Living in a country with a language that is about as different from English as possible I have had my own serious problems with learning to read and write Thai. Thai has more consonants and vowels than English that pair up to create different tones. There is also the ambiguous placement of vowels: sometimes before, sometimes after or either above or below a consonant pairing and then sometimes just implied.
I’ve spent hours shaking my head trying to decipher the rules, and then there’s Hua Hip, a consonant that reverses all the tone rules! It’s challenging, frustrating and in the end amusing to me. Living in Thailand also means that most of the people I know speak English as a second language. My friends are Swiss, German, Lithuanian, Chinese and of course Thai and many of them are polyglots.
This international group that makes up my small circle of friends are quick to throw the quirks and inconsistencies of English in my face when I voice frustration over the construction of Thai. Now there is some empirical evidence backing up those complaints.
The name Noam Chomsky looms large in the world of linguists and his 1968 book, The Sound Pattern of English, is probably one of the most influential books on English phonology and orthography, or spelling and pronunciation as most of us would call it, ever written. In this famous work, Chomsky claims that ‘English spelling is as close to optimal as can be’. A claim that has been disputed ever since it was published but up until now has never been tested.
Garret Nicolai a graduate student in the computing sciences department at the University of Alberta and his PhD supervisor Grzegorz Kondrak have taken up the challenge to test this with a transliteration program called DirecTL that matches individual letters to phonemes (individual units of speech sounds) which predicts the pronunciation of a word based on its spelling. Using this program they showed that there are no hard and fast rules to English pronunciation for neither native nor non-native speakers.
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Furthermore when compared to other languages English proved to have the least predictable spelling patterns based on pronunciation. The study showed that English is three times more difficult than German and up to forty times more so than Spanish, according to the engineers who interpreted the data.
A very unscientific comparison
I invited a few of my friends around for food and beers in order to get their take on this study and find out what their favourite problematic words are. Right off we got into homophones; plate and plait, there and their, complement and complement, whole and hole, raise-raze-rays and rase are only a few they fired out immediately.
Then I was bombarded with homonyms as if I am solely responsible for the way the English language has developed. One asked how can custom mean something that is both traditional and unique? A question I have often asked myself. Here is a list of some others.
Ball - either a globe used to play a game or a formal dance.
Bank - The edge of a river or place to keep money.
Fast - Speed, or a break from eating.
Jam - A sweet fruit based spread or part of a doorway.
Lap - Using the tongue to drink or part of the human body.
Lie - recumbent or a mistruth.
Pitch - A tone of sound or the field to play football.
And on and on
As the beer flowed we then moved on to pronunciation. This group is not only multiple language speakers but also frequent travellers and citizens of the world and so have experiences with the wide breathe of spoken English. The main difference is between North American and British speak but that really only scratches the surface. In the US alone our accents vary greatly but it is nothing compared to the U.K. Though diminutive in size the variances in speech are such that English friends of mine can distinguish accents between towns mere miles from one another.
My Asian friends who are most comfortable with the neutral American accent that is the voice of Hollywood movies and video games find the unique pronunciation of Scots, Welsh, South African and rural Australians to be almost unintelligible.
But don’t other languages vary as much? I suggested that French is very different in the many countries where it’s spoken? Somewhat, I was told by our Swiss friend, but at least the spelling remains the same.
So why can’t Americans and British at least normalise that? I didn’t have an answer, I couldn't really argue with them since I have my own real problems with spelling the language. I will never get quite, quit and quiet right and neither will a lot of other native English speakers. At the end of the day, what do you think? Did Nicolai and Kondrak prove something to be true? Leave your thoughts in the comments section an let's hear what you have to say about English.