What English Would Sound Like If It Was Pronounced Phonetically

The Eng­lish lan­guage presents itself to stu­dents and non-native speak­ers as an almost cru­el­ly capri­cious enti­ty, its irreg­u­lar­i­ties of spelling and con­ju­ga­tion impos­si­ble to explain with­out an advanced degree. It wasn’t until grad­u­ate school that I came to under­stand how spellings like “rough” and “knight” sur­vived sev­er­al hun­dreds of years of lin­guis­tic change, and pre­served ves­tiges of pho­net­ic pro­nun­ci­a­tions that had long since dis­ap­peared in his­toric upheavals like the Great Vow­el Shift and sub­se­quent spelling wars.

The impor­ta­tion of huge num­bers of loan words from oth­er lan­guages, and expor­ta­tion of Eng­lish to the world, has made it a poly­glot tongue that con­tains a mul­ti­tude of spellings and pro­nun­ci­a­tions, to the con­ster­na­tion of every­one. Unlike French, which has a cen­tral­ized body that adju­di­cates lan­guage change, Eng­lish grows and evolves wild­ly. Dic­tio­nar­ies and lin­guis­tics depart­ments strug­gle to keep up.

One almost wants to apol­o­gize to non-native speak­ers for the fol­low­ing sen­tence: “Though I coughed rough­ly and hic­coughed through­out the lec­ture, I still thought I could plough through the rest of it.” As Aaron Alon, nar­ra­tor of the video above, points out, the “incred­i­ble incon­sis­ten­cy” of words with “ough” in them “can make Eng­lish incred­i­bly hard to mas­ter.” What if a gov­ern­ing body of Eng­lish lan­guage schol­ars, like the Académie française, came togeth­er to pre­scribe a pho­net­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent pro­nun­ci­a­tion?

For one thing, they would have to deal with the diver­si­ty of vow­el sounds—like the “a” in “father,” “ape,” and “apple.” As the video pro­ceeds, we hear these reg­u­lar­ized in the narrator’s speech. Stu­dents of the lan­guage’s his­to­ry might imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nize some­thing like the sound of Shake­speare’s Ear­ly Mod­ern Eng­lish, which did have a more pho­net­i­cal­ly con­sis­tent pro­nun­ci­a­tion. Soon the sounds of Romance languages—French, Span­ish, Ital­ian, Romanian—and the accents speak­ers of those lan­guages bring to Eng­lish, start to emerge.

By the time Alon has reg­u­lar­ized the vow­el sounds, and launched into a recita­tion of Hamlet’s famous solil­o­quy, his pro­nun­ci­a­tion begins to sound like Chaucer’s Mid­dle Eng­lish, which you can hear pro­nounced above in a read­ing of The Can­ter­bury Tales. If we hear the accent this way, the exer­cise shows that Eng­lish once made far more pho­net­ic sense (and had a more pleas­ing musi­cal lilt) than it does today. Alter­nate­ly, we may hear, as Jason Kot­tke does, an accent that “sounds a lit­tle like Wern­er Her­zog doing an impres­sion of some­one from Wales doing an impres­sion of an Ital­ian who doesn’t speak Eng­lish that well.” Which, he writes, “makes sense because that’s pret­ty much how the lan­guage came togeth­er in the first place!” More or less….

via Kot­tke

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Where Did the Eng­lish Lan­guage Come From?: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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