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English words that start with a soft "P"??

Henry Wong
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Joined: Sep 28, 2004
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  40


This has been bothering me -- so I thought I would ask here.... Question. Are there any English words that start with a soft "P"? All the ones that I can think of, such as, "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers", are all hard "P"s. It's like every soft "P" word that I can think of, are not English words.... Heck, even "Peru", while pronounced in Spanish (locally) with a soft "P", is pronounced in English with a hard "P"!!

Henry


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Jelle Klap
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Joined: Mar 10, 2008
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    7

Strange phenomonon indeed...


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Henry Wong
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  40

Jelle Klap wrote:Strange phenomonon indeed...


I actually forgot about the "ph" quirk of English... ... but alas, that too, isn't a soft "P". That is more of an "f" sound.

Henry
dennis deems
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What is a "soft P"? I've never heard of this.
Matthew Brown
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    8

I assume you don't mean silent 'p's (e.g. psalm, psychology).

Can you give some (non-English) examples of what you mean?
Maneesh Godbole
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Joined: Jul 26, 2007
Posts: 10451
    
    8

Dennis Deems wrote:What is a "soft P"? I've never heard of this.

You haven't heard about it, because it's "soft"

My candidate for "soft" P is psssst!


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Henry Wong
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  40


Maybe I should have done a bit more research before asking this question -- as the "hard" and "soft" terms seems to be a terms used among my friends only (as English doesn't have this distinction).

The whole debate was around the pronunciation of the letter P in English versus Spanish. In English, the letter seems "stressed", meaning that it is "pronounced" -- sometimes, even with a distinctive "puh" sound. In Spanish, it is "merged" with the nearby vowel.... Doing a bit of research, it looks like this is how English pronounces the "P". It looks like the only exception to this rule -- meaning the "P" sounding like a "P", yet, somewhat merged, is when it is used after an "S" -- such as "space" or "spit". And even in that case, Spanish is "softer" as it doesn't have the "puff of air".

Anyway, sorry for the distraction...
Henry



Michael Matola
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    2
(1) Yeah, stop with the "hard" and "soft" business if you want anyone to understand what you mean. There are several different things hard and soft *could* mean when talking about pronunciation and none of those apply here.

(2) What you've stumbled upon is the "stop aspiration rule" in English. This is a "phonological rule" -- which means it's not a prescriptive "this is how you must say things" statement, it's a descriptive thing: this is how native speakers *do* say things. Phonological rules are an attempt at explaining how deeper structures of language (here, phonological) result in surface representations (actual speech -- phonetics).

Anyhow, there are various formulations of the rule (and there's even some specialized notation for this if you want to really get into it). A common one is:

Syllable-initial voiceless stops that immediately precede a stressed vowel are aspirated.

So, voiceless stops. That would be p, t, and k. So what you've observed holds for t and k too, not just p.

Aspiration -- this is the puff of air that you're hearing.

So, yeah. You get the puff of air for the p in words like pit and pat, but not in spit, spat, top, plow, for example.

Stuff like this cause language types to posit a deep structural abstraction called the phoneme /p/. Phonemes can have "allophones," which are different phonetic realizations of a given phoneme. (Another way of saying this is that a phoneme can have positional variants.) There are rules about their distribution.

[p<h>] -- Aspirated p occurs per the rule above.
[p] -- Plain old unaspirated p occurs everywhere else.

It's more complicated, though, because there are some more allophones of /p/ in English (I'm not going there right now).

So comparing with other languages, you'll find
(1) Many other languages have a p sound, but no aspirated p. This aspiration rule is an English thing. When English speakers aspirate stops all over other languages it's part of what gives us a "foreign accent" -- we're applying English phonological rules where they don't belong. The other language has its own such rules, which are different from English.
(2) You'll find that there are languages that have both aspirated and unaspirated p, but they're contrastive. Meaning, they're both phonemes /p/ and /p<h>/ and the difference between the two can serve to differentiate words.

As an added bonus --if you really want to get crazy about things, read on.

So English has separate phonemes /p/ and /b/ which differ in "voice" -- p is voiceless and b is voiced.

