Re: English Spelling

From: Alain LaBonté  (
Date: Thu Dec 09 1999 - 14:08:03 EST

À 08:17 1999-12-09 -0800, Mark E. Davis a écrit :
>Irregularity is certainly a matter of degree. In this case, I would
measure it
>as the number of rules necessary to generate the correct pronunciation
from the
>letters. For example, one rule could be that a single vowel followed by a
>consonant and final 'e' is pronounced long. In a large majority of cases,
>rule gives the correct pronunciation, but there are a number of exceptions
>as "have". One can either have additional, more complex rules that catch the
>exceptions, or simply list them. When they are listed, each would count as a
>separate rule. Note: when you look at words weighted by frequency some
>surprising rules pay off, such as "ould" => "ʊd"
>Given that, Dutch and Spanish are quite regular, German slightly less so,
>or Danish significantly less, English quite irregular, and Japanese even more

[Alain] French is odd in its writing practice (the odddities were in
general deliberate and artificial choices at a time people did not
pronounce the extra letters anyway in most cases, just to link written
words to ancient history, for etymology reasons) but more predictable in
its pronunciation than meets eyes or ears.

Ending (mute) "e"s (unaccented) are for example never prononced, most
ending consonants are mute, not pronounced (except for rare snobbish
fashions or for foreign words), and « eault », « eau », « auld », « aut
»[any ending involving « au »], for example, are always pronounced "o",
unlike English "ough" which is pronounced I don't know in how many ways
(ut, up, o, etc., 11 ways, was I told) There are of course some exceptions,
but far less than in English.

That said French, unlike English, is quite predictable, phonetically,
although it is not an example of consistency to represent sounds, of
course. It is not, I repeat. Please do not make me say what I did not say. (;

To prove that I am aware of difficulties, I give you a nice sentence, for
which the pronunciation of "couvent" depends on context: "Les poules du
couvent couvent" (pronounce: "LAY POOL DÜ COOVÃ COOV" -- when "ent" is the
ending of a verb, it is totally mute). This is a difficulty that
intelligent speech synthesis should be able to cover. Early technology
pronounced bith identical words the same as the first one (verb has to be
recognized -- *relatively* easy although not as obvious as it appears: in
"le couvent", out of context, nobody can say if it is an article followed
by a noun or a pronoun followed by a verb -- all human speakers will
automatically read the first occurrence out of context as it is not a
complete sentence so the verb can't be detected out of context).

Alain LaBonté

A small joke: "When French missionaries were teaching French in Africa,
they always began, the first day of school, to explain the logic of French
spelling: in the word "eau' you write the letter "e" but you don't
pronounce it, you write the letter "a" but you don't pronounce it, you
write the letter "u" but you don't pronounce it, and you pronounce the
letter "o" but you don't write it." (:

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