Tough; though; through; thought– Why don’t these words rhyme? Spelling in English is hard enough on paper. But pronunciation can be even trickier. There seem to be too many rules and exceptions. Where did all this complication come from? The simple answer: history. Did English come from Latin, Greek, or German? Yes, yes, and yes....
Tough; though; through; thought– Why don’t these words rhyme? Spelling in English is hard enough on paper. But pronunciation can be even trickier. There seem to be too many rules and exceptions. Where did all this complication come from? The simple answer: history.
Did English come from Latin, Greek, or German?
Yes, yes, and yes. English started as a branch of Germanic languages, but Latin, Greek, and even French have all had a hand in its formation over the centuries. The stories of kings, conquests and cultures are all written in history books. These events affected the way people spoke the language. As time passed, the language changed to accommodate the prevailing powers. We can see relics of foreign influence in modern spelling and pronunciation patterns.
When an item or concept was introduced from another culture, English simply adopted the word with its foreign spelling. However, the pronunciation of these words did adapt to fit with English sounds.
Some examples of these loanwords include “sauna” (from Finnish), “plaza” (from Spanish), “pizza” (from Italian). Many English words came from French over the years, like “buffet” and “automobile”.
Even without that foreign influence, the way we pronounce things changes over time. This happens in all languages, but with some, it is more evident than others.
Slang becomes official
Many shortcuts that we use today were considered slang and inappropriate in times past. For example, the words “you, ye, thou, and “thee” used to have specific grammatical distinctions. But now we only use “you,” and the other three have become archaic. In other cases, (like “olde” vs. “old” and “shoppe” vs. “shop”) modern spelling has simply dropped unnecessary letters. The common word “OK” began more recently, in 1839, as an abbreviation of a misspelling of the phrase “All Correct” (“Oll Korrect”).
Over time, more and more people used these shortcuts until even professionals and authorities used them, and the new pronunciations became standardized. If we look at the big picture, modern English is essentially a mix of mistakes and slang from times past.
Spelling keeps changing
This process takes a long time. There is no individual or select committee that makes decisions about the best way to spell something. If there were, English might be a lot easier. But as things are, changes in spelling happen gradually. Still, there’s hope!
For instance, the word “through” has been abbreviated in North America to “thru” on some street signs and in short-hand business communication. Although this spelling variation is still considered informal, it shows that change is underway.
How do I make sense of the chaos?
If your native language has consistent pronunciation rules, then American English can be frustrating. As you learn new words, you may feel like there is no way to know for certain how they are pronounced. But there are many resources available where you can find the proper pronunciation of each new word. For example, you can consult any dictionary for a breakdown of the pronunciation syllable by syllable using either phonetic re-spelling or IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Online dictionaries even have audio recordings of most words.
Tricks for better pronunciation
One trick that can help you grasp American English pronunciation is to learn pronunciation patterns word-by-word instead of letter-by-letter. Letters combine in different ways to make different sounds. But as you focus more on the words, you will start to detect patterns. Certain spelling combinations can indicate a specific pronunciation. When words are spelled similarly, they often come from the same linguistic origin. For instance, “buffet”(bəˈfeɪ) and “valet”(væˈleɪ) both come from French.
It must be said that it is a challenge to keep track of all the patterns and exceptions. The good news is you don’t have to face it alone. You can consult with friends who are fluent in English or hire an accent coach that can help you sort out the details. Sign up for American accent training to get the background knowledge you need to improve your pronunciation.