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I've noticed a few questions lately regarding the quirks of English spelling and pronunciation. Mark Rosenfelder's Hou tu pranownse Inglish may be a useful resource for that kind of question. It misses some subtleties (like the ch in machine), but overall it's a nice summary of the rules.

I'd also be interested in similar resources, especially if they cover the holes in Rosenfelder's rules. Basically, I'm not happy with telling people, “English pronunciation is quirky, deal with it” – there are rules, they just take a little sophistication to apply.

  • Are there? I mean, sure there are some but I've never heard of any system of rules that can adequately explain ghoti. I'd be very happy to find one though, so +1. – terdon Sep 5 '13 at 17:47
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    Rosenfelder actually rants a bit about ghoti and how it doesn't properly follow the rules. – Bradd Szonye Sep 5 '13 at 18:41
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I perused the website and it looked pretty comprehensive to me, if nothing else, anyone who seriously studied this page and learnt by heart the proposed "56 rules" and guidelines would surely master the small lacunae the author admits his site contains.

However, in my opinion, the interminable single page layout is outdated and user unfriendly; difficult to scan, intimidating for English learners, and ironically, too detailed to offer any immediate help.

Furthermore, Mark Rosenfelder's suggested computer programme, Sound Change Applier, sounded horribly complicated to me. The one thing it appeared to be missing, one of the most useful aids for English learners wishing to improve their pronunciation, was an audio reproduction of the IPA phonemic chart (perhaps less important for native speakers who wish to understand the orthographic rules governing English spelling). Instead, the author has created his own phonemic chart.

If we're discussing spelling, we have to discuss sounds as well; and this means choosing a reference dialect. I'll use my own, of course-- a version of General American that's unexcitingly close to the standard. I'll call it GA below.

In using his computer programme one would benefit in hearing the pronunciation but as I previously pointed out, it doesn't look easy to install and I suspect it would not work on today's various operating systems; Vista, Windows 7 and 8, or even Mac.

I wonder how useful would the following be to future visitors, if we suggested that they visit this site and they came across this explanation:

(number) 6. aught and ought become òt: daughter = dòt@r, sought = sòt.
8. Elsewhere, gh is simply dropped: freight = frät.
14. ci or ti becomes $ before a vowel: gracious = grä$@s, nation = ä$@n.

As much as the idea and concept of this web page appeals to me, I would not recommend new users to visit this website. In the past, I have often advised Italians wishing to improve their English to listen to pod casts, visit the BBC learning English page which has a section dedicated to pronunciation; EL sites which do dictation exercises; e.g. http://www.dictationsonline.com/, and to watch videos and DVDs with English subtitles.

Another excellent source are online dictionaries. The majority of whom supply audio recordings and give the phonetic transcriptions of individual words.

In conclusion, I agree that we need to recommend resources to users asking for guidance, it's not good enough to fob visitors off by saying, “English pronunciation is quirky, deal with it” but Mark Rosenfelder's Hou tu pranownse Inglish isn't the answer.

EDIT:
I happened upon this clear and unambiguous guide, from OALD, explaining the phonemic symbols used in the dictionary, they include both British and American pronunciations. I imagine that the purchased online edition would also contain the audio recordings of each and every word too.

