RE: English Spelling

From: Reynolds, Gregg (
Date: Fri Dec 10 1999 - 10:56:46 EST

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Mark E. Davis []
> Sent: Thursday, December 09, 1999 9:38 PM
> Rick,
> In the sense in which I defined in in the part of the message
> that you omitted,
> Japanese pronunciation is *extremely* irregular -- far more
> so than English --
> since it would take a much, much larger set of rules to predict the
> pronunciation than even for English.
> Of course, that is as customarily written, with Kanji
> characters. If you rewrote
> all the Kanji into katakana or hiragana, then it would be
> extremely phonetic.
> But that is almost never done. It would be a bit like
> rewriting English text
> into IPA then claiming that therefore English pronunciation
> is regular.

I think one must always qualify when talking of Japanese orthography. The
density of Kanji in Japanese text varies widely; many if not most books for
children and young adults are entirely "phonemicized" - what kanji there
are, are annotated with the kana spelling to indicate pronunciation. In
this respect Japanese orthography has a very high degree of phonemic

Even where kanji are heavily used without annotation, kana are always
available for annotation. So maybe it would be best to say that written
Japanese has a high degree of flexibility, allowing the writer/composer to
choose the degree of phonemic transparency for the text.

So in addition to characterizing the phonological transparency of a written
language, we can characterize its phono-graphic flexibility, the degree of
choice it affords its writers. In this respect Japanese is like Arabic:
full phonemic annotation of a text (vowelling etc. in Arabic) would in
general be considered unusual, but it could be done, and is standard for
some special purposes (pedagogical material). In English (and Chinese?),
however, annotating the text itself for pronunciation is unheard of; instead
phonemic structure is recorded in dictionaries using non-standardized
notations that are not generally considered part of the writing system.

(Also, I'm not entirely sold on the proposition "more rules = less regular".
I question whether it's correct to equate generality in the rules with
regularity in orthography. If we had a language in which no rules were
discernable, so that everything went by example, we wouldn't have
generality, but we would still have regularity. Rules is rules, even if
they only apply in a single case. Irregularity would be when pronunciation
of the "same" word changes - "have" being pronounced differently in
different phonological or semantic contexts would be an example of
irregularity. E.g. "I have" --> <I glurble>, v. "They have" --> <they
blork>. So maybe we could say English is regular but the rules aren't very
general. Might be splitting hairs here, but on the other hand it might help
in categorizing orthographies to have such fine distinctions.)


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