As we all know, English is a notoriously difficult language as regards the pronunciation. Even English speakers themselves get a little tongue-tied and confused at times, mistaking things like numbers (fifty/fifteen) easily, and using incorrect pronunciation on a daily basis. Learning to read as a child is not as easy for English children — they must link sounds together into ‘phonemes’ and learn not to read the word literally, something which hinders many who learn English as a second language, as, helpfully, in their own language, the words are written almost exactly as they are pronounced. The English language only contains 26 letters of the alphabet, but the sounds made in spoken English amount to around 44.

      The irregularities rise from years and years of outside influence upon the language — from Viking invasions to Roman occupation, the English language has become very adaptive and easily changes, accepting new words quickly. The Norman conquest made English appear more like a romance language rather than the ‘barbarian’ Germanic language it had once looked like, even though the sounds themselves often stayed the same. The Oxford English dictionary lists over 250.000 words, giving English one of the widest vocabularies across the world: largely because the words have come from two different language families, as English keeps borrowing, changing, and converting words.

      A Dutch poet named G. Nolst Trenité beautifully captured how terrible the English language is as regards pronunciation in his poem ‘The Chaos’, which was published in 1920 and attempted to show Nolst’s, and indeed language learners in general’s frustration at attempting to master English pronunciation. I include a few exerts from the poem in order to demonstrate how awful sight-reading in English can be…and I assure you, even I struggle with some of the pronunciation in this poem!

            ‘Sword and sward, retain and Britain

            (Mind the latter how it’s written).

            Made has not the sound of bade,

            Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

            Now I surely will not plague you

            With such words as vague and ague,

            But be careful how you speak,

            Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak ,

            Previous, precious, fuchsia, via

            Recipe, pipe, studding-sail, choir;

            Woven, oven, how and low,

            Script, receipt, shoe, poem, toe.’

The true English test could be to read this poem from beginning to end without faltering — I don’t think I could pass, and to prove this, I tried myself. Recording myself on YouTube was an attempt to show language-learners that even English speakers themselves struggle at times, so we shouldn’t be disheartened by our pronunciation; we should tackle the challenge!

E. Lawrenson

Callan School
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