Learned #19: Phonetically Yours

So to speak.

The English language is a hot mess. We love it, we use it, we look for fun ways to expand and evolve it, but it is a mess. And nowhere is it messier than in its pronunciation. I mean, what's the point of having five and a half vowels if you can replace half of them with the other half? And let's not even get started on the monstrosity that is "ough*."

In my day job, as an English teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching (explaining, commiserating over) pronunciation. There are a lot of considerations to this - namely, whether my pronunciation as an American matches the British commentators on BBC News 1 (a-lu-mi-NUM vs. a-lu-MIN-i-um, cap-sal vs. cap-su-el, etc.) and, because I live in Japan, the difference between a soft L and a soft R and why said difference is so important.

Of course, the trick with English is not only knowing how to say it, but what it means. So, we turn to the dictionary and we find something that looks like this: /ˈɪŋɡlɪʃ/ That's the phonetic spelling of English as written in IPA; it's not something I usually teach my students as it seems to be adding a layer of complication on top of an already difficult subject. But could it be useful? Should I be teaching it?

In this issue:

  • What We're Learning: Phonetically Yours

  • What We're Reading: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Ghoti

Let's get to it.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

What We're Learning:


The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin alphabet. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association in the late 19th century as a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language. The IPA is used by lexicographers, foreign language students and teachers, linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors, constructed language creators and translators.

For most native speakers of English (in this case - raised in an English environment and schooled in English for at least 10 years) the chart that accompanies Wikipedia's entry is not terribly difficult nor completely unfamiliar. Arguably, the only oddity in the phonetic spelling of English above is the final character, the one that looks like a long S. Once you check a handy chart or two and realize that it's the same "sh" we're used to hearing and it seems to work rather well. We understand that by using the capital-I looking character, we're using the long I sound, and so on and so forth.

Except, the official chart calls that Postalveolar Fricative and it doesn't tell you how to actually say it. Which gets right to the heart of teaching the IPA to non-English speakers: it's complicated and difficult to learn.

The standard chart lists over 100 letters with an additional 50 modifiers. If you'll recall, English only has 26 letters. For that matter, you can throw in the non-English characters from other latin alphabets and still come up with far fewer than 100 characters.

So, the argument then becomes, "why use it at all?"

The IPA is a good tool. It has been developed, literally, over a century, by linguists and scholars from all around the globe. For anyone who takes the time to really learn it and understand it, it works very well.

Scholars can use it to identify and dissect how the same word can be pronounced differently in varying locations and, arguably, more importantly, eras. By annotating research with the IPA, we can accurately convey how the pronunciation of certain words has shifted from Shakespeare’s day to our own as well as trace how words have changed to match their spellings, or done just the opposite.

Further, anyone who has to speak (or sing) professionally - politicians, actors, business people, etc. - can benefit from close study and use of the IPA. It is designed, after all, to let you know just exactly how to say things.


As I said above, it is difficult to learn and to use on a consistent basis. And I teach kids. Kids have the attention span of, well, kids. Which is to say that trying to teach them the IPA on top of the standard alphabet is not something I would ever advise anyone to do. Ever. For any reason.**

I also teach adults and that's where the debate becomes more serious. Depending on the student's individual situation, there may be a very good reason to teach them how to use the IPA. See the use cases above. But I don't think it's a blanket skill that needs to be taught to every language learner.

The thing is, for every serious student of language who needs to have a fluent grasp of international, standardized English for their dream job as a translator at the UN, there are 100 people who just want to be able to book a hotel in Hawaii without too much hassle. And for those 100, I'd argue that the IPA is one step too far. If they can communicate well, with confidence and openness, then knowing the exact, dictionary perfect pronunciation is not going to help them. Especially in Hawaii.***

So, what are we left with?

As a teacher, I feel like I should have a better grasp of the IPA and have added it to my lesson prep and planning routine. But as a student of Japanese and Korean and half a dozen other languages that have momentarily caught my interest, I feel like I'm better off learning how the native speakers of those languages write and pronounce things, even if it is cumbersome and awkward at times.

And besides, as with everything else in English, don't like how something is done? Wait a couple hundred years and it'll be done completely differently...

*There are up to ten pronunciations for that, depending on who you ask. In grade school I was taught that there were six: oh, oo, uff, off, aw, and ow (like ouch.) Dictionary.com brings adds the total up to ten by adding in some exceptions that prove the rule: hiccough (hiccup), lough (loch) and by subdividing the line between aw and ow into something just between them as in thought.

**Okay, there are plenty of good reasons to teach kids the IPA and for those students, it can be a very useful tool. When it comes to teaching, there is no perfect tool, no all-encompassing plan - there is only what works for that student in that situation.

***Not a dig. Hawaiian is a beautiful language and the people who speak it have allowed it to inflect their English to the point that a pidgin Hawaiian English is developing. While it is not as far along on the path to separate language-hood as, say, Jamaican, it is definitely on the trail.

What We’re Reading:

The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language

by Mark Forsyth

Mark Forsyth’s blog, The Inky Fool, is a must read for word nerds, amateur etymologists, and anyone else who gets a kick out of talking about the words we use every day.

I’ve added this book to my to-read list based purely on Forsyth’s blog writing. The reviews say it’s really good; I hope he reads as well long-form as he does on the web.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

The rabbit hole is short this week. It’s just a few of my favorite pronunciation puns and oddities with which to frustr…er, uh, educate my students:

Lastly, perhaps the most heart-breaking play on words every used in the English language:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.