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The Correspondence and Inconsistency between English Spelling and Sounds

Spelling in the English language is a way of representing the sounds of our speech but it
is not always complete and accurate. The knowledge about sound-spelling correspondences is
important for both ESL/EFL teachers and learners to acquire due to the fact that it can facilitate
their reading (especially on the aspect of pronunciation) and writing skills. The complicated
relationship between the orthographical and phonological regularities could often be confusing.
For example, there are silent consonant letters such as the p in psychology /sakldi/; or,
homophones such as write/right share the same pronunciation /rayt/ but their spellings are
different. Therefore, we need to first know the sound system of the English language and then
discover to what extent that the sounds are represented in the spelling system, and by doing so
we can also find out how systematic are the corresponding relationships. It is also important to
notice the difference between the various pronunciation and spelling system in American English
and British English for ESL/EFL learners to acquire a native-like linguistic proficiency. In this
research paper, I will discuss the correspondence and inconsistency between phonemes and
graphemes of English, how graphemes represent phonemes and the reasons why they are
presented in the current ways that an ESL/EFL teacher should be familiar with in order to better
instruct the knowledge to students.
The Correspondence between English Spelling and Sounds
Consonant system
In this research paper, a consonant is considered as a speech sound that is articulated by
the vocal tract. Compare to the English vowel system, consonants are actually more consistent to
its spelling-sound relationship. That is to say, a consonant is usually represented by the same
consonant letter such as <p> is always pronounced as /p/, <t> always represents /t/, <k> always
represents /k/, etc. but there are also some consonants that are represented by different letters or
digraph due to the limited letters in the English alphabet. For example, /s/ could be represented

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by <s, c, sc, ps> as in sin, receive, science and psychology, or like the sound /d/ could be
represented by <j, ge, dge> as in words like jeep, judge, and bridge. Also, one consonant letter
could represent different phonemes. For example, the letter <g> can be pronounced as /g, d, /
as in go, giant, and genre. The ending {-s/-es} of nouns and verbs has three different variants of
pronunciation depending on the sound or letter after which it stands. (The mute letter E at the end
of the word is not taken into consideration in this rule.) If it is after a voiceless consonant, it
would be pronounced as /s/; if it is after a voiced consonant or a vowel, it would be pronounced
as /z/; and if it is after sibilants, it would be pronounced as /z/. (Jared, D, 2002). Although the
consonant sounds ways of being represented by the spelling system is not perfect but we can
still relatively easily predict the pronunciations by looking at the spelling forms because they did
not have a great shift like the English vowels had.
Vowel system
According to Venezky (1999), English orthography has two sets of vowel patterns
The first set, called the primary vowel spellings like single letters <a, e, i, o, u> and the second
set, called the secondary vowel spellings are the digraph and trigraph spellings such as <ea,
ou, eau>.
In the Old English, long vowels are usually signaled by markers like or but it was not
always the same. People also used the doubling to indicate longer consonants but this type of
spelling rule is no longer valid. Plus the lengthened and/or shortened changes of the vowels
throughout history, the spelling that represents different vowels are now quite complicated. The
overall corresponding system could be generalized as the following rules:
1) Using the single letters representing the tense vowels. For example, I /ay/, me /miy/,
go /gow/, etc.
2) Using the single letters representing the lax vowels. For example, hat /ht/, red /red/,
sit /sit/, etc.
3) Doubling the vowel letters to represent a tense vowel. For example, meet /iy/, see /iy/,
etc. We need to notice that vowel letters like <a, u> are never doubled, but <e, o> are
often appear in doubling forms as in words like see, tooth, etc. Also, because <oo> in
the early period of modern English often pronounced as /u/ or // when followed by

