August 16, 2017

This is Why English Pronunciation is So Hard

5 minute read

Let’s be honest, English pronunciation makes no sense. Unlike most other languages, where words that end in the same way usually rhyme, in English you can change the first letter of a word and suddenly you have to change the way you say the rest, too.

Meanwhile, words that look completely different are sometimes pronounced in exactly the same way, for example “I” and “Eye”.

If this drives you crazy, you’re not the first person. Just look at the section of a poem (below) by Gerard Nolst Trenité, a Dutch writer who wrote a book in the 1900s called How to Lose Your Foreign Accent, which helped students to get used to the strange ways English words are pronounced.

He called the poem “The Chaos” and when you read the first few verses, you quickly realise why he was so frustrated!

Pray, console your loving poet,

Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!

Just compare heart, hear and heard,

Dies and diet, lord and word.

Now I surely will not plague you

With such words as vague and ague,

But be careful how you speak,

Say: gush, bush, steak, streak, break, bleak

Liberty, library, heave and heaven,

Rachel, loch, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,

People, leopard, towed but vowed.

… What a tongue-twister! There’s no doubt about it, English pronunciation doesn’t follow logical rules.

The big question though, is: why?

Why Is English Pronunciation So Confusing?

English spellings and pronunciation are so strange because the language is really a mix of lots of different languages.

In fact, English is made up of words taken from Latin, Greek, French and German, as well as little bits and pieces of other local languages like Celtic and Gaelic. More recently, the English language has also picked up words from countries that used to be part of the British Empire, including India - and we tend to borrow words we like the sound of from Spanish, Italian, Arabic and just about every corner of the world, too!

Where do Common English Words Come From?

Even though English is not a Romance language like Italian or French, 60% of English words have Latin or Greek roots.

For example, any words that have “para” in them (like parachute or paragraph), “tele”, (e.g. telephone), or “cyclo” (e.g. encyclopaedia or bicycle) actually come from Ancient Greek words.

Thousands of words in English come from Latin, including many common words like picture, village, long, famous, pirate, quiet, priest and even language.

Then there are words that were brought to England by the Angles and Saxons when they invaded. These people spoke Germanic languages, which is why many English words today look or sound similar to German.

For example: boot, night, apple, so, good, craft, ground, crystal, God, right, under, name… and many, many more. In fact, most of the common words English speakers use every day come from German roots.

Next, there are French words. The Normans, from France, took over England in the year 1066, and for hundreds of years, the Royal Family continued to use French in all important situations.

That meant that many, many French words also become part of the English language. Words like: person, fruit, order, prayer, prince, lion, captain, justice, art, paint, November, etc.

Too Many Tongues!

Of course, all these different languages had very different systems for spelling and punctuation, so when they were all mashed up together to make English, they didn’t follow one single set of rules.

So, remember: next time you get confused by English words that don’t sound the way they look, or English pronunciation that seems to make no sense, remember that it’s because you’re really speaking Latin, Greek, German, French and many other languages, all at the same time!


Are you ready for the challenge of getting your English pronunciation perfect? Take a look at our range of courses at