Those of you who know me outside of this blog (Hi!) will have probably heard me going on about this particular aspect of language for a quite a while, especially if I’m posed with the question of “Which is the hardest language to learn?” If you’ve got an answer in your head of which language this is, you’re wrong. Sorry…
Every language has aspects that are tough. And, even from looking at the word tough, that in itself is subjective. What may appear as tough to one person, say, a Spaniard learning the characters of Mandarin Chinese, may be easy to someone of a similar linguistic level but of a different nationality, such as men and women from Hong Kong. The same may apply if we stick to the roman script rather than looking other symbols, but then there are countless other aspects of grammar that can mess with our minds, such as the case system of Finnish, the idea that saying I miss you in French is translated directly as
You lack me I lack you (see comments for explanation of strikethrough) in English, and the (personally baffling) concept of having Japanese adjectives that take a past tense.
Rather than harping on about these different languages, I’m going to look at arguably one of the hardest pronunciation systems, at least in the western world: English. Let’s start by addressing the bizarre title of this post.
How many of you pronounced the word ghoti a little along the lines of goatee? Most native English speakers will, because that’s how our minds are interpreting the words’ pronunciation according to our rules of phonotactics. We know it’s not necessarily a true English word* either, as we’re starting with the rare cluster of ‘gh’ and ending the word with an ‘i.’ So, what if I were to tell you that, in some way, both fish and ghoti can be pronounced the same way? And that if you’ve been reading the sounds of the words in this blog post so far aloud in your mind**, then you’ll have already pronounced this word?? Please don’t implode, instead, read on =]
To start, we’ll split ghoti into 3 components: gh (guh), o (oh) and ti (tee). You can see from this split that this is where you’re probably understanding the word to pronounced like goatee. Now, observe the fact that for no really obvious reason, I’ve highlighted three words in the preceding text in green: tough, women and pronunciation. The eagle-eyed of you will notice that the three sections of ghoti appear in these three words, too (if you did spot this, and you’ve not seen this before, you’ve just earned yourself some variety of sugary goodness).
Let’s pair it all together; spellings with sounds. Tough (tuff), women (wi-min) and pronunciation (pro-nun-see-ay-shun). Fish.
Weird, right? Ok, so that example is a little bit out of context, so let’s look at a more ‘real-life’ sentence. Again, the quick ones will have seen that there was another sentence above that was highlighted in orange for no particular reason. If you know why, feel free to grab more sugary snacks while I go on, but I an not being held liable for tooth decay, hyperactivity and diabetes. Again.
The phrase “a Spaniard learning the characters of Mandarin Chinese” seems almost too easy to roll of the tongue of a native or very high-level English speaker. On the face of it, there’s not much (if anything?) that stands out as unusually as ghoti does; we’ve all seen these words before and can pronounce them.
Permit me to mess this up for you, then!
Why does the ‘ch’ cluster in characters and Chinese alter from ‘hard’ to ‘soft,’ especially as they’re both word-initial? Why does the ‘in’ cluster in Mandarin and Chinese go from sounding like ‘in’ to ‘aiin?’ And, if we follow the rule of ‘5 vowels’*** in English, why do all of the A‘s not sound identical? Given the second question, shouldn’t an a be added to Chinese to assist the pronunciation?
Again, weird. And we haven’t even touched upon other oddities, such as refuse having two separate pronunciations but no obvious marking on the word to indicate when and where to use them. Other languages use accents (or diacritics for the language geeks) to provide some assistance in pronunciation, such as the difference in the French c & ç and e & é. Ok, they might have their own exceptions, but as a foreign learner of the language, it’s a LOT easier to get the correct pronunciation when the diacritics exist.
I’m not going to go into why this has occurred and what caused all these crazy combinations of sounds. Not for now, anyway. The aim here was to show English speakers how weird our spelling and pronunciation system can be, and why to a foreigner our language may seem the hardest one out there.
To end, here’s an old American dude exemplifying the above points. It’s only 2 minutes and, well, he’s old. He deserves a little bit of your time =P
*I say true in this context to mean a words that are more common in language and also words that “look” English. Yeah, I’m aware that we’ve borrowed/stolen/forceably-changed-a-lot-against-their-own-will from other languages.
**I hope to do a down-to-earth post soon on something called ‘Mentalese,’ because I’m always asked in what language I think in, and then when I try to explain this to people, they die a little inside.
***The ‘5 vowels’ idea comes from the fact that we have 5 different written vowels (excluding ‘y’) and thus 5 different sounds. Diphthongs and triphthongs are obviously omitted, along with other aspects, despite there being around 20-something different ‘vowel sounds’ in English. Take a look here for more explanation and geekery.