Published: Friday September 24, 2010 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday June 18, 2013 MYT 12:57:28 PM

Lingering over lingerie?

Rambling through the quagmire that is English spelling and pronunciation.

I PUT up the catchy title not to discuss women’s undergarments and nightclothes – no, I don’t have that sort of fetish – but to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that the words lingering and lingerie are not pronounced as they are spelt. For that matter, why are the words linger, lingerie, and singer, which contain the same letter-cluster “nger”, pronounced differently?

I taught myself to read at a very early age. I realised, also at an early age, that silent reading is not quite the same as reading aloud, that pronunciation makes the difference. At primary school, the teacher had written on the blackboard: “I am too deaf to hear”. I was asked to read out the sentence to the class; I said: “I am too deef to hear.” It was then that I learnt that deaf is not pronounced like leaf. Later on, I found that there are other words containing the same letter-cluster “ea” but pronounced differently, such as leaf [leef], deaf [def], break [brayk], learn [luhrn], hear [hiuhr]. In other words, words are not always pronounced the way they are spelt and, conversely, words are not always spelt the way they are pronounced.

Pronunciation guide

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, comprising 21 consonant-letters and five vowel-letters. Ideally, each letter would represent one sound (phoneme). Unfortunately, the 21 consonant-letters cannot represent all the possible consonant phonemes; likewise the five vowel-letters cannot represent all the possible vowel-sounds of English.

The best way to represent the pronunciation of words is to use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), which consists of the usual letters of the English alphabet, with the following additions: (1) the “ae” ligature; (2) many letter-like symbols selected or invented for IPA; and (3) the colon to indicate a long vowel sound. Unfortunately, this newspaper is not able to print IPA. I therefore have to resort largely to an alternative system, viz. that used by Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1974), which “is intelligible to a large number of people.”

Consonants and vowels

Each of the 21 consonant-letters has its own innate sound. Additional consonant-sounds are easily shown under the C20D system by combinations of letters; e.g. “ch” (as in child, church), “sh” (as in shall, mush), “th” (as in thin, mouth) “dh” (as in then, father), and “zh” (as in azure, measure).

As for the possible open sounds, the Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar (1998) records “2 semi-vowels, 12 pure vowels, and 8 diphthongs”. (Notably, triphthongs, as occurring in, for example, fire and dour, have not been included.) The C20D scheme represents these open sounds by the usual vowel-letters plus symbols, with or without diacritic and other marks. Again, the newspaper is unable to reproduce these diacritics and other marks, so that I have to improvise as I go along.

Consonants functioning as vowels

The 25th letter, “y”, is classified as a consonant – sometimes classified as a semi-vowel – yet it can function as a vowel, sounded as “i” as in mystery [mis.tuh.ri] or as the diphthong in awry [uh-rai]. In fact, there are some words that are made up wholly of consonant-letters but including “y” – with the “y” providing the necessary vowel sound, as in rhythm [ridhm] and gypsy [jipsi].

The consonant-letter “j” is another case in point. Besides carrying its innate sound, “j” may be pronounced as “i”, as in fjord, a word of Old Norse origin. (Additionally, “j” in words of Spanish origin is pronounced as “h”, as in junta and marijuana.)

The silent letters

English spellings are odd or, at best, quirky. Words may be spelt one way but pronounced by ignoring certain letters within them. The following are examples of these “silent” letters: (1) silent “e” at word-end, as in cane, rite, eke, robe, rule; (2) silent “b”, as in doubt, thumb; (3) optionally silent “c”, as in cnida, cnidoblast, cnidophore; (4) silent “h”, as in hour, honour, honest, herb (the last only in American English); (5) silent “l”, as in palm, psalm, salmon, helm, colonel (the first “l” is silent); (6) the silent “n”, as in column, solemn; (7) the silent “p”, as in psychology, ptarmigan, corps, coup; (8) silent “r” – in many instances optional but in some places (e.g. Ireland) sounded with a burr – as in four [foh(r)], water [waw.tuh(r)], forty [faw(r).ti]; (9) silent “s”, mostly in words of foreign (largely French) origin, as in apropos, debris; and (10) silent “t”, again in words of mostly French origin, as in ballet [bal.ay], the noun buffet [boo-fay], denouement [de.nu.ay.mong].

