Friday, 19 July 2013


Do I really have to do this again?

I made the statement that phonetics are completely useless, and got asked why.


OK, let's begin at the beginning.

We have an alphabet-based written language. That is to say, we use letters to stand for sounds, which when combined convey a rough idea of how the word we read should be pronounced. It's pretty rough in some cases, just the word rough, is a perfect example. We say it ruff. Writing ruff, is writing it phonetically, sort of. So there are those who believe that it would be better if we always used phonetic spelling.


Reason #1: For those used to traditional spelling it would be incredibly frustrating. It would slow down our reading and writing drastically, until we got used to the new system, which we may never quite do. That's an entire generation effectively handicapped. It would be utterly disastrous, in fact, and could easily cause the collapse of academia and business throughout the area affected, while those unaffected would surge ahead. For this reason alone, it's a ridiculous idea.

Reason #2: You'd have to repeat it after a while. The way things are spelled traditionally, WAS phonetic originally. Spelling stayed the same while pronunciation changed, and pronunciation change is inevitable. It will happen again, as language develops. Spelling does not prescribe pronunciation.

Reason #3: We pronounce words differently depending on where we come from. Regional accents are not suddenly going to disappear overnight just because you spell something differently, so in fact when you write ruff, there are still several ways of saying it. You haven't solved anything.

The only form of phonetic writing that is of any use whatsoever is the IPA ( which has one symbol for every possible sound humans utter. But to use that as an everyday alphabet would require learning not 26 letters, but 44 for English alone. Because English has (at least, depending on accent) 44 different phonemes. To include all dialects of English, you'd need 66. Remember, a phoneme is a single spoken sound, which cannot be broken down into anything smaller. For Reason #1 it's simply not practical to implement this as our alphabet.

I'm not sure why people have such a hard time getting this. What we write is a reminder of the word, in the same way a pictogram is. The best known Chinese character outside of China is probably

It means luck and happiness, and is a common symbol for decorations, jewellery, greetings cards, gift tags, etc etc. Many westerners who don't speak a word of Chinese recognise it. Some even know that it's pronounced Fú. How do you know that? Well, you have to memorize it. There are no real clues in the symbol. Chinese isn't like that. The symbol represents the CONCEPT. But you remember that when you see that symbol, you say Fú. There is nothing phonetic here.

If you realise that the group of symbols "rough" are to be said ruff, you are fine. Spelling and reading therefore is largely a memory skill, or in fact two different memory skills. It is possible to remember to say ruff when you see "rough", even if later on you cannot remember to spell it "rough". This is how people manage to see a word spelled correctly thousands upon thousands of times, recognize it, remember how to pronounce it, and yet fail to remember how to write it.

Writing phonetically is easier in theory, because you only need remember 44 phonemes and their symbols. But in fact, the person used to writing traditionally finds it faster to draw from his memory of thousands of spellings, because, if the spelling dictionary in his memory is functioning well, it's virtually automatic, at least most of the time. DECIDING which symbols to write would take longer.

The same applies to reading. Read both these passages, and see which takes you longer to read.

Th' jəːni from owə town too th' metropoliss, woz a jəːrny ov abowt fyv owəz. It woz a litl pahsd mid-dai wen th' fɔ̝ːhɔ̝ːss stayjkoach by wich I woz a pass'njəː, got intoo th' rav'l ov trafik fraid owt abowt the Kross Keez, Wʊ~ɵ̠d Street, Cheepssyd, Lund'n.
Wee Brit'nz had at that tym p'tikyulee setl'd that it woz treez'n'bl too dowt owə havving and owə beeing the best ov evrithing; uthəwyz, wyl I woz skɛə̯d by thee imenssitee ov Lund'n, I think I myt hav had sum faint dowts wethə it woz not rath'r ugly, krookid, naro, and dəːti.

The journey from our town to the metropolis, was a journey of about five hours. It was a little past mid-day when the fourhorse stage-coach by which I was a passenger, got into the ravel of traffic frayed out about the Cross Keys, Wood-street, Cheapside, London.
We Britons had at that time particularly settled that it was treasonable to doubt our having and our being the best of everything: otherwise, while I was scared by the immensity of London, I think I might have had some faint doubts whether it was not rather ugly, crooked, narrow, and dirty.

I know it took me ages to type the first part!

But what I typed out "phonetically" was for my own accent, and even I then was forced to use symbols from the IPA for absolute clarity. There is NO WAY of writing phonetically to suit everyone at once. Can't be done.

The idea of phonetics, taught to children, is still done up to a point no matter what reading method is used, but to rely on it? No. Doesn't work.


  1. Laughing hysterically in your general direction. Poor Melanie. (Snickering my damn fool head off.)

  2. It took me a while to read the passage that you had spelled out phonetically, and yes, you do have a good point. :)