So when we have words like
pit
bit
most people are thinking it's the /p/ vs. /b/ distinction that's allowing us to differentiate the words. But in reality, the voiced vs. voiceless distinction in English isn't all that great (and may be breaking down in some cases). English *might* be moving from a "voiced vs. voiceless" scheme to a "aspirated (and, oh, voiceless) vs. unaspirated (and oh, maybe voiced maybe voiceless, Ida know" scheme for stops.

Along those lines, when English speakers say something like "spit," we could debate *at great length* whether the "p" is actually a "p" there. If you look at graphs of the waveforms, and read up on something called "voice onset," there's compelling evidence and argument saying it's really a "b."

I'll stop now!
Henry Wong
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Sheriff

Joined: Sep 28, 2004
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  40

Wow. Learned a lot. Probably have to read the post over again, to see if I can digest more of it....

Thanks,
Henry
Bear Bibeault
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  67

I get the impression that Mike has done more than read a Wikipedia on this subject.


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Michael Matola
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    2
Actually a lot of linguistics stuff on Wikipedia is exceptionally well done. Though I'd imagine it would be a rough place to start for a beginner.

Most of what I wrote above should be within the realm of a first-semester introductory linguistics course.

Bear has some experience with this sort of stuff too, I believe. (paragraph that)
Jayesh A Lalwani
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  28

Wow, Micheal. That was very informative. Now, it makes sense why I have sometimes pronouncing p words. This weekend, I had gone to the restaurant and asked the waiter for an extra plate, and I had to repeat myself 3 times.
Bear Bibeault
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  67

Michael Matola wrote:
Bear has some experience with this sort of stuff too, I believe.

A little. Most speech recognition in operation today (including Apple's Siri) evolved from some work I participated in at Dragon Systems in the 90's.
fred rosenberger
lowercase baba
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  16

I remember taking a speech class (for actors - i.e. how to speak), we did a bunch of vocal warm-ups. The one that really struck me was where we'd go

Puh-pa paaaa
Buh-ba baaa
Tuh-ta taaa
Duh-du daaaa
Kuh-ka kaaa
Guh-gu gaaa

You do that about 50 times a day, and you really notice that the "P" and "B" are the same mouth movements (as are T-D and K-G) - i.e. where you place your tongue and lips), but when you vocalize changes. With the second sound in each pair, you vocalize sooner.


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dennis deems
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Ok, this is now my favorite thread on the ranch. Thanks for the interesting info, Michael!

One thing I noticed while living in Tucson was that the word "saguaro" usually sounded as if it were spelled "sahuaro" (as expected), but sometimes as if it were spelled "saphuaro" or even "sabuaro". Is this related at all to the stop aspiration rule? Or is something different going on here?
Bear Bibeault
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  67

I think that's just a matter of translating a foreign word in different ways.
John Jai
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I have seen pfft coming in English movie subtitles. But I don't know if its soft 'p' or silent 'p'.
Mike Simmons
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  10
I never noticed "saphuaro" or "sabuaro" in many years in Arizona - but "saguaro" was common with a hard g, because that's how it's spelled (but not pronounced) in Spanish. I figured it was just confusion over how to pronounce it. But in the "correct" Spanish pronunciation there can still be a hint of a hard g, too, depending on the speaker. And it's originally an O'odham word anyway, which is why I put "correct" in quotes there.
Michael Matola
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I'm really out of my element with "saguaro" -- since I don't really speak Spanish, and I've never spent any time in Arizona. I would've assumed the "g" is pronounced, but a couple places I've checked say "suh war oh" is the preferred English pronunciation. And, as Mike S. mentions, it's from Spanish, from another language. So I'm sure there's all sorts of variation when English speakers go to say it. None of that has to do with the aspiration rule.

(I do know enough about Spanish to know that many Spanish g's are really fricatives (another phonological rule!) but that doesn't seem to be what's going on here.)

Oh, I remember -- a coworker brought us a bunch of grow-your-own-saguaro kits with seeds from a trip to the southwest a few years back. Mine died.
Greg Charles
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  11

What Michael calls vocal stops (B, P, D, T, G, K, J, CH, etc.) I would call plosives. Are they the same thing? I taught English in Viet Nam for awhile and he Vietnamese have a lot of trouble distinguishing P from B words, to the extent I even made up flash cards, and made a game of two teams competing to see which one could communicate the difference more successfully. I used to teach them that it was both a matter of aspiration and vocalization. It's interesting to think only the aspiration part is important. I don't think that's true of fricatives though (sounds where breath is forced through a partial block, like th, f, z, etc.)