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the consonants /k/ or /d/, it could as well represents the changed vowels in book /buk/,
blood /bld/, etc.
4) There are words like read /red/, lead /led/, etc. that use digraph to represent a lax
vowel due to the Old English spelling represented longer/tense vowels.
The Inconsistency between English Spelling and Sounds
There is a certain amount of single-syllable words in English that are consistent in
spelling and pronunciation. For example, let /let/, self /self/, dog /dg/, etc. However, numerous
English words are not consistent in their spelling forms and pronunciations due to the
complicated corresponding system. In Old English, the spelling and pronunciation tended to be
correspondent but because of the continuous development of English phonology, the Old English
spelling system inevitably became inconsistent to the modern pronunciation, that being said, one
letter or a set of letters can represent multiple phonemes. (Scragg, 1976)
1) Examples of different pronunciations of a same letter or set of letters
a. For the letter <a>, it could be pronounced as name /ey/, bad //, any //, again //
and so on.
b. Digraph <ou> could respond to different phonemes and could have same
pronunciation like other lexemes. For example, cough // compare with off //;
through /u/ compare with true /u/; enough // compare with cut //; though /ow/
compare with low /ow/; etc.
c. The letter <c> in Old English like cuman (come) or cyrice (church) was
pronounced similarly to /k/. In the late Old English, the pronunciation of <c> in
cyrice gradually became /t/ and was later replaced by the spelling of <ch>. In
fact, there are traces that suggest in the Early Middle English era, <ch> was
already used to represent /t/ under the influence of French.
Letter <c> representing /s/ does not only appear in Noman French borrowing
words like face, city, etc., but can also be found in English words like mice and
there were a lot more examples in Old English words like wice (wise), cene (seen)
and so on.
The reason that <c> is pronounced /k/ in words like cook but pronounced as /t/ in
chicken is because in Old English, <c> was pronounced /k/ if it comes after a
vowel and was pronounced /t/ if it comes before a vowel. For example, cocc /k/
compare with ciecen /t/.

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d. Digraph <ch> also has few different realizations of the pronunciation such as /t/
in chamber, sandwich, etc., or /k/ in anchor, chaos, etc., or // in machine, chef,
Thus, according to the phenomena mentioned above, we can discern that the spelling
forms in the English language has a rather complicated correspondent relationship with its sound
system. The factors that contributed to this situation will be discussed in the upcoming chapters.
Reasons that caused the inconsistency between English spelling and sounds
1) Defect of English alphabetic system per se
Like most of the European languages, English uses an alphabetic spelling system with 26
letters. The advantage of using this system is that the different combinations of these 26 letters
could create an innumerable amount of words. For example, simply change the positions of the
letters in words like dog/god, now/won, you can get vocabulary that contains different meanings.
According to Chomsky (1970), a letter is an indivisible sound that is fit for writing; a
letter, to define it better, is the smallest part of a composite sound. However, with the 26 letters
used in the English language, the 40-45 phonemes (depending on the different dialects of
English) can definitely not have a one-to-one corresponding letter relationship. Therefore, this is
the first reason that caused the difference between the English spelling and sound system.
2) English Spelling system fell behind the development of sounds
At the very beginning of the history of the English language, the spelling system was
consistent with the sound system. That is to say, it was a corresponding system that the spelling
exactly represented the pronunciation. During this time period, writing could only depend on the
sounds or other peoples handwritten records. However, unlike the handwritten records, sounds
could be changed throughout time. The original pronunciation has been lost because of the
lacking of sound recording equipment at the time but the original spelling was copied by people
and passed on through generations either in written or printed forms. Little by little, the spelling
system separated itself from the continuously changing pronunciations and what it represented
was correspondent to the Old English sounds. Thus, the chaotic situation of inconsistency
between English spelling and sounds started to appear. This phenomenon almost exists in all the

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languages that have handwritten or printed word records especially when typography was
introduced to England after 1476, with the rules of English spelling became more fixed, the
separation of spelling and sound system has gone one step further. Pronunciation has been
constantly changing due to the influence of other languages and society development, but the
spelling stays almost the same and it only represents the historical sounds. As a result, the
English spelling system is just a traditional way that shows the sounds in Old English but not the
present pronunciation.
The separation of English spelling and sound system can be also examined with the Great
Vowel Shift which happened in the 15th century. During this time of period, all the English
vowels tended to rise up a level in oral cavity and the lip-movement tended to be more closed.
This lead to the result that both the front and back vowels had shifted to an upper level in oral
cavity such as // became // and then became /iy/. In order to avoid the chaos that might cause
by this change, the highest vowels became diphthongized. Therefore, during the period of
Geoffrey Chaucer, lots of the pronunciations were different than they were during the period of
William Shakespeare. Take <i> for instance, it was pronounced /iy/ during the period of Geoffrey
Chaucer but has changed into /ay/ when it was the period of William Shakespeare. Hence, we
can infer that the word five was pronounced /fiyv/ before 15th century and it gradually became
/fayv/ up until the period of William Shakespeare but the spelling form stayed the same
throughout history.
Another example is that the different allophones of digraph <ou> was also caused by the
Great Vowel Shift. For example, it is pronounced as /u/ in words like soup, group, etc., but in
words like noun, count, bound, it is pronounced as /aw/. This is because that under the influence
of French, <ou> was pronounced as /u/ before 15th century. But after the Great Vowel Shift, the
high back vowel /u/ has diphthongized and became /aw/ and the spelling stayed the same due to
the previously mentioned factors.
3) Influences from French and Latin
Influence caused by French and Latin was another important factor that contributed to the
inconsistency between the English spelling and sound system. For example, <ch> in English
words are pronounced as /t/ as in child, much, etc. <ch> in the old French language was also
pronounced as /t/ as in chief, merchant, etc. But through the change of time and the