There are other silent letters, such as the “g” in “gn”, the “k” in “kn”, and the “w” in “wr”, when the relevant letter-combinations occur at the beginning of words, as in gnaw and gnome but not in cygnet and cognomen; in knife and knot but not in locknut; and in wretch and wrong but not in awry.

We may also note that the letter-pair “gh” is wholly silent in many words, e.g. neigh, high, dough, fraught, freight, might, thought. Likewise the letter-combination “ue” is silent in words terminating in -gue (e.g. fatigue, intrigue – except for dengue [deng.gay] and segue [seg.way]); and in -que (e.g. boutique, mystique – except for communiqué and risqué which, in any case, have the acute accent placed over the final “e” to indicate the “ay” sound).

The extraneous letters

As opposed to the silent letters, there are cases where a pronunciation includes a letter that does not exist in the spelling. The epenthetic “f” occurs in lieutenant [lef.tuh.nuhnt], and “j” in soldier [sol.juhr].

Same letter, different sounds

In general, each letter of the alphabet carries its own innate sound. However, the same letter may be sounded differently in different words, as in the following examples: (1) the letter “s” has its innate sound in sat, astute, bus – but not in sugar [shoo-guhr], measure [me.zhuhr], comprise [kom.praiz], boys [boiz]; (2) the letter “x” is sounded differently, as “ks” in axis [ak.sis] and axiom [ak.siem], as “kz” in exact [ik.zakt] and example [ik.zahm.puhl] but as “z” in xenophobe [zen.oh.fohb] and xylophone [zai.lo.fohn]; and (3) the letter “o” has its innate sound in only, glow, go – but not in do [doo], onion [ah.niuhn], hot [hawt], son [sun], money [mun.i], ballot [bal.luht], women [wi.muhn].

Same sound, different letters

While the same letter may carry different sounds, the reverse is also true – the same phoneme (sound) may be represented by different morphemes (letters or groups of letters). The following examples illustrate: (1) the “f” sound, represented by “f” as in fish and loaf, “gh” as in draught [druft] and cough [kof], and “ph” as in phantom [fan-tuhm]; (2) the “k” sound represented by “k” as in kudos and sink, “c” as in cost and tic, “ch” as in charisma and dichotomy, and “ck” as in sick and ticket; and (3) the “sh” sound, represented by “s” as in sugar [shoo.ger] ), “c” as in ocean [oh-shuhn], “ch” as in chic [sheek], gauche [gohsh], “sc” as in conscience [kon.shuhns], “ti” as in nation [nay.shuhn] and quotient [kwo.shuhnt], and “sch” in schedule [she.diool] and schnitzel [shnit.zuhl]

Same letter-combination, different sounds

The maddening “unpredictability” of English spellings extends to letter-combinations. For example, the same letter-combination may bear different vowel-sounds, including diphthongs. The following examples illustrate: (1) “ou” as in out [aut], coup [koo], route [root], double [dub.uhl], soul [sohl], you [yoo]; (2) “our” as in your [yaw(r)], tour [too.e(r)], four [foh(r)], dour [dau.uh(r)]; and (3) “ough” as in bough [bau], cough [kof], rough [ruf], through [thru], thorough [thu.ruh], hiccough [hik.up], thought [thot].

Words of foreign origin

The English language has, arguably, the richest of all vocabularies. Besides it own stock of native (Anglo-Saxon) words, it accepts very many words and expressions from many sources. Those from oral languages (i.e. languages without a script, e.g. Inuit) or from languages with a non-alphabetic script (e.g. Chinese, Japanese) are relatively easily accommodated, their sounds being merely transformed into words written in the Latin-derived script of English – but with intonations, as in Chinese, simply excluded. Words from languages with an alphabetic but non-Latin script (e.g. Greek, Arabic, Russian) are transliterated into their English equivalents (or approximations). Finally those from languages which largely share a common script with English (e.g. German, French, Italian, Spanish) are adopted easily and freely.


