a’ is an ‘a’; it doesn’t matter where the letter appears in a word—it’s always pronounced the same way. Contrast this with the name Abraham in English, in which ‘a’ appears three times, each time with a different pronunciation.

But, as I tell my English students, it’s not as if the English language is completely unbound by pronunciation rules. It’s just that the rules are much more complicated than Spanish’s. On top of that, it’s hard to say which words we apply the rules to, and which words we just give up on and memorize the pronunciation.

Maybe pronunciaton is easier over in the Spanish world. Then again, maybe that’s the price English pays for having so many words: by any estimate English has several hundred thousand wordsmore than other comparable languages. And after all, it’s not that bad—when was the last time you used floccinaucinihilipilification in a conversation?

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