A lot of English speakers complain when they eventually have to learn another language.
"It's so difficult", they say. "It doesn't make sense." Well, perhaps they're right.
Mark Twain in particular had a lot to say about the difficulties of German, and I'm
currently finding out how right he was.
But stop to consider for a while the difficulties that speakers of other languages
have when they try to learn English. Quite apart from the many irregular verbs and
complex sentence constructions, the huge variety of accents
on offer, even within a tiny island like Britain, obscure phrases and sayings and the
multitude of tenses, the unfortunate learner of English must battle with the most
bizarre of spelling conventions ever invented.
Words which look similar
We can start with the famous combination of letters "ough", which will be familiar
to readers of Dr Seuss. Now if you see the letters "ough"
in a word, it's more or less a guessing game how to pronounce it, because there's
no sense to any of it. For example (and I'm sure this isn't exhaustive), you might
expect by looking at the following words, that they sound at least roughly the same:
- Bough - the branch of a tree, rhymes with "cow".
- Cough - expulsion of air from the mouth, rhymes with "off".
- Dough - mixture used to make bread, rhymes with "toe".
- Rough - opposite of smooth, sounds like "ruff".
- Through - among or between, rhymes with "true".
- Thought - an idea, rhymes with "port".
- Thorough - diligently done, same vowel sounds as "colour".
There are also other, less extreme examples of this with other letter combinations, such as:
- Hear / Heart / Heard / Bear / Beard
- Blood / Food / Good
- Bomb / Comb / Tomb
- Bone / Done / Gone
- Boing / Doing / Going
- Foul / Ghoul / Soul
- Cove / Glove / Move
- Dose / Hose / Lose
- Here / There / Were
- Has / Was / Bras
- Daughter / Laughter
- Bather / Father / Gather
- Aid / Said / Plaid
Words that sound the same but look different
Now, we take for granted the problems of words having two meanings, because that happens
in any language.
However, in English there are many examples of words which, although they look different
(sometimes very different), they are pronounced exactly the same. Which word the speaker
is actually saying must be guessed by the unfortunate listener. For example bald/bawled,
or kernel/Colonel. Less common are groups of three or more words which behave in this way,
although with the confusing variety of accents in the English language, this list can vary,
for example in many American accents, the words "paw" and "poor" sound very different,
but in many British accents they sound identical.
- awe, oar, or, ore
- aye, eye, I
- bald, balled, bawled
- boar, boor, bore [.com]
- buy, by, bye
- caught, court, quart
- chord, cord, cored
- cite, sight, site
- dual, duel, jewel
- for, fore, four
- hoard, horde, whored
- holey, holy, wholly
- knows, noes, nose
- liar, lier, lyre
- meat, meet, mete
- meeter, meter, metre
- pair, pare, pear
- paw, poor, pore, pour
- peak, peek, pique
- praise, prays, preys
- rain, reign, rein
- raise, rays, raze
- right, rite, write
- road, rode, rowed
- saw, soar, sore
- sawed, soared, sword
- seas, sees, seize
- sew, so, sow
- teas, tease, tees
- to, too, two
- talk, torc, torque
- tor, tore, tour
- vain, vane, vein
- whined, wind, wined
And cheating a little bit with word contractions:
- aisle, isle, I'll
- there, their, they're
- weal, wheel, we'll
- weer, wier, we're
- yore, you're, your
Words that look the same but sound different
To add insult to confusion, there are also words which, although they have exactly
the same spelling, they have not only completely different meanings, but also completely
different pronunciation. In many languages, if you ask someone how to pronounce a word,
there is usually only one answer. But not here. Sometimes there is a stress on different
syllables, changing the sound:
- project - Our project was successful, they project their voices well
- object - I object to this object
- subject - We subject ourselves to this subject
- reject - Whatever they reject, becomes a reject
- desert - It is not easy to desert the desert
- invalid - The ticket was invalid, the accident left her an invalid
- entrance - My amazing entrance into the party will entrance everyone
- conduct - His conduct was terrible, it's no way to conduct oneself
- record - She wanted to record a new record
- present - Allow me to present you with this present
- suspect - I suspect, that you are the suspect
- wicked - The oil was wicked up from the container, the flame was wicked!
- prayer - He was a devout prayer, every day he'd say a different prayer
- drawer - This artist is a very skilled drawer of landscapes, her work is in that drawer
- content - They were content with the document's content
- perfect - If they can perfect this gadget, it will be perfect
- multiply - they will be multiply checked after we multiply them
- separate - We will want to separate these things, to make them separate
- alternate - If we go on alternate Saturdays, then we can alternate
- duplicate - We've got duplicate letters here, did you duplicate them?
- ... and exactly the same for "dominate", "intimate", "estimate" and so on...
Sometimes the consonant changes, in these examples from an 's' sound to a 'z' sound:
- close - to close the door, one must get close
- house - we had to house them in our house
- resent - I resent that accusation, you haven't resent that package yet
- use - if you use it properly, you can see how much use it is
- excuse - please excuse me, I have an excuse
- abuse - I can't stand verbal abuse, so don't abuse me
- refuse - I refuse to take my refuse to the tip
But in some cases the whole vowel sound changes:
- wound - I wound the clock, he inflicted a nasty wound
- wind - I wind the string, the wind was blowing
- read - I like to read books, I read that book last week
- bow - I bow to the King, she tied her shoelace into a bow
- row - They row the boat, they had a big row
- minute - It only takes a minute, the steak was minute
- lives - He lives with his wife and will do for the rest of their lives
- lead - We are in the lead, the pipes were made of lead
- tear - There was a tear in her eye, there was a tear in the newspaper
- sow - I sow seeds in the garden, to grow food for the sow
- does - When the does go to sleep, so does the stag
- pasty - The man with the pasty complexion was eating a cheese and onion pasty
- analyses - He analyses lots of problems, by making lots of analyses
- sewer - The person who made this bag was a good sewer; the water flowed into the sewer
So remember that, next time you're trying to learn a foreign language!