Why are there letters that are not pronounced? And why orthograpgy does such a bad job sometimes? Let us tell you about the 3 biggest bugs of orthography. (Spoiler alert: There is a better way of writing down pronunciation!)
If you open any dictionary at any page, you will come across these strange symbols in square brackets. For example, if sylby were to be found as a word in a dictionary, you could read this behind it: [sɪl.bi]. I’ve ignored these symbols for years, and maybe you do as well. But have you ever wondered why they exist at all? First of all, don’t worry, you don’t need to know them to practice your pronunciation with sylby. But maybe you’re curious to know why you can find them in our app, too?
A way to write down pronunciation
The little symbols have definitely opened a new world for me, and I’ve been dealing with them for more than ten years now. The passion I’ve developed for them during that time is something I’d like to share with you today. Again and again I hear people say: Normal letters are enough! I don’t need these symbols. And it’s true: they are not essential for survival, and if I had to choose between them and a delicious meal, I would always choose the meal. But luckily you can have both, and with these symbols it’s like with new sneakers: you don’t realize the comfort you were missing before until you have them on your feet.
In order to understand the comfort which the IPA symbols mean and which problems they arose from, let’s first look at letters. The Latin alphabet not only spells out modern Italian, but many other languages such as English, Turkish, French, Spanish, Wolof, German and Vietnamese as well. A great feature of this alphabet is that it tries to represent the sounds we speak. The idea is ingenious. But it has not been completely thought through for all cases. Of course, it is more comfortable to use than hieroglyphics or even the modern, very complex Chinese writing system – with major aesthetic losses. But there are several bugs in using the Latin writing system, and I will present you now the biggest bugs.
Bug #1: Relics from the past
Due to historical development of writing and language, not every orthography is up-to-date. For example, the French alphabet maps relatively well to how French was spoken in the 16th century, but many letters we use in French orthography today are not pronounced at all. For example, the suffix –ent in elles vivent ‘they live’ is not pronounced at all, and only the first three letters have a phonetic equivalent. Of course, this does not make life easier for language learners. But for reasons of language policy, it has often been decided not to start all over again and completely overthrow everything that has grown historically.
Bug #2: One sound many letters
Many orthographies are inconsistent and inefficient. One and the same sound can be written in different ways, like the sharp [s] in German: you can write the sound in German with the letters s, ss or ß (e.g. in Maus ‘mouse’ , Pass ‘passport’ or Maß ‘measure’). At the same time, there is the voiced variant of the sound, the sound [z], which is also written with the letter s in German, for example in the word Sonne. And then there is the letter z, which is not to be confused with the sound [z] in Sonne and is instead a combination of [t] and [s]. Whew! Isn’t that confusing? You have to think of it as code that various developers tinkered with without agreeing on a common guideline at the beginning.
In Germany, there was no effort to enforce a uniform orthography until the 19th century. More recent orthographies, such as modern Turkish or Vietnamese, have less of a problem with inconsistency because there was a systematic approach to orthographic development and fewer cooks spoiled the broth. The orthographies of Spanish and Italian are also relatively consistent compared to English, where many things are a mess. And let’s venture a brief look beyond Latin letters: exciting alternatives include the Thai, Arabic, and Hebrew writing systems. They all three look beautiful, and bring their own advantages and disadvantages. My favorite alphabet is the Korean alphabet, which was developed in the 15th century. Since then, it has been decidedly consistent, practical, and convenient, but has not – perhaps regrettably – spread as widely as Latin.
Bug #3: A multilingual mess
The biggest problem: if there is so much inconsistency in spelling within a language, how will it look when comparing different orthographies? A letter that spells out one sound in one language spells out another in another language. For example, the sound [y] exists in both French and German. In German, however, it is written with the letter ü, as in the word Mühe, and in French with the letter u, as in the name Luc. The sound [u], which is also written with the letter u in German, is written with the two letters ou in French, as in the name Louise. Now we also know why the germanized variant of it is Luise. And the combination of the three letters sch as in Schule is pronounced in German as a single sound [ʃ], while in English it is pronounced with two sounds [sk] as in school. What a mess! Such things are difficult when, for example, language learners have to cope with a new orthography. Very often, pronunciation mistakes arise due to the fact that they pronounce the sounds according to their native orthography.
An alphabet for sounds
Because of these and other problems, linguists from different countries have regularly sat down since 1886 and listed all the possible sounds that exist in all the languages of the world. For each sound they have agreed on exactly one symbol. They have been very successful with this, and the result is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA for short). Once you have learned it, you can easily read off how words are pronounced if you open a lexicon of any language you don’t know.
But even though us phonetics and pronunciation nerds have a blast with this, how does it help you as a language learner or user of the app sylby? As mentioned at the beginning, you can get through life without new sneakers or the IPA signs. But if you are unsure which sound it actually was that you had trouble with, it helps if you have memorized the IPA symbol of the sound. Then you can immediately find the appropriate exercises or explanatory videos. But if you’re stuck with the old sneakers and the German orthography and don’t want to invest in something new, you can also get ahead with a little less comfort: in the app sylby, we have also displayed a correspondence of the sound in letters according to the German orthography above each IPA symbol. Since the correspondence between sound and letter is not always 1:1, you may have to click three times more until you find the sound again.
Here is a sample of the IPA and a secret message in German to all who can decipher it: [mɪt sɪlbi maxt aʊ̯sʃpʁa:xə y:bən ʃpa:s]
If you want to know more about the creators of the IPA, you can find out here.