Technology, grammar, and more technology.

Pronouncing it right

...or as close as possible. How do you pronounce envelope? Is it EN-vell-ohp or AWN-vell-ohp? How about experiment? Is it ecks-SPARE-uh-ment or ecks SPEER-ih-ment? How about harrassment? Hah-RASS-mint or HAIR-iss-mint?

There is no correct answer. Depending on where you're from and what you're used to, you might even use both interchangeably.

Another reason why English is insane.

Let's have another example. You might read the word Aquafina as "aw-kwa-FEE-na," or you could read it as "ah-KWA-fih-nah." The only reason you know the correct one is because you've heard people say it aloud. Aquafina had to tell you how to pronounce the brand. If you'd never heard the word before, how do you think you'd pronounce it?

This is part of the reason it takes so long to learn English—first language or not. Our phonemes don't match our graphemes very well.

What are phonemes and graphemes?

A grapheme is the smallest semantically separate unit in a language.

Wow. I wrote that and even I'm confused. Let's try that again:

A grapheme is the smallest unit of a writing system. 

That's better! The written alphabet of any language is made up of graphemes.

A phoneme, on the other hand, is the smallest unit of distinct sound in a language—a speech sound. The grapheme is "s", but the phoneme is "ess."

We don't often think of phonemes and graphemes separately, but don't forget: written language was decided. It isn't an innate part of your brain.

That's also why we have to be "taught" to read. Unless someone shows you how, you're probably not going to figure it out. Our brains don't really work that way. The human brain is wired for verbal communication, so reading is harder on your brain than just "figuring it out" verbally. When you learn to read, you're essentially reprogramming your brain.

That's crazy. And difficult. But it doesn't have to be.

How does this relate to English?

English is hard to read because our phonemes don't match our graphemes. That is, not all English speech sounds made it into our alphabet. Case in point: there's no letter that makes a "sh" sound, but we use it in words like "should" and "nation."

Stop and think about that for a second. The letters "sh" and "ti" make the same speech sound.

See what I mean? This language is insane.

By contrast, languages like Finnish and Greek have a very close relationship between grapheme and phoneme. In both Finnish and Greek, the alphabet covers almost all possible speech sounds in the language. It's easier that way. And as a result, children who speak Greek or Finnish usually learn to read faster  than kids who read English.

What do I do? Should I give up on English?

Nah. It's difficult to learn, but not insurmountable. The more you read aloud—especially around other people—the better you'll get at English pronunciation. That's also one of the many reasons reading aloud to kids is an extremely important part of their development.

Plus, English pronunciation inconsistencies make for some interesting rhyming schemes (looking at you, Steve Miller Band—"El Paso" does not rhyme with "hassle").

But don't be dissuaded. It's all about reading, practising, and asking if you're unsure of something. Or if you're really anal retentive, there's always the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Et cetera, etcetera, etc.

How to Hyphen-