The English Alphabet is Confusing

 

Warning:  The following article contains phonology, numbers, and nit-picking.  It is an unnecessarily detailed argument, which I hope reinforces its point.  Readers who have no interest in such things should skip to the conclusion.

 

The Problem

Spelling and pronunciation – two sides of the same coin – are some of the most confusing aspects of the English language.  While spelling does have rules, there are plenty of exceptions, and there is a lot of ambiguity in how spelling and pronunciation are linked.

One of the primary reasons for this difficulty is that modern English draws its vocabulary from a slew of other languages.  Many spellings are reflective of the languages various words come from, and each language has its own pronunciation-spelling pairing, so that leads to plenty of inconsistency in a newer language that pools them together.

Another major reason is that before reading and writing became commonplace among English speakers, there existed no standard for spelling, so the few that could write had to make up spelling as they went along; naturally, such people rarely consulted one another, so further inconsistencies arose.

I’d like to take a look now at a third reason – although this one is a product of the first one.  The first two reasons have to do with the history of the language, but most learners of English don’t pay any attention to such things.  What every English learner does know, however, is the alphabet.

The English alphabet is outright confusing.

I’m not simply talking about the formation of letters – we find these in other Latin-based alphabets, so it’s nothing new for speakers of European languages.  Anyone can recite the ABC song.  But understanding how those letters are used is quite another matter.

A Comparison of Alphabets

Let’s consider the complexities of the English alphabet by comparing it to another alphabet.  Among those who look into these things, many will tell you that Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages to learn.  Whether or not they consider the length of the alphabet to be one of the multiple reasons for Hungarian’s difficulty, it is at the very least daunting for perspective learners to hear that its alphabet boasts 44 letters.

At first glance, a native English-speaker would compare our 26 letters to Hungarian’s 44.  Sure that looks bad, but it’s frankly misleading.  The qualification for alphabet-included letters is not identical from one language to the next.  To better measure the two against each other, let’s hold them to the same standards.  [We'll use the abbreviations EA (English Alphabet) and HA (Hungarian Alphabet) when enumeration the alphabet length at the end of paragraphs.]

First, Hungarian holds 4 letters in its alphabet (q, w, x, and y) that are not native to the language itself; rather, they are used only in universal words and for borrowed words.  For example, a taxi is called a taxi in almost every country, and is spelled the same way; the ‘x’ is included in the alphabet because there are taxis in Hungary, but you won’t find an ‘x’ in any Hungarian word.  By comparison, English doesn’t include letters like ‘æ’ (sometimes in encyclopædia or Æsop’s Fables) or ‘é’ (as in fiancée or résumé) in its alphabet.  Either we should include borrowed letters in both alphabets, or in neither.  Let’s do neither for now: HA is down to 40.

Next, there are some consonant pairs (or trios) that produce new sounds.  In Hungarian: cs, dz, sz, and zs are some of them; they are all considered unique letters in the alphabet.  English doesn’t do that, however.  To put the two languages on the same playing field, let’s add ch, sh, ng, th, and zh (the last is rarely spelled as such, but we hear the sound through other spellings in words like television and genre).  More digraphs exist, but these five are the only ones that come with new sounds (by contrast, /ph/=/f/).  Let’s add ‘th’ twice, since it has both a hard sound and a soft sound.  Current score: EA 32, HA 40.

 
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Teach the Alphabet with Digraphs

In English, we teach the 26 letters of the alphabet.  We've even got a nice little song to go with it.  But there are more than 26 sounds.  Certain letter combinations create unique sounds, and it's important for learners to recognize this from the beginning.  Perhaps we should teach 30 entries of the alphabet instead.

 

What about the vowels?  There are 14 vowels in Hungarian.  That may seem like a lot, but each vowel has its own sound; there are exactly 14 vowel sounds.  English may have only 5 written vowels, but there are 20 vowel sounds (generally accepted; the exact number depends on the dialect).  So let’s suppose each sound could be represented by a unique letter, and add that to the English alphabet (that's 15 more): EA 47, HA 40.

We’re getting into some muddy waters here.  How we progress depends on whether the focus is on pronunciation or on spelling.

On one hand, we can consider how many sounds are native to each language.  In this case, I might take away five of Hungarian’s vowels, since they are essentially drawn-out versions of other vowels; I know Hungarians who would argue against that, but I see it like adding the silent ‘gh’ after vowels in English.  I would also take away letters from the English alphabet like ‘c’, ‘q’, and ‘x’, since they essentially duplicate other letters or letter pairs.  This would finalize the balancing of the alphabets at EA 44, HA 35.

On the other hand, (reset to EA 47, HA 40) we could consider how many ways there are to spell all the different sounds and sound combinations.  Here, we would have to add in the ‘ph’ previously mentioned, as well as ‘ci’, ‘si’, and ‘ti’ (each of which produces the /sh/ sound).  Then there’s ‘gh’ for /f/, and the silent /gh/.  Others might argue I should further add digraphs like ‘ck’, but I’ll refrain from the more obvious ones (and also from the borrowed letters mentioned before)  This way, my final balancing would rest at EA 52, HA 40.

I came to those numbers with subjective reasoning – others might take on a similar task and arrive at different numbers; indeed, I might settle on different numbers were I to do the whole thing again.  But I believe my point is clear: There are more sounds in the English language than there are in Hungarian, and there are more letters and letter-combinations, too.

On top of that, consider all the variations on pronunciation and spelling in English.  If a word has an /f/ sound, should you spell it with ‘f’, ‘ph’, or ‘gh’?  If you see ‘gh’ in a word, is the corresponding sound /f/, /g/, or a lengthening of the preceding vowel?  Oh, and then there are all the silent letters.

Conclusion

There are many sounds and many letter-combinations in English.  There are multiple ways to spell some of those sounds, and there are multiple ways to sound out some of those spellings.  Other languages like the supposedly difficult Hungarian have a 1:1 match – every sound has only one letter; every letter has only one sound.

I would much rather deal with a 44-letter language with straight-forward rules than a 26-letter language with rules so complex and confusing, some of them are hardly better than no rules at all.

So next time a non-native English speaker mispronounces or misspells a word, simply think about all the times that person got a word right instead, and marvel.