One experience of English pronunciation that unites native and non-native speakers alike is the difficulties converting written English into accurate speech and vice versa. Yesterday I was trying to write the word ‘conscientious’ and it kept appearing as a mis-spelling. In the end I had to Google it to find the correct spelling.

I had tried ‘consiencious’, ‘concientious’, ‘consciensious’ among others and it simply didn’t work. Other words that often stump me are:
to name a few……

There have been attempts to alter this – the English Spelling Reform had a go most notably in the 19th Century, but with little success. There was an attempt in the USA to simplify spellings too, hence some of the English/American differences (colour / color).

Why is English not phonetically written?

The simple answer to this is its history. Modern English, Germanic in origin, was formed from a mixture of languages all appearing in the British Isles and having to form new vocabularies and modernise with the developments taking place in the world. For this reason plenty of Latin, German, Dutch & French words appear – the problem is, one phonological set of rules needs to apply to them all, which is impossible!

The most famous example of English spelling gone wrong is ‘ghoti’, which the ‘English Spelling Reformists’ used as an example of the problems inherent in English spelling. The joke goes:
If you take the ‘gh’ in ‘enough’, that gives you an /f/ sound.
Then take the ‘o’ in ‘women’, which gives you an /ɪ/ sound.
Then the ‘ti’ in ’emotion’, which gives you a /ʃ/ sound.

You end up with ‘ghoti’, which gives you the pronunciation /fɪʃ/ (normally spelt ‘fish’).

Naturally one can argue that ‘gh’ can never be /f/ at the beginning of the word, ‘o’ is very rarely pronounced /ɪ/, and ‘ti’ needs to be followed by ‘on’ to be pronounced /ʃ/. It remains, in any case, an excellent example of how bizarre English spelling is.

Another one I like to use is ‘reentered’. How do you explain the pronunciation of every different ‘e’ in that word?