One problem is English spelling is so inconsistent. Z is usually the vocalized S, but the vocalized SH is spelled differently in vision, loge, and, well, usually. For that matter SH can be CH in many words. TH can be vocalized or not, which I didn't even realize until I started teaching. For example, the TH sounds different in moth and mother. The weird spellings make it hard for foreign students to remember which sounds to use. I've never heard a good explanation of it either. There's "the great vowel shift" and borrowed words and so on, but other languages presumably have the same forces acting on them, and the ones that use alphabets all seem to be phonetic except for English.
dennis deems
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Michael Matola wrote:I'm sure there's all sorts of variation when English speakers go to say it. None of that has to do with the aspiration rule.

Sorry for my lack of clarity -- I meant when the word is spoken by (presumably native) Spanish speakers -- not by English speakers who, as Mike notes, would predictably pronounce a hard G.
Mike Simmons
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  10
Dennis Deems wrote:
Michael Matola wrote:I'm sure there's all sorts of variation when English speakers go to say it. None of that has to do with the aspiration rule.

Sorry for my lack of clarity -- I meant when the work is spoken by (presumably native) Spanish speakers -- not by English speakers who, as Mike notes, would predictably pronounce a hard G.

Well, mostly the ones from out of state.
Michael Matola
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Greg Charles wrote:What Michael calls vocal stops (B, P, D, T, G, K, J, CH, etc.) I would call plosives. Are they the same thing?


Yes. But only b, p, d, t, g, and k in your list are stops/plosives.

Greg Charles wrote:It's interesting to think only the aspiration part is important. I don't think that's true of fricatives though (sounds where breath is forced through a partial block, like th, f, z, etc.)


Right, it's not true of fricatives. It's the stops/plosives where aspiration plays a role. How important is subject to debate. I didn't go as far as to say "only."

Greg Charles wrote:TH can be vocalized or not, which I didn't even realize until I started teaching. For example, the TH sounds different in moth and mother.


Read up on the old letters thorn and eth. Check out this page

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pronunciation_of_English_th

If you're a glutton for punishment, read up on Grimm's Law.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grimm%27s_law

(I'm really not into historical stuff, and I'm not conversant on these topics. I just know enough to point you in a couple directions.)

Greg Charles wrote:and the ones that use alphabets all seem to be phonetic except for English.


Do you mean the spelling system? No language's spelling system is "phonetic." If it was, there wouldn't be much need for phonetic respellings or special symbols. The best way to put it is that languages vary in the degree to which their writing systems reflect pronunciation. The two languages whose writing systems are sometimes cited as closest to the pronunciation system (phonology) are Finnish and Korean. (Phonology screens out some of the noise of phonetics.) Some of this may have to do with how recently the writing system was developed. (In other words, have there been major changes in pronunciation since people started writing in that language.)
Greg Charles
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  11

If CH/J aren't plosives, then what are they? I seem to be stopping airflow to say them. They seem the same ad T/D, but with the tongue farther back on the palate.

I see the use of phonetic symbols as providing a consistent system across all languages, but each language, with the exception of English, is consistent within its own system. The problem is I don't speak every language, just English, Vietnamese, and a bit of Spanish. I'm somewhat familiar with French, Italian, and Russian though. As far as I can tell, with all those languages you can pronounce any wriiten word if you know the basic rules. I remember "fils" in French was an exception; it is pronounced differently based on meaning. English has hundreds of examples like that though, as well as words that can be pronounced in several different ways, and words that look like they should rhyme, but don't. OUGH has what? Six different pronunciations in American English, and a couple more in British? Is there any other language that comes close to being as oddly spelled as English?
Matthew Brown
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Greg Charles wrote:OUGH has what? Six different pronunciations in American English, and a couple more in British?

Where I used to live there were three villages/suburbs names Woughton, Loughton and Boughton within a few miles of each other. All pronounced completely differently: Wuffton, Louton (to rhyme with "cow") and Boreton respectively, if I remember correctly.
Michael Matola
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Greg Charles wrote:If CH/J aren't plosives, then what are they? I seem to be stopping airflow to say them. They seem the same ad T/D, but with the tongue farther back on the palate.


They're affricates. They have two parts two their articulation: they start as a stop (hah!) but then they finish as a fricative. (Together, stops, fricatives, and affricates make up the obstruents.)

Greg Charles wrote:I see the use of phonetic symbols as providing a consistent system across all languages, but each language, with the exception of English, is consistent within its own system.


That's a big statement. I'm not sure exactly what you mean by each language being consistent within its own system. Are rule-based systems proof one way or another?

Internally consistent does not necessarily mean the spelling system is phonetic.

The issue with English spelling, as I see it, is that you have a many-to-many mapping between letters (or letter combinations) and sounds (or sound combinations). That's all.

Greg Charles wrote:The problem is I don't speak every language, just English, Vietnamese, and a bit of Spanish. I'm somewhat familiar with French, Italian, and Russian though. As far as I can tell, with all those languages you can pronounce any wriiten word if you know the basic rules.


In Russian you can pronounce (just about) any written word if you know (1) the spelling, (2) where the stress falls, and (3) the "reading rules" -- the set of pronunciation rules that "trump" spelling (they sort out cases where spelling is at odds with pronunciation). But if you know the pronunciation, you do not necessarily know the correct spelling. (The "reading rules" (in reverse) will help you out a bit, but not always.)

Greg Charles wrote:
I remember "fils" in French was an exception; it is pronounced differently based on meaning. English has hundreds of examples like that though, as well as words that can be pronounced in several different ways, and words that look like they should rhyme, but don't. OUGH has what? Six different pronunciations in American English, and a couple more in British? Is there any other language that comes close to being as oddly spelled as English?
Greg Charles
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  11

Affricates, huh? Cool, I'd never heard that term!

Could you give an example of two Russian words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently? (I can read Cyrillic characters.)

Anyway, I agree that many languages have homophones. Vietnamese definitely has some ... a core set, and some others that depend on regional pronunciations. I suppose Spanish has some too ... many if you count b and v words, where the differences blur to nearly nothing. That does mean the languages as written aren't truly phonetic, but I still think there is a fundamental difference with English. Are there other languages that have numerous homographs like "wind" (moving air) and "wind" (turn) or "record" pronounced differently depending on whether it is a noun or a verb? Do you see words like "tour", "four", and "sour", which look like rhymes, but aren't, and words like "do", "pew", "through", and "cue", which don't look like rhymes, but are? Do you see words with multiple correct pronunciations like "dour", which can be pronounced either to rhyme with "tour" or "sour". Are there poems like these in other languages?

I'm not trying to be pedantic. I understand the reasons why English spelling often deviates from English pronunciation, but I don't see the same phenomenon in other languages to anywhere near the same degree. I've never got a satisfactory explanation of that.
Mike Simmons
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  10
Greg Charles wrote:Affricates, huh? Cool, I'd never heard that term!

Affricates or European fricates?

Greg Charles wrote:I'm not trying to be pedantic. I understand the reasons why English spelling often deviates from English pronunciation, but I don't see the same phenomenon in other languages to anywhere near the same degree. I've never got a satisfactory explanation of that.

This seems like a really good question. I assume we're excluding languages whose written form is completely independent of phonetics, like Chinese. And I would guess that some languages got the Roman alphabet as a relatively recent retrofit, and consequently have had less time to deviate from whatever standards were first picked for spellings. But there are plenty of other languages that have had there own alphabets for a long time - are there any with spelling as screwed-up as that of English? And if not, why not?
Michael Matola
whippersnapper
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Greg Charles wrote:
Could you give an example of two Russian words that are pronounced the same, but spelled differently? (I can read Cyrillic characters.)


(Sorry I didn't get back sooner.)

Well, if you allow for example with rule-based changes (such as final-consonant devoicing) there are plenty of pairs of the type:
вод вот

You can get Russian to argue, I'm sure, whether the following are pronounced the same (they are):
гриб грипп

Then there's stuff like:
говорится говориться

(I hear there are internet subcultures (think "leet") around misspelling Russian words (search превед, pronounced привет, if you're interested). That doesn't make the case for the existence of homophones, since it's intentional creation of new spellings. I just figured I'd toss it out there.)
Paul Clapham
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    8

Greg Charles wrote:Is there any other language that comes close to being as oddly spelled as English?


Sometimes the spelling gives you more clues to the pronunciation than you would expect. For example while travelling around Scotland recently, I saw the word "quaich" several times. I thought I knew how to pronounce that. But when I saw that its plural was "quaichs" I realized that I was wrong. Its final sound isn't "ch" as in "couch" because then its plural would be "quaiches". Instead its final sound is "ch" as in "loch".
Stanley Mungai
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Pneumonia!


Give a beggar a fish; feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish; Feed him for a lifetime.
Greg Charles
Sheriff

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  11

Sounds like the same old monia to me!

Speaking of fish, I give you ghoti.
Greg Charles
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  11

Michael Matola wrote:
(I hear there are internet subcultures (think "leet") around misspelling Russian words (search превед, pronounced привет, if you're interested). That doesn't make the case for the existence of homophones, since it's intentional creation of new spellings. I just figured I'd toss it out there.)


Wow, even by the standards of Internet memes, that's a pretty weird one!
Martha Simmons
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Bear Surprise
chris webster
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  14

Greg Charles wrote:I understand the reasons why English spelling often deviates from English pronunciation, but I don't see the same phenomenon in other languages to anywhere near the same degree. I've never got a satisfactory explanation of that.


Here's a nice summary of the history of English spelling.

In general, the degree to which a language's orthography (spelling etc) matches its pronunciation depends on lots of factors, for example:

When was the language first written down? If the spelling conventions were established a long time ago, as in the case of English, then the language has probably changed a lot since then e.g. all those silent or inconsistently pronounced "gh"s in English would probably have been a voiceless "ch" (as in German) originally, as they were until very recently in Scots English. So that's one reason for the inconsistencies in English spelling.

How suitable is the alphabet to the language concerned? English uses the Latin alphabet, which was obviously not designed for a Germanic language with its different sound system, so various adaptations had to be made e.g. the use of "th" or the older runic "thorn" for our "th" sound. This poor fit between a language and an alphabet can contribute to the inconsistencies and oddities in spelling. Where an alphabet has been developed for a specific language e.g. Cyrillic, Korean or Arabic, then there can be a much closer fit between the spelling and the sounds of a language, although that depends on the skills of the people creating the alphabet.

An interesting example here is Sequoyah, who invented the Cherokee alphabet (actually a syllabary). He was clearly a talented linguist, because he managed to come up with a system that accurately represented the sounds of his language and could be learned relatively easily by his people and is still used today. Yet he could not read the English alphabet that inspired him, so many of the Cherokee symbols look like English letters but have completely different sounds e.g. the Cherokee spelling that looks roughly like "GWY" is pronounced "Tsa-la-gi" and means "Cherokee".

What about words from other languages? English is fairly unusual for its high proportion of words taken from other languages, especially Norman French and Latin, as well as more recent acquisitions from the languages encountered during the colonial era. These words often do not fit the same sound/spelling system, so more compromises are required - do you use the original spelling from the other language or adapt it to how the word is pronounced in your language? For example, the French word "restaurant" is written the same in English, but usually pronounced more like "restron", while in Swedish it is written "restaurang" i.e. the Swedish written form roughly matches the French pronunciation. And "restaurant" is a relatively recent acquisition in both languages, but English has Norman French words that go back 900 years or more - plenty of time for spelling and pronunciation to drift even further apart.

The history of English as a national language is curious, because it could almost have died out in the late medieval period, when Norman French was the language of the state and Latin the language of the church (compare how ancient Gaul lost its native Celtic languages under Roman rule and adopted Latin, which became French). So the proportion of loan words also varies in different "registers" of English, depending on who was talking and what they were talking about e.g. the oft-quoted examples here are that the words for meat (eaten by the wealthy Normans) are French - pork, beef, mutton - but the words for the corresponding animals (reared by the English-speaking classes) are English - swine, ox, sheep. So a lot of our political and cultural vocabulary is French or Latin in origin, even where there would have been English equivalents originally. Incidentally, this is also why English has a very rich vocabulary in many areas e.g. we have the words "kingly" (English in origin), "royal" (French) and "regal" (Latin), all meaning much the same thing originally but now with quite distinct meanings.

Another obvious source of inconsistencies is whether the language's pronunciation is standard. If there are lots of different ways to pronounce the language - dialects and accents - then the choice of "standard" pronunciation used to determine the spelling may be fairly arbitrary, so the spelling may not match your version of the language e.g. Scots English has a different (simpler and clearer) sound system from "standard" English but Scots normally use modern English spelling these days. Most unwritten languages vary hugely precisely because there is no "standard" reference version.

English spelling was only really standardised with the introduction of printing in the 14th century, and the "standard" version was mostly based on the East Midlands dialect, but there were still lots of very different dialects at the time, so the standard spelling was already inconsistent with many people's spoken English. And it still is: e.g. we all spell "pin" and "pen" differently, but many American and Antipodean varieties of English pronounce them the same i.e. we can't even agree on a couple of simple three-letter words!

Even with the later tendency for spoken English to become more standardised as well, partly through the influence of the standard written form, there were still lots of variations in spelling as well as speech. Shakespeare spelled his name lots of different ways - but not as "Shakespeare" (according to Bill Bryson's entertaining book on Shakespeare). And many American spellings (center, color, -ize, etc) are actually just as old as their British equivalents, with some British spellings only being adopted as a result of fashions for latinising (latinizing?) English spelling in an attempt to identify with Classical culture.

So political and cultural factors play a part as well. English spelling was standardised partly through evolution and partly through printing, which may be one reason why our "standard" still includes many forms that go right back to Anglo-Saxon. We had a dominant political elite whose power base was in the same area where the printed standard came from, which also influenced the wider adoption of the standard forms in both written and spoken English right up until today.

German, in contrast, was a family of dialects with huge variations in pronunciation from the Baltic to the Alps. Its standard form (Hochdeutsch) was established particularly through Luther's Bible, which was based on the dialect of central Germany. But Germany remained fragmented politically so there was less political or cultural pressure to adopt the written standard more widely in its spoken form, and even today most regions of the German-speaking world have their own well-established local dialects, even if they use Hochdeutsch as the standard "lingua franca" in writing, business, education, politics etc.

So we may complain about the gap between standard English spelling and pronunciation, but some German dialects are so different from the written standard that they are often regarded as distinct languages in their own right e.g. Swiss German children learn their own dialect at home, but effectively have to learn a foreign language - Hochdeutsch - when they go to school (although Swiss Germans often retain their distinctive sound system when speaking Hochdeutsch).

Alphabets change as well, which creates new opportunities for confusion e.g. the arrival of the letter "J" gave us more ways to spell the "J" sound in different contexts e.g. "judge" has two of them.

So when you consider all these factors - and many others - the surprising thing is not that English spelling is so inconsistent, but that anybody can read and write English at all!

Finally, getting back to the original question about aspirated "P" sounds, check out Arnold Schwarzenegger's early films for his unaspirated pronunciation of "P" and "T" sounds (the difference is less noticeable with "K"). Arnie is from Austria originally, where most people speak various dialects that tend not to aspirate these consonants. So when Arnie says "Peter Piper", it sounds more like "Beder Biber" to English speakers, because we listen out for the aspiration on the "P" sound (as well as the unvoiced quality): this aspiration isn't there, so it often sounds like "B" to us. But Austrians will hear it as "Peter Piper" because they are only listening for the voiceless quality of "P" (or "T") which clearly distinguishes it from voiced "B" (or "D") to their ears.

OK, time for me to get back to work...
Greg Charles
Sheriff

Joined: Oct 01, 2001
Posts: 2853
    
  11

Wow! Thanks for that! Both your writeup and the linked article went farther towards explaining the English language's bizarre spelling than anything I've seen so far. I'm starting to get a picture of the major factors.

  • Great Vowel Shift
  • -- not unique to English, but also not universal
  • Spelling never modernized *
  • -- again not unique to English, but another winnowing factor
  • England is an island
  • -- outside influences arrived as an invading force, not a gradual synthesis, meaning English has been bolted together from different chunks of languages and spelling rules
  • Borrowed alphabet
  • -- the Latin alphabet didn't exactly fit Middle English, making it necessary to add some digraphs, e.g., th for both eth and thorn.
  • Empire
  • -- again not unique to England, but a big factor in both the borrowing of words and the increase in regions for regional variations

    * Well, it was a bit for American English, but just around the edges really
     
    I agree. Here's the link: http://aspose.com/file-tools
     
    subject: English words that start with a soft "P"??