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development of sounds, /t/ has disappeared in the French language and left // by its own. That is
the reason why we now have <ch> pronounced as /t/ in words like machine, chauffeur, etc.
We can also notice that in some English words there are silent letters. This is mainly
because the sounds that they used to represent have now disappeared. For example, digraph
<gh> is silent in lots of the modern English words like bright, light, etc. It used to represent the
<ich> or <i> in German but with the gradual vanishing of the sound and the fixed spelling kept
by the written and printed materials, caused the inconsistency between the spelling and
pronunciation we see today.
It is worth mentioning that there are also other silent letters that were not caused by
vanished sounds but they rather have an indicating function in the words that might suggest the
pronunciation, or the origin of the words. (Hatfield and Patterson, 2007). a) For example, the
silent <e> in the word site indicates that the <i> should be pronounced as a tense vowel but not
as the lax vowel as in the word sit. b) The doubling of consonants meant to indicate the vowel
before the doubled consonants is a lax vowel. For example, tomorrow, sitting, asset, etc.
Moreover, some words that were originally came from Latin also caused the silent letter
phenomenon. Take the <b> in words like debt, doubt for example. The <b> is actually not a
redundant letter but has its own value. It indicates that these two words are originally from the
Latin language and they were spelled as dette and doute. <b> was added into these words to
suggest the <b> in Latin root of debitum and dubitare. In a similar way, the silent <s> in words
like island, isle also suggests their origins from the Latin language. This type of spelling is what
the scholars called etymological spelling. (Schane, 1970) In addition, the silent <u> in words like
guilt, guitar, guess, etc. serves as an indicator that the <g> is pronounced as /g/ instead of /d/.
The reasons that caused the inconsistency between English spelling and sound systems
are remarkably diversified. They include not only the alphabetic system per se, but also has to do
with the changing development of the language itself as well as the influence brought by other
languages. Only when the ESL/EFL teachers or learners are well informed in the historical
factors of the inconsistency between the spelling and sound system in the English language, they
can better facilitate learners or study the language themselves and achieve ideal academic

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performance. Along with the development of the society and increasing international and
intercultural interactions, more new vocabulary will be created and the pronunciation will keep
changing and causing more words that might be not correspondent to the pronunciation. Hence,
ESL/EFL teachers should bear this concept in mind and keep up with the changing environment
to facilitate students learning.

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Hatfield, F. M., and Patterson, K. E. (2007). Phonological Spelling. Journal of Experimental
Psychology. Vol. 35, Issue 3.
Jared, D. (1997). Spelling-Sound Consistency Affects the Naming of High-Frequency Words.
Journal of Memory and Language. Vol. 36, Issue 4.
Jared, D. (2002). Spelling-Sound Consistency and Regularity Effects in Word Naming. Journal
of Memory and Language. Vol. 46, Issue 4.
Kligman, D. S., Cronnell, B. A., and Vema, G. B. (1972). Black English Pronunciation and
Spelling Performance. Elementary English. Vol. 49, No. 8.
Schane, S. (1970). Linguistics, Spelling, and Pronunciation. TESOL Quarterly. Vol 4, No.2.
Scragg, D. G. (1976) A History of English Spelling. Manchester University Press.
Smith, P. T., and Baker, R. G. (1976). The influence of English spelling patterns on
pronunciation. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior. Vol. 15, Issue 3, pp. 267285.
Venezky, R. L. (1999). The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American
English Orthography. The Guilford Press.