Yes, there are rules of English spelling. Go read all about them at Mark Rosenfelder's wonderful article Hou tu pranownse Inglish. It's just that the rules are way more complicated than any reasonable person would want to see, and about 15% of the words are plain irregular, including a lot of the most common ones. For example, you'd never guess that one is pronounced like won from just looking at it; you'd expect it to have the same vowel as alone and lonely, which indeed are related words: alone comes from all one, believe it or not.

But of course the very cream of the croup is ough, which can be pronounced in at least nine different ways (and I won't swear that I didn't leave any out):

  • bough (rhymes with now)
  • dough (rhymes with go)
  • enough (rhymes with cuff)
  • cough (rhymes with off)
  • bought (rhymes with taut)
  • through (rhymes with sue)
  • hough (rhymes with lock, probably unique, also spelled "hock")
  • hiccough (rhymes with up, probably unique, also spelled "hiccup")
  • thorough (schwa vowel or short o, depending on dialect)

Some of these may not be distinct in your variety of English.

French, on the other hand, has equally complicated rules, but very few exceptions. Learn the system in all its hairy detail, and you're equipped to pronounce almost every French word at sight, impressing the hell out of your dining companions at French restaurants (until you have to admit that you have no idea what ris-de-veau a la financiere really is).

Indeed, the only exception I know of is the word oignon, meaning "onion"; you'd think the initial syllable was pronounced "wa", but in fact that i is inexplicably silent. Go figure.


Anonymous said...

I've found the ability to pronounce other languages valuable in my job as Classical Record Guy at a large urban store. But I'm terrible at remembering what words mean, so I'll rattle off titles from catalog listings and hope I'm hitting the right ones.

I seem to have the most trouble pronouncing Spanish, perhaps since we have so many customers who speak so many different versions of it and assume that people who use the other pronunciations are simply pronouncing theirs badly.

But I've also developed a knack for figuring out what people are looking for when they ask for English language artists with accents from other languages. Our exemplary worst-case is when Japanese teenagers (who also tend to murmur more quietly than the background music) look for music by the singer Avril Lavigne.

And I had a situation a few days ago when a coworker asked me for help with a customer who was insisting on finding CDs by what she heard as "Quack Momo." After speaking to the customer briefly (dredging up what little French I could recall), I was able to find her the CD that she wanted by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Anonymous said...

London is great for this sort of thing as the tourists sometimes outnumber the locals.

I remember surprising two Japanese schoolgirl tourists looking for 'Baaazhjeen' by replying in truck-driver japanese that the Virgin Megastore was over there (points)...

And a large party of loud Germans on the top deck of a double-decker bus went awfully quiet when I asked them to excuse me as I needed to leave the bus in rusty German.

But I still have trouble with Indian helpdesk personnel; they seem to lack enough vocabulary to allow them to cope with anything even slightly unusual.

Anonymous said...

Another one which I suppose doesn't really count as English is lough (loch).