Why doesn’t English sound the way it looks?

I live in Colombia and I teach English at a private institute in Medellin and of course all of my students are native Spanish speakers. Spanish, as you may know, is a phonetic language, which means that the words are pronounced the way they look, with very few exceptions. For example, in Spanish the letter H is silent, there is an extra letter Ñ  (/e?e/ “énye”) and LL which is pronounced like /j/ or /y/ in most regions, except in Argentina and Uruguay where it is pronounced more or less like sh or zh in English.  Here are some examples of Spanish words and their phonetic pronunciations:

  • caballo | kabayo
  • esmalte | ez’malte
  • habitacion | abitasjon
  • NIÑA | ninya
  • bote | bote

Pretty simple, right?

Now let’s take a look at a few words in English:

  • colonel | kur-nl
  • phlegm | flem
  • asthma | az-muh
  • enough | ih-nuhf
  • through | throo




Notice that the gh at the end of enough and through are pronounced differently? In enough it’s pronounced like uff and in through it is silent. English is a Germanic language and one point the gh was pronounced like a rasp in the back of the throat similar to the way ch is pronounced in German today. From the mid-1300s to the 1700s English underwent what is called a Great Vowel Shift, which affected the pronunciation of the long vowels. This change in the pronunciation of vowels is considered the main culprit of the seemingly odd spelling to pronunciation of words in English. You can learn more about the Great Vowel Shift by reading about it on Wikipedia and checking the references at the bottom of the Wiki page.



P.S. I tried inserting International Phonetic Alphabet  (IPA) symbols into this blog post for an accurate phonetic pronunciation of the words but WordPress simply changes any special characters to a question mark ? I did the best I could using the regular Latin alphabet.

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