English pronunciation – Oh no

Podcast : Tips for better English pronunciation

Have you ever wondered why spelling and pronunciation in English do not always connect logically?
Learn some curiosities about English pronunciation and some tips to help you with the letter I.

English pronunciation – Oh no!

English can be tricky for foreigners to pronounce correctly.

For example, in that sentence we had the word ENGLISH, which contains 2 vowels pronounced in exactly the same way but spelt differently, with an E and with an I.

We also had the word foreigners, which contains an example of a silent consonant. You couldn’t hear it, but there is a G in the middle of the word FOREIGNER.

We’ve hardly started, and we’ve already seen some examples of potential problems. However, it’s not really the pronunciation which is the problem. The problem is the lack of connection between spelling and pronunciation, especially when compared to other more regularly spelt languages.

In this podcast I intend to show you that all is not lost. There is regularity, and a number of principles and rules can help to make your spelling and pronunciation better. I will focus just on one letter today – the letter I – but first a quick question. What do the words purple, month, silver and orange have in common?

Answers as usual at the end of this podcast.

Have you ever wondered how we arrived at this point?

The point at which the spelling combination “OUGH” can result in 8 different sounds.

“A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode through the streets of Scarborough. He coughed and hiccoughed.” If you don’t believe me, check the transcript.

In that sentence you heard the words:

rough – the opposite of smooth
dough – what you use to make bread, pizza and doughnuts
thoughtful – full of thoughts
plough – the act of preparing farmland for planting
Scarborough – a town in the north of England
through – the preposition
cough – “sound of a cough”
hiccough – “sound of a hiccough” when you eat too quickly

And all spelt in exactly the same way. What a crazy situation!

I have to say that, unfortunately, it is not because of the English. It is because of the French. In 1066 the main language spoken in England was Old English, which was a Germanic language spoken by the mainly Anglo-Saxon population. The spelling patterns were becoming more and more phonological, and an alphabet was being created that could represent the different vowel sounds in the language.

At that point, William of Normandy invaded and won the Battle of Hastings becoming the King of England. He brought with him an army of administrators and clerks who imposed a new law. Only the vowels A,E,I,O and U could be used, leading to centuries of confusion due to the fact that these vowels alone were not enough to represent the variety of vowel sounds in the language. Merci, William.

In this podcast I want to look at the letter I.

There are 4 ways in which the letter I can be pronounced in English:

ɪ as in kit
ɑɪ as in price
ɜː as in girl
and
aɪə as in fire

But to know which pronunciation is correct, we need to see how the word fits into a few rules.

I’m going to start with some certainties to make you happy.

If the letter I is at the beginning or in the middle of a word and is followed by 2 consonants, it will always be pronounced ɪ.

Listen to these examples.

chicken – different – difficult – dinner – illegal – illusion – innocent – issue – killing – mirror – mission – ticket – village

All have the letter I followed by 2 consonants and at the beginning or middle of the word. Hooray!

There are also combinations of other consonants with the letter I, for example, “IGH.” In this case, the vowel can only be pronounced as ɑɪ.

“The bright light might be right.”

And don’t forget the magic E.

What is the magic E? It is your friend. The magic E, the silent final e, makes the vowel say its name. It happens on words which have a vowel followed by a consonant, and the word is finished by the letter E. This means that in face, the a sounds A; in delete, the middle e sounds E; in price, i sounds I; in home, the o sounds O; in cute, the u sounds U.

How cute! This helps not just with the letter I, but with all vowels.

With the letter I, we can see this in words like:

bike – fine – life – like – line – provide – time – while

A sentence like, “Write me a line about your fine bike” will help you to remember.

But be careful with exceptions where the magic E is considered silent:

engine – famine – imagine – medicine

You will notice in these four examples that the letter I falls on the weak, or unstressed syllable, and this is a tendency. But unfortunately, there are also quite a few exceptions, such as:

financial – triumphant

There is no completely logical way of explaining the words that do not follow the rules, but do not despair.

Although some people say English spelling is completely irregular, this is not true. The renowned linguist David Crystal has concluded that only 400 words in English are spelt completely irregularly. Most words either follow regular rules or are so common that these cause fewer problems.

But remember, if there is a problem, it’s not my fault. It’s not our fault. You can blame the French.

Now back to my question from the beginning of this podcast. I asked what these words have in common: purple, month, silver and orange? The answer is that these are the only words in English that don’t rhyme with any other word. They are unique.

I will be coming back to look at pronunciation again on another VivaLing English podcast, but I will look at a different letter or sound.

Thank you for listening to the VivaLing English podcast.

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