Why is English pronunciation so confusing?

One of the things that English language learners find the most difficult is pronunciation…

One of the things that English language learners find the most difficult is pronunciation—a lot of words are pronounced completely differently than they’re spelled. Why is that? Well, it has a lot in common with goulash.

So, in the 1st century the Romans invaded Britain and brought paved roads, togas, and the Roman alphabet. For the next millennium, Latin mixed with the languages of the Angles, Saxons, and Vikings, depending on who was invading or ruling. But 1066 rolled around and the Normans (modern day French) invaded Britain as they usually do—with style. French became the language of the ruling classes and replaced English, but the common people continued to speak their native language. This can be seen in words like sheep and cow which are Anglo-Saxon, but meat from these animals (mutton and beef) are French. French was the longest staying foreigner and is responsible for pushing out hard Old English sounds for softer sounds. It also made it next to impossible to spell words as people hear them.

Though the British later told the French to go home, they decided the language was pretty enough to keep. From then on, English began to get new words by gathering different exotic words from its colonies (e.g. bungalow, zebra).

And this is where the English pronunciation terror begins. There are several processes where one language borrows words from another: 1) you change the spelling in your alphabet to pronounce the word closest to the original way, 2) you keep the original spelling, but change the pronunciation that suits your language, 3) you adapt the word into your own language, changing the pronunciation and spelling, but keeping the meaning, or 4) you keep the original spelling and pronunciation. There’s also a 5th way—you can do whatever and hope for the best.

English speakers began to naturally change pronunciations that turned out to be just too hard to say over a cup of tea without spitting crumbs everywhere. Actually, so many people began to pronounce things differently and mix all the language systems, that the event got its own name—The Great Vowel Shift. It carried on from the 15th-18th century and no one really knows why. But the cherry on top was also the fact that spelling wasn’t standardized yet so printers and writers basically spelled words however they wanted to, adding and deleting letters as they saw fit, and everyone just had to deal with it. Either they were influenced by their native languages (Dutch printers thought gost looked a little pale so they added a letter and now we have ghost) or by whatever the craze was. For example, when the Classical period made Latin and Greek fashionable again, spelling also changed to make words classy (e.g. Feverere changed to February, receyt to receipt, and asma to asthma).

It was an American, Noah Webster, who finally decided that spelling needed to be standardized. He also wasn’t super crazy about Americans learning from British books, so he created an American spelling and grammar book that settled the debate on how words should be spelled. The British, unimpressed, patriotically kept to their own spellings so that no one would ever accidently mistaken them for Americans. This is why, for example, the British write colour, favour, and centre while Americans write color, favor, and center to this day.

All of this won’t make English pronunciation any easier, but at least you’ll know who to blame for all your difficulties (basically everyone in the world).

Fun fact: If you want to hear what Old English sounded like before the French showed up, you can listen to modern Icelandic. These two languages are very similar!

paved – to cover something with a material to create a hard surface for walking, driving, etc.
to roll around – (in context) to move forward in time
vowel – letters that are not consonants (e.g. a,e,i,o,u,y)
cherry on top – the best part
deal with it – to accept or try to accept something
pale – light in color
craze – something that is very popular for a period of time.
classy – having qualities that make something special and attractive

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