  • Good commentary. I have many of the same reservations about the site. I find it fascinating as somebody who's interested in such things, and I think it would be a good resource for somebody who wanted to do something better designed or more comprehensive. And I was wondering what else is out there. – Bradd Szonye Sep 6 '13 at 3:34
  • Yes, the website could act as a spring board and inspire a more user-friendly page and lay out. Rules on spelling, I suspect, are to be found on websites dedicated to children reading skills. – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '13 at 3:43
  • I agree with your conclusion though personally I much prefer the single page to more "modern" alternatives because it is easy to save and very easy to search. The modern fad of breaking everything down to single page length sections is often extremely annoying if you are searching for a specific word. – terdon Sep 6 '13 at 15:47
  • @terdon For the single page to work, I think Wikipedia leads the way. I like how they hyper-link the main elements in their articles (although at times they do go to extremes) and if you're interested only, for example, the history or etymology aspect you merely click on the subheading. Skimming and scanning becomes unnecessary. In Mark Rosenfelder's pronunciation page, there are very few embedded links and unless you know what you are looking for you can waste a fair bit of time scanning the text. – Mari-Lou A Sep 7 '13 at 6:25
  • It's a very good specification for a computer program; not sure about a learning aid. As he says, humans learn generalities first and then exceptions as exceptions. And he should not have replaced IPA, even if the replacements are straight ASCII and easy for a computer program. – Andrew Leach Sep 9 '13 at 7:40
  • I think that criticizing the content of the page because of its formatting is inappropriate. It's a fine page and it actually prints very nicely. – vy32 Sep 9 '13 at 23:26
  • @vy32 If you are commenting to me, I also expressed my doubts on its contents. – Mari-Lou A Sep 9 '13 at 23:30
  • @Mari-LouA, I am. You can remove the attack against the formatting, and it will strengthen your argument. – vy32 Sep 10 '13 at 0:12
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    @vy32 I think the word, attack, is bit strong, I explained why I didn't like the page presentation and nothing has changed since then. I found it daunting, and I still do, others like yourself, have expressed otherwise. It's healthy to share and express different viewpoints, we don't necessarily have to agree with one another. – Mari-Lou A Sep 10 '13 at 5:06
  • I have a feeling it's meant to be daunting. It is, after all, the alternative of simply learning the pronunciation and spelling of every word separately. Most people use some mix of these two strategies when they learn to read English; spelling it is another matter, because recall is always harder and less reliable than recognition. The point Mark is making, I think, is that these rules are distillations of certain high points in linguistic research, and memorizing them by rote is very different from learning the science that discovered them. That's fun; but it's not taught in schools. – John Lawler Sep 10 '13 at 17:34
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    @AndrewLeach If I recall correctly, personal computers had very poor support for IPA when Rosenfelder published the article 13 years ago. Also, he deliberately avoided IPA vowels because they don't correspond well to English pronunciation: “The wacky spellings I used for the vowels, however, are inherent in the logic of English spelling. It would only obscure how the system works if I represented the long and short vowels with IPA forms.” – Bradd Szonye Sep 10 '13 at 23:19
  • @AndrewLeach: That's a good point; I put a lot of ASCII /f@nEtIks/ on the Web in the 90's and it's still there. Nowadays things are much easier. – John Lawler Oct 27 '13 at 18:38
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Trying to describe in words how something sounds is as inherently problematic as trying to describe a colour or a taste. Without a base reference point the task becomes exceedingly difficult. Non-native English speakers have no reliable reference point, so writing "it's like the 'a' in 'chance' " is bound to fail (not least because that particular 'a' is different in different Englishes!).

The best way to illustrate pronunciations is surely a library of recorded sound. In this era of internet ease and cheaper data storage there's no reason not to have dictionary or Wikipedia entries accompanied by tags or links to appropriate soundbites.

Those recordings could be tagged according to the specifics of the speaker, highlighting differences between British/American/Indian/Caribbean English and even local variations.

Taking it a step further, recordings of short phrases or sentences in which the word is used would help the user develop an ear not only for the pronunciation of that specific word but also an ear for stress, cadence and rhythm.

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    For American English, the standard phonemic representation is Kenyon and Knott. For RP, there is also a phonemic standard, helpfully supplied by Mari-Lou. Attempting to discuss English pronunciation without understanding and comprehending these is like attempting to discuss classical oil painting without understanding or comprehending the representation of color. And it's just as useful. – John Lawler Sep 10 '13 at 17:27
  • Are you chastising me for not mentioning written phonemic systems? And are you dismissing my comment as not useful? I merely offered the thought that sound files are of far better use than ANY written system and that the internet is an ideal medium for such a library. Do you disagree? – toandfro Sep 10 '13 at 23:43
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    Not especially; nor am I suggesting your comment is unuseful. Sound files are useful. But they're big, loud, and aural, which requires special software and doesn't correlate with written material, whether orthographic, phonetic, or phonemic. Phonetics is the base reference point for the sounds of speech. For instance, check out the transcribed files at the George Mason Speech Accent Archive; they wouldn't be nearly as useful if they weren't transcribed. – John Lawler Sep 11 '13 at 0:13
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    @JohnLawler except that you have to learn yet another 'alphabet'... and sounds which are not common - or simply don't exist - in the learner's language will pose a serious difficulty. Unless there is the said audio to help. – Sara Costa Sep 13 '13 at 15:59
  • Certainly audio is important. But there's only one international phonetic alphabet, and it covers all the sounds that human languages have. Naturally, no human language has all of them. – John Lawler Sep 14 '13 at 0:29
  • @SaraCosta Please don't be intimidated. You can learn the sounds one at a time whenever it's relevant to your studies. Over time, you'll become more comfortable with the IPA, but even so, you may never need to learn what all of the symbols represent. – snailboat Sep 23 '13 at 23:36

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