English pronunciation rules: Is there such a thing?

By Michael E. Andrews

First, let us distinguish between rules, laws and guidelines. A rule is a consideration with some exceptions that are usually noted. A law is hard and fast determination with no latitude for exception. Finally, a guideline is less stringent than a rule, with more exceptions, not all of which are noted, due to their numerous occurrences.

Secondly, it is important to realize that there is a sharp but subtle difference between English pronunciation rules and their American counterparts. As George Bernard Shaw remarked, “The English and the Americans are a people separated by a common language.”

The English pronunciation rules will be mentioned in passing, with the majority of English pronunciation rules being tailored for the American tongue and ear.

Besides the bewildering terms and multiple usages of English words, such as “stern” meaning both humorless and strict as well as the aft end of a ship, the manners in which they are pronounced can at times be dazzling.

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A humorous example will serve to explain. Try to pronounce the following: “GHOTI”

Any luck? Would you believe it is pronounced “FISH”? According to standard English pronunciation rules “gh” equals “f,” such as in the words tough and cough. “O” equals “i” such as when used in the word “women.” Finally, the “ti” combination equals “sh” when used in words such as “nation” and “declaration.” Together the sounds equal “f-i-sh,” fish.

Let us now consider some of the more readily observable English pronunciation rules as they apply to the vowel sounds. The most common mnenomic device in reference to vowel sounds is for the combination of ei: “I before e except after c or sounded as a in neighbor and weigh.” This is a spelling rule as well as rule/guideline. Exceptions include the word “weird” and “weiner.”

An example of the differences in American and English pronunciation rules is the letter combination “sch.” In English, schedule and school are pronounced with an sh, resulting in “shedule” and “shool.” In their American counterparts, they are pronounced “sk,” “skedule” and “skool.” Some common English pronunciation rules regarding consonants;

The letter c is sounded as “k” except if it is followed by the letters “e,i” or “y,” which then causes it to sound as an “s.” Example; circus=sir-kus The letter “g” is “guh” such as gun, gum, gore, gas and garden when followed by vowels “a,” “o” and “u.” The same letter is given a harder sound of “geh” such as in gym, giant and generation.

Unlike most Germanic languages, English pronunciation rules allow silent letters, that is, letters used but not pronounced at all. Again, the letter “g” is silent in words when followed by an “n,” such as gnaw and gnu. The letter “k” is also silent when followed by the same letter, “n” as in knew, know, knife. Silent vowels are usually the final “e” in the word, which causes the previous vowel to be pronounced long, such as made, geese, knife, cone and mute.

An additional problem for the English as Second Language (ESL) student is the regional accents within the United States. The best recommendation is to politely ask the speaker to repeat or rephrase what was just said, explaining one’s limitations in understanding what was said. However, be prepared for the speaker to raise their volume, as most Americans believe that if they talk louder you will understand better. This, of course, should just be taken as inadvertent humor and not a reflection on your abilities to communicate.

Other difficulties the ESL individual may encounter with English pronunciation rules are the differences between English and their native tongue when it comes to pronouncing letters. A German speaker will, when the letter “w” is encountered, naturally pronounce it as the English “v,” and the letter “v” more as an English “f,” and the final “g” in a word as a “k.”

It will not greatly interfere with the meaning of what is being said, but will immediately label him as an ESL individual. Likewise, most Americans have a broad, flat intonation. If you bother to pronounce each individual “t” and “d,” that will also mark you as an ESL.

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There are numerous ways to improve both your hearing and speaking in daily conversations. Most large metropolitan areas conduct ESL either for free or very low cost. Practice at home, making certain nights or hours of every night an “English Only Zone” for everyone.

Find other ESL students and practice with them, especially helpful if you come from different native tongue backgrounds. There are numerous online sites that can offer for your reading instruction the other English pronunciation rules, including www.dictionaryboss.com and www. cleartalkmastery.com. Interactive courses will be your best bet as actually saying and hearing how the words sound is the surest way to mastery. An e-course for your consideration is “Learn the American Accent-FAST!”

A little used means of familarization is movies with subtitles. I often practice my German with such films. Don’t be too surprised if the translations are not literal, but read along in your native tongue as you listen to how the English is being spoken.

Another advantage is that you can stop, pause and rewind to make sure you hear what is being said distinctly without having felt that you are interupting the conversation to clarify what was being said for just yourself. Languages available include French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, to name just a few. Make it a fun night for your family and your English speaking friends. Compare what is being said to what is subtitled. How does it differ, how does one language serve to complement the other or advance the story in a deeper, richer means?

We are often told that different societies have different words and numbers of words for items that are important to them. The ancient Greeks had at least four words for love. Learning to express oneself in a different language can be very demanding. Pronunciation should not be a hindrance.

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