What does the above preamble have to do with the topic in hand? Plenty, as regards spelling and pronunciation. We may note some features concerning foreign-derived words: (1) italicisation: words are italicised in text to distinguish them as foreign, as if to imply their tentative entry into English – but they may eventually be Anglicised and then printed in the usual roman; (2) capitalisation: German nouns taken into English and then Anglicised convert the initial capital letter into the lowercase, e.g. German Wanderlust becomes English wanderlust; (3) diacritics: words are adopted together with the diacritics as in the original language, e.g. rôle (with a circumflex placed over the letter “o”) and communiqué (with an acute accent placed over the letter “e”) – but Anglicisation commonly drops these diacritics; and (4) pronunciation: words are adopted sometimes together with their original pronunciation, e.g. schadenfreude [shah.duhn.froi.duh], paparazzo [pah.pah.raht.so], boudoir [boo-dwah], debut [day.boo], paella [pai.eh.yah], junta [hoon.tah].

I have pondered long and hard over this article – on how to put together the examples to illustrate the salient points while being mindful of the space constraint for this column. Now that I have finished, phew!

The quirks of English orthography have prompted some people – and, recently, even the European Union – to move for a reformation of English spellings. One of the champions of such reform was the playwright George Bernard Shaw – he of the word ghoti, pronounced ‘fish”, on the basis that “gh” is sounded as “f” in draught, graph, etc., “o” sounded as “i” in women, and “ti” sounded as “sh” in nation, discretion, ignition, potion, constitution, etc.

I think English spellings cannot be credibly reformed without diluting the effectiveness of the language. Will pooch and putsch be spelt the same way? Will words be reduced to mere homographs and homophones? The poor reader will be clueless with words severed from their etymological moorings. There can be no word-play – no pun is no fun – and there will be no scope for double entendres. Will English then end up a dreadful mess and, in effect, become a limp language?

As for pronunciation, any call to import a particular variety into any given country will be futile. Why do the native English-speaking countries, all largely peopled from the “mother” country that is Britain, not speak and sound the same variety of English as spoken in England? Even within England, there are regional differences in speech. Nevertheless, these peoples can largely understand one another. The important consideration is recognition – that words, even though deviating from the standard dictionary pronunciations, can be recognised and, therefore, understood.

By the same token, non-native speakers of English need not flaunt a British or American accent to be understood as long as their words, even though departing from the dictionary pronunciations, are recognisable. Who but the snooty pedant would fail – or refuse – to recognise restaurant when pronounced as “res.taw.ruhnt”, zero as “jiro”, valve as “walw”, the as “zuh”, décolleté as “da.ko.let”, echelon as “ech.uh.lon”, double entendre as “dub.uhl.en.ten.duhr”, cognoscenti as “kog.no.sen.ti”, intaglio as “in.tag.lio”, junta as “hoon.tah], and so forth? Furthermore, non-native speakers, on encountering or when using words derived from their own language, may sound such words as in their own language, rather than follow the dictionary pronunciations. Surely the German cannot be censured for pronouncing wanderlust as “vun.duhr.loost”; the Italian for pronouncing spaghetti Bolognese as “spah.ge.ti bo.lo.nyeh.zay”, the French for pronouncing genre as “zhongr” and guillotine as “gi.uh.teen”, the Spaniard for sounding llama as “yah.mah” and Mexico as “me.hi.ko”, the Portuguese for pronouncing piranha as “pi.rah.nyah”, the Indian for pronouncing pariah as “pah-riah”, and so on.

What about us Malaysians? On the same basis, we cannot be faulted for pronouncing sultan as “sohl.tun” instead of the dictionary “sul.ten”, kampong as “kum.pohng” instead of “kam.pong”, kapok as “kah.pohq” (I use “q” to indicate a guttural check, equivalent to C20D’s “hh” for loch); pariah as “pah-riah” instead of “puh.rah.uh”, and Malacca as “muh.lah.kah” instead of “muh.lak.kuh”. We, however, can be faulted in the use of the Malay word padi in our English. In standard English, the word is adopted and Anglicised as paddy (not italicised, pronounced as “pa.di”), whereas we use the original word padi without italicisation but pronounced like the Anglicised paddy. Nevertheless we can be justified to use the word padi solely in its original sense of “rice in the husk”. In contrast, the Anglicised paddy has two meanings: (a) “rice in the husk”, and (b) “a field where rice is grown”. Herein is still another clash in usage: in standard English paddy can mean “a field where rice is grown”, also known as a “rice-field” – whereas in Malaysian English such a field is called a “padi-field”, for which the Malay word is sawah.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle