On languages and spelling

When I brought up the topic of spelling bees earlier this year, it triggered several comments on how various languages deal with the issue of spelling. Here are some thoughts on the topics that were brought up:

German spelling is only partly phonetic. Given the spelling of a word, one can, after applying a rather large set of rules, determine its pronunciation with very high accuracy. On the other hand, given the pronunciation of a word, the spelling is not obvious. For example, do you write "Feber" or "Vehber" or possibly "Phäber"? "Ist" or "isst"? "Quelle" or "Kwälle"? The fact that Germany is undergoing controversial spelling reform proves that German spelling is not entirely predictable. After all, if spelling were completely phonetic, there would be no need for reform!

And all those pronunciation rules. Sometimes a "d" is pronounced like "t"; sometimes a "t" is pronounced like "z"; sometimes a "g" is pronounced like "ch"; sometimes "st" is pronounced like "scht". One would think that a truly "phonetically-spelled" language would have a one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. (I'm led to believe that many Eastern European languages are phonetic in this way.) Furthermore, given a word's spelling, it's not always obvious where the stress lies. For example, you just have to know that the accent in Krawatte goes on the second syllable. The spelling gives you no help.

Swedish is like German in this respect: Given the spelling of a word, you can (again, after the application of a rather large set of rules) determine its pronunciation with a high degree of confidence. But going in the other direction can be a nightmare. The tricky "sj" sound goes by many spellings: "sj", "stj", "stj" , "sk", "ch", and sometimes even "g" (in French-derived words). Depending on the regional accent, the pronunciation of a leading "s" can vary depending on the ending of the previous word. (Though I suspect most Swedes don't even hear the difference themselves.)

At least in English, we're honest about the fact that our spelling is complicated. English spelling only starts to become intuitive once you've learned French, German, Middle English, Greek, Latin, and a handful of other languages, learned British history (so you know who conquered whom when and ransacked their language for new words), and learned how the precursor-languages to modern English were pronounced at the time the words were imported.

That last point is a problem common to many languages. The spelling of a word tends to change much more slowly than its pronunciation. English retains the original spelling long after the pronunciation has moved on. Many Chinese characters are puzzling until you realize that the word was pronounced differently a few thousand years ago. (Yes, there is a phonetic component to Chinese characters, believe it or not.) Resistance to spelling reform in Germany is just another manifestation of spelling inertia.

One thing I thought was interesting was the types of competitions different languages use to promote correct spelling and/or grammar. In the United States, spelling competitions (known as "spelling bees") are the most common way of accomplishing this. Students are each given a word to spell, which must be done from memory. Spell it correctly and you survive to the next round; spell it incorrectly and you are eliminated.

It is my understanding that in Taiwan, the analogous competition is the "dictionary look-up". I'm hazy on the details, but I think the way it works is that a character is shown to the class, and the students race to look it up in the dictionary. Since dictionaries are typically arrange phonetically, a student who already knows how the character is pronounced has an advantage over a student who has to count strokes and perform radical decomposition in order to look it up.

I was not previous aware of dictation competitions, but they appear to be particularly popular in Poland. This allows greater emphasis to be placed on the complexity of Polish grammar. A former colleague of mine who grew up in Poland told me that when she goes back to visit relatives, it takes her a while to "regain her tongue" and stop making grammatical errors. You know you've got a complicated language when even a native speaker has to get back up to speed.

Comments (43)
  1. Rainer Bauer says:

    "Feber", "Vehber", "Phäber" are all pronounced differently (you probably meant "Weber").

    The same applies to "Quelle" and "Kwälle": you cannot distinguish the "Qu" from the "Kw", but the following "e" is ponounced diffrently than the "ä". Besides, there is only one word in German that starts with "Kw" (der Kwaß).

    But "ist" and "ißt" are the same …


  2. KiwiBlue says:

    Being Polish, I can assure you that dictations in Poland are used to develop spelling skills, not grammar. Grammar is obvious from the text being dictated.

  3. David says:

    In Taiwan the dictionary contests are actually another degree more complex:

    Traditional Chinese dictionaries are arranged not phonetically, but by radical (principal component), with a phonetic index at the back of the dictionary. In the contest, this phonetic index is removed, and students have to use their knowledge of character composition to find each character in the main body of the dictionary – no small feat for some characters whose radicals were determined either based on obscure or archaic meanings and scripts, or on the random guesses made by the great Chinese philologist Kang Xi many centuries ago.

  4. Roel says:

    In Belgium and the Netherlands, there is a national dictation competion, which is broadcasted live on national television (at least in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium – for those not familiar with the specific situation there, half of Belgium speaks Dutch, the other half French, and the whole of the Netherlands speaks Dutch except for some marginal dialects who have gotten the status of ‘language’). Anyway, usually the Belgians win in the competition, in my opinion because the Belgians place more emphasis on the skills needed in dictations (memorizing things) and because Flemish people (the ones speaking Dutch in Belgium) have had to fight for centuries to get their language recognized as being equal to to French that the elite spoke.

  5. Drizzt says:

    I was wondering just yesterday, why Lisa Simpson was on a spelling competitions in the episode I was watching.

    Then I remembered that in Italy almost everything is pronounced the same way it is written, apart from a few things (gn and h, for example)

  6. Marvin says:

    language would have a one-to-one

    > correspondence between sounds and letters

    This is hard or almost impossible in any language. Think how you pronounce the "same" word differently when preceeded or followed by other words. The spelling of the root may have to completely change when you attach a suffix (think about English flapping rules and such). Also you would need a separate set of letters for whispering.

    What is possible and what some languages do is to have more or less close correspondence between letters and logical phonemes that we have in our head. That is a ‘d’ would stand for a sound that is perceived as ‘d’ but sometimes actually pronounced as ‘t’ or ‘d’ or even ‘z’.

  7. In a former life when I babysat the Microsoft English spelling lexicons I noticed a "Germanification" of many terms. So "fire truck" -> "fire-truck" -> "firetruck". It’s only at the last step that you have to add something new to the lexicon as the English spell-checker will look for "fire" & "truck" if it can’t find the hyphenated term. This is what is happening when you notice a red squiggle on one side of a hyphenated term, and not the other.

    Rather than just looking at a list of known words, the German spellchecker works algorithmically to handle all the possible bigredfiretruck words, because not all possible words are in the dictionary. However this can mean that bigbluefiretruck is also passed as correct since it passes the rules for acceptance even if it’s not in actual usage. A delicate balancing act.

    On the other hand, the English grammar checker has its own lexicon too, with generative capacity similar to the German spellchecker. From time to time you would get a loop where fixing a red squiggle, generated a green squiggle, and on and on. The only way to handle it was by synching those lexicons manually.

  8. I’m not asking for anything. It doesn’t bother me that language spelling is not phonetic. I’m just rebutting claims that some people make that their language’s spelling is phonetic.

    The weirdness of language is what makes it interesting.

  9. Gabe says:

    Raymond brings up an interesting point about how English can only be intuitive if you learn about a half-dozen other languages and history. What I don’t understand is why other languages aren’t like this. Haven’t countries been invading each other for millenia and spreading their words? How come other languages don’t have the same problems that English does?

  10. Mihai says:

    "many Eastern European languages are phonetic"

    This is quite a broad statement. Some of the EE languages are totaly unrelated. Many of them are slavic, but from different branches. Romanian is Latin.

    But I can confirm that Romanian is phonetic, pretty much like Italian.

  11. Mihai says:

    "why other languages aren’t like this"

    Most likely because they addapted the spelling to the native pronunciation. Romanian adopted in time a words from French, then German, and now English.

    In the beginning the spelling is the original one (and nobody knows how to really pronunce it :-)

    Some of the words are rejected, but if they remain, the pronunciation changes to sound more Romanian and the spelling reflects the adopted pronunciation.

  12. Eric says:

    Now French, there’s a language that’s difficult to spell. So many homophones! There is a national dictation competition in France every year and a HUGE part of the population takes part in it via the magic of TV. Even my wife’s farmer cousins tune in and give it a go. I think they don’t have spelling bees because context is so important for determining the spelling with all those homophones.

  13. Dflare says:

    I think English spelling become easy if you come from a foreign language. I mean if you come from a Latin language like Spanish, the whole Spelling Bee thing is kind of ridiculous ( no offence ), because what you hear is almost what you write ( with some exceptions ). Obviously in English things are different. When I learned English I memorized the word the verb’s conjugation, etc. So when I live on USA for a few years on my school days. I always got good grades on English and spelling making my fellows go crazy as how can I do it ( been a non-Native speaker ). Anyway Spanish is a more phonetical clear language. I mean when you pronounce it you speak more clearly trying no to merge the words together ( as opposed to French ) so It becomes more easy to find what letters are been pronounce. We usually have grammars and writing competitions because Spanish grammar is more difficult to use correctly( same as French).

  14. MSDN Archive says:

    That’s very interesting and I wrote a post last night about two interviews I had recently when I presented our new French proofing tools (Office spell-checker and grammar checker) in France and in Belgium. A journalist from La Libre Belgique interviewed me in the framework of a spelling competition organized for 12-year-old kids. The finale took place 2 weeks ago: there were 800 participants, it was televised by the French TV channel RTBF. You can read about it (in English) here, with the references to the interviews and the articles (it’s a very popular competition):


    and also here (if you speak French): http://blogs.msdn.com/correcteurorthographiqueoffice/archive/2006/05/09/592883.aspx

    In fact, the spelling competitions in Belgium (and in France) are very different from the US ones: the words are used in context, in a real text because the jury checks that participants know their grammar as well (agreement issues are particularly tricky in French). There is a special section for rare and difficult words, but the texts are frequently literary texts from well-known authors.


    Thierry Fontenelle

    Microsoft Speech & Natural Language group

  15. Schwallex says:

    @Gabe: "English can only be intuitive if you learn about a half-dozen other languages and history. What I don’t understand is why other languages aren’t like this."

    That last sentence I strongly disagree with.  Granted, some languages are certainly less like this, but saying that all other languages are not like this is a tall order.

    You get a much better grasp of Japanese if you learn some Chinese, some English and some German. You get a much better grasp of Russian if you learn some German and lo-o-ots of French. You get a much better grasp of Chuvash if you also know some Lezgi, lots of Russian, and lots of Turkish. You get a much better grasp of Hungarian if you know a Slavic and a Germanic language and much less Finnish than one would expect to have to know. And so on and so forth.

    Honestly, I don’t think English is all that special (in this particular regard).

    @Mihai: "Romanian is phonetic, pretty much like Italian"

    Which would mean that it actually ain’t phonetic. (^_^)

    A friend of mine is from Timisoara. When I read Romanian out loud, he either doesn’t understand some 10-20% (and it’s not like I’m not trying), or he’s rolling on the floor laughing. Or both. So, I guess, it can’t be all that phonetic.

    And actually, to begin with, that name "Timisoara" is not pronounced as "Timisoara".

  16. Anders Mandell says:

    Appart from pronounciation Swedish also has a thing called tonality, which means that the actual pitch of the word uttered changes its meaning. This is not the same as intonation.

    For example, the word "Anden" pronounced with the first syllable in a high pitch means "the spirit". Pronounced with the first syllable in a low pitch it means "the duck". None of these differences are noticable from the spelling, you just have to learn them (which is incredibly hard for someone who is not used to the fact that the pitch of your voice can alter the meaning of the words).

    While tonality is rare in Indo-European languages it is actually found in a majority of non-European languages (including Chinese).

    Have you experiences any difficulties adjusting to using tonality, Raymond?

  17. Our teacher’s attitude towards tonality was "You’ll pick it up as you go" and she was right. It was tricky at first but I got the hang of it pretty quickly. (Then again, who knows, maybe I’m doing it all wrong.) To American ears, the Swedish tones are funny-sounding and it’s what makes Swedish sound so… Swedish.

  18. russ says:

    Schwallex wrote: "Honestly, I don’t think English is all that special (in this particular regard)."

    Uh, yes actually English is notorious for having a lot less correlation between spelling and pronunciation.  I’ve studied Latin, German, Finnish, Esperanto, Spanish, Polish, … and in all of them it is MUCH easier to know how to pronounce a new word from its spelling.  Even when other languages are not strictly speaking phonetic, the number of rules to learn is manageable, whereas English simply has a bazillion special cases.

    I am seeing English words creep into Polish while sometimes preserving their English spelling, which is a bummer since it is slowly breaking the nice correlation between spelling and pronunciation of Polish.  I suppose that is happening to many languages.

  19. RegDwight says:

    Hehe. @Drizzt: as an experiment, please ask a German to read out loud the word "gnocchi". Alternatively, go to a random Italian restaurant full of German tourists and hear them order "dos expʁessis".

    By which I’m trying to say: no matter how simple a language is, you *still* have to learn it. Yes, even Toki Pona.

    On a somewhat related note: what’s a "phonetic" spelling, anyway?

    I mean, most languages have many more sounds then the corresponding alphabets have letters. So spelling is *always* an approximation anyway — unless you use a truly phonetic alphabet, which is yet to be invented.

    Yes, I am aware of IPA, SAMPA and Co., but I am also aware of the many people who argue that none of them is the cat’s whiskers. And anyway, I don’t think German would become any easier to learn if it used ʁ, ʀ, ɹ, r and ʕ rather than simply using "r".

    The point I’m trying to make, Raymond, is that "phonetic" is pretty much the opposite of "simple". So I guess what you’re asking for is not phonetic spelling, but quite the opposite.

    In fact, IMHO, in different paragraphs you seem to be asking for mutually exclusive things.

    I think, the only way for us to have the cake and eat it, too, is to drastically simplify *both* the spelling *and* the pronunciation, simultaneuosly. However, *that* is certainly never going to happen.

    And if it did, it would actually be a pity. Sterile languages are a huge bore.

  20. Schwallex says:

    I’ll second Marvin on this one.

    Just a quick example. As Rainer has pointed out, "e" and "ä" sound very differently to a German ear. However, to, say, a Russian ear they sound absolutely the same. To a Russian, the (short) "ü" in "Hütte" sounds exactly the same as the (long) "ü" in "Hüte". And so on.

    The other way round, the mess is just as big. The Russian name "Люба" can be transliterated into German as either "Luba", "Ljuba", "Lyuba", "Lüba", "Lyüba" or "Ljüba" — *all* of which are basically equally legitimate, since *none* of them comes anywhere close to the original. (^_^) [1]

    The point I’m trying to make is that as long as you keep borrowing words from other languages — which *every* language does — there is no chance your spelling is going to be consistent in any way or manner.

    Every once in a while, an "ä" is borrowed into Russian where it becomes an "e", but who cares. A few decades later, it gets borrowed, say, into English, where it becomes, say,  a "ye". A few decades later, in a great karmic joke, it finds its way back into German, where it becomes a "jeh" and the Germans don’t recognize their own word and have no idea that it took them a hundred years to basically steal from themselves.

    Tellya what, such things happen all the time.  [2]

    That’s how you’ve got "quick", "bio", "vital" and "zoo". If everyone just kept spelling all of them "gwiwo" for the recent 5000 years, the English language would be much poorer today, don’t you think?

    The same goes for the German "Wasser", "Waterkant", "Hydrant", "Undine", "Whisky" and "Wodka". Our ancestors could have just stuck to spelling and pronouncing all of them as "wed", but alas, that would be much less fun, wouldn’t it?


    [1] On a side note: in Russia, all those "Ljuba", "Sascha", "Katja" and "Tanja" that are so freakingly popular in Germany are not actual names anyway, but rather intimate short names.

    For a Russian, saying "Katja" to your boss or to someone who’s older than you or to someone whom you meet for the first time is not only incredibly impolite, bit downright bizarre. It’s pretty much like calling them "sweetheart" or "honey baby".

    Of course, that’s a whole ‘nother story, but my point is: why should a language care about the *spelling* of a word it’s stealing, if it doesn’t even care about the *meaning*?

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the first German politician whose name is "Schurka".


    [2] In fact, sometimes even much stranger things happen, such as that you get the English "typhoon" and the Japanese "台風", which sound basically the same *and* mean basically the same, but are *not* of the same origin. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropical_cyclone#Origin_of_storm_terms

  21. Mihai says:

    <<When I read Romanian out loud, he either doesn’t understand some 10-20% (and it’s not like I’m not trying), or he’s rolling on the floor laughing.>>

    I have heard Romanian pronounced by foreigners, and yes, a funny.

    <<And actually, to begin with, that name "Timisoara" is not pronounced as "Timisoara".>>

    Yes, because it is Timişoara.

    We have ţ (like tz) ş (like sh), then ăâî which are usually the funny part :-)

    Then you have 8 goups that have special readings (ce, ci, ge, gi, che, chi, ghe, ghi). But the reading is allways the same. I guess like "sch" reads allways the same in German.

    For instance "ce" is like che in English, "ci" is like chi, but "che"(ro) is like "ke"(en) and "chi"(ro) is like "ki"(en).

    If you learn the 5 sounds and 8 combinations, you can easily impress your friend :-)

  22. Michael J. says:

    >> language would have a one-to-one

    >> correspondence between sounds and letters

    > This is hard or almost impossible in any

    > language.

    In Russian, you can read out loud *exactly* as it is written. Sometimes it will sound a little funny, but still will be totally legible.

    One of the first applications for  a Z80 machine that I saw 20 years ago was a russian text reader. Very small program about 30K in size. The result could be better if it had some way to accentuate the stresses. But overall, it was pretty good. It was simple to write this app because Russian language does not have things like "th", "-tion", "-ng", "-ance/-ence" and so forth. Just read it letter by letter, sound by sound. Simple.

  23. Gabe says:

    Schwallex, I know that many (all?) languages have loanwords from neighbors, but Raymond is saying that English is special because it tends to retain the spelling of loanwords.

    So is English really the only language that retains the spelling of loanwords? Or is it just unique because half of its words come from other languages? Or maybe there’s something about English such that it tends to have very old-fashioned spellers who like to  keep words spelled the same even when their pronunciation changes?

  24. ::Wendy:: says:

    On competitive structures as a means to encourage spelling skills.

    At school our teacher would give us a list of words to learn on friday. On Monday the teacher would say them and we wrote them down,  then he gave their spellings and we marked our own papers and gave them to the teacher.  The teacher would give us the distribution of cores and scores per word.  That way each of us knew how well we had maanged,  could track our progress and compare to a norm.  As a method it vastly reduces the puclic humilation for the poor spellers and you are effectively competing against your own score and a knowledge of the distribution.  I like this style of encouraging personal development,  less explicitly based on competition.

    But then I would,  my spelling’s atrocious  ;-)

  25. R. Bemrose says:

    English is full of homophones, too.

    Take the common words "there" and "their."  They are pronounced identically, but have very different meanings.  This isn’t even taking the contractions into account, which would add "they’re" to the above list.

    There are lots of other examples:

    no and know

    night and knight

    great and grate

    read and reed

    heterophones are no better:

    read (present tense) and read (past tense)

    (I can’t think of any other ones at the moment)

  26. In most of the major Indian languages (I’m familiar with Kannada, Hindi and some Sanskrit), the script is highly phonetic.

    See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_India#Phonetic_alphabet

    You’ll rarely have problems transcribing spoken words into text or reading content out aloud.

  27. Peter Clay says:

    It’s interesting that noone’s mentioned <i>dialect</i> yet. It’s entirely possible for two native English speakers to have serious problems with mutual comprehension (for example, Ulster and South African) because they are using different phonemes for the same words.

  28. Stefan Kuhr says:


    the second syllable in "Krawatte" is the stressed  one because of the two t that separate the second from the third syllable. And therefore this second syllable is also short. As a rule of thumb, each time you see a double consonant in a German word, the pronounciation of the vowel before it is short and it is likely the stressed syllable. This is also the reason why replacing the ‘ß’ with ‘ss’ in the German spelling reform is outright dumb because it suggests to the reader in many cases that a long vowel (such as in "Straße") should be pronounced in a short way (such as it would be in "Strasse").

  29. Stefan: The spelling reform is dumb enough as it is now (I’d call it a spelling deformation), even though it does not do away with all occurrences of ß.

    Take »Kompaß«, for instance, which is written »Kompass« according to the reform. The reformed spelling seems to suggest pronounciation analogous to »Stilett« or »Ballett«, putting the emphasis on the last syllable. But that’s clearly wrong for Kompaß: the last syllable is short, but NOT emphasized.

  30. Stefan: I was not aware of the "short vowel followed by double consonant tends to be stressed" rule. But I’m not sure how much to trust it either. I grabbed some text at random and had trouble finding any words I could apply the rule to! I eventually found "Kollege", which I think is stressed on the second syllable but I’m not sure. I’m going to continue just memorizing how words are stressed.

  31. Stefan Kuhr says:


    Guess what I just did: I ran upstairs and looked up the spelling of "Kompaß" in my "Duden" of 1983. I couldn’t believe that it has been written with a ‘ß’ prior to the spelling deformation. And I was sooo wrong. This tells us that the German spelling deformation has also turned into a brain deformation, at least in my case. 10 years ago I probably wouldn’t have these doubts.

    I remember the day when the major news magazines in Germany (like "SPIEGEL") changed to the new spelling and I felt awkward every second line or so when reading an article. Surprisingly, this had settled after the third or fourth (weekly) issue. Today I seem to not be able to distinguish between old and new spelling anymore. Sigh.

    So Raymond, whatever I post here regarding spelling in German is probably utterly wrong, German spelling deformation spoiled me.

  32. Mike Dunn says:

    Going from pronunciation to spelling in French is, in some cases, impossible. If I say the word [o] it could be "eau", "eaux", "au", "aux". If I say [kEl], that could be spelled "quel", "quelle", "quels", or "quelles". That would be why there’s a need for context in French spelling contests.

    On the bright side, going from spelling to pronuncation is almost trivial, save a few exceptions like "fils" or "tous" where the normally-silent final s is pronounced. The only rule that trips me up is how the "-ent" ending on third person plural verb endings is silent.

  33. Sudsy says:

    The comment on the Swedish "sj" sound is very interesting to me, as a non-Swede who tries to speak Swedish. It’s maybe the one sound that’s the hardest to make for an American.

    For a good time one night a while back, I got 3 Swedes in a room and

    had each of them recite the famous

    Swedish tongue-twister about Seven Seasick Seamen. (They were from Djursholm, Goteborg, and Skane). The differences in pronounciation were striking. The person from Djursholm pronounced "sju" exactly like the English "shoe".

  34. Stefan Kuhr says:


    you are perfectly right with "Kollege". The second syllable is the stressed one but the ‘o’ before the two ‘l’ is a short vowel. Therefore I probably wrote "it is *likely* the stressed syllable" :-)

    Maybe the syllables with short vowels are likely to be the stressed ones in German? Idunno. Heck, it is really difficult to find rules for a language if you are a native speaker because you are doing everything right naturally and tend to find only overly simplistic rules that everyone can prove wrong with a simple example :-) like you just did.

  35. A Tykhyy says:

    I hear that Byelorussian spelling is about phonetic as they come, but to a Ukrainian- or Russian-speaker it looks very funny.

    Re: Bemrose

    People often confuse English homophones (effect/affect), and some rarer words which are not even strict homophones (wreak/wreck). Native speakers do this too, I’ve seen affect/effect in newspapers already! The changes in meaning are sometimes absolutely hilarious.

  36. Keff says:

    Mihai: Some of the Slavic languages are almost ideally phonetic (Czech and Slovak for sure – do you know where I am from? :)) – you just have to learn the sound of each letter (but we aren’t making it easy – this is our scale of special characters: áčďéěíňóřšťůúýž and we are only nation in the world to use ř and no foreigner can learn to spell it in a day :)).

    Thi isn’t 1:1 relation yet, given a sound, there are still several ways to write it, so it’s more like 1:n.

  37. Dirk says:

    Raymond, don’t be misled by some of the comments from native German speakers. Quelle and Kwälle are homophonous, as are Welle and Wälle (plural of Wall). The ‘ll’ makes ä and e short and open (ɛ). Feber, Vehber would be homophonous with long close e, but the ä in Phäber should be long and open (ɛː). However a lot of speakers in the north commonly substitute long close e (eː) for long open ä (ɛː).

    Stefan Kuhr wrote:

    >the second syllable in "Krawatte" is the

    >stressed  one because of the two t that

    >separate the second from the third syllable

    There is only one ‘t’ consonant in Krawatte, German has no gemination in simple words. You seem to confuse spelling and pronunciation. This ‘t’ is part of the last syllable (in the sequence vowel + consonant + vowel a syllable border lies between the first vowel and the following consonant). The ‘t’ may also be called ambisyllabic. There is no rule that a vowel followed by a double consonant letter belongs to the stressed syllable, at least the Duden pronouncing dictionary does not give any such rule.

    The German spelling reform substitutes ‘ss’ for ‘ß’ only after a short vowel (Fluß -> Fluss). After long vowel and diphthong ‘ß’ is still used. So ‘Straße’ remains unchanged. Actually the ‘ß’ substitution is one of the better parts of the spelling reform. After all the reform is only half-hearted, there are still cases like the article/relative pronoun ‘das’ and the conjunction ‘dass’ (homophonous but differently spelled).

  38. Rico says:

    Dirk wrote: "After all the reform is only half-hearted, there are still cases like the article/relative pronoun ‘das’ and the conjunction ‘dass’"

    Which makes sense, because it helps readers to differentiate the relative clause (das) from the subordinate conjunction (dass). I agree that the substitution ‘ss’ for ‘ß’ is good.

    In his initial Post Raymond wrote: "sometimes a "t" is pronounced like "z"

    Same in English: ini_t_ial vs. digi_t_

    In English t+i = sh

    In German t+i = z

    p.s.: Strange, that the blog an US-based blog turns out as a forum pro/contra the german spelling reform. NB: I’m pro reform.

  39. Dirk says:


    If you pronounce the words correctly, they are similar, but different. But they are definitively not homophonous.


  40. Stefan Kuhr says:

    Dirk: "There is no rule that a vowel followed by a double consonant letter belongs to the stressed syllable, …"

    I didn’t state there is a rule, did I? I stated that usually these vowels are short and tend to be part of the stressed syllable.

    And if I remember correctly, the rule that ‘ß’ may be replaced with ‘ss’ no matter how long the vowel before it was part of the original spelling deformation Version 1.0 way back in Neunzehnhundertfeuerzeug, this rule was probably relaxed in the meantime. Am I right?


  41. RaduKing says:

    In my oppinion the purpuse of writing should be to be able to write it down very easy and read it back very easy which in english is just horrible…

    Writing/Reading should behave like tape recording/playing…

    there are some languages in which you can always write down correctly what you hear and read it back the same way…

    Why isn’t english transforming it’s writing rules so that we could finally have a language that we can all learn to write (not only to speak) ?

  42. Stephen Jones says:

    Some brief comments:

    a) English has five letters to represent vowels but anything from ten – Candadian English – to twenty vowel phonemes depending on your dialect. Now, the depending on your dialect is the real killer. Network English has fourteen vowel phonemes and BBC English has twenty. If you used the IPA then British and American English would become almost mutually unintelligible when written, whereas at present there is no difficulty with the written forms and little with the spoken forms. Even seemingly obvious anachronisms, such as the spelling of ‘night’ can’t be phoneticized without putting the Scottish out of the loop.

    b) English spelling was more phonetic in  the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. Of course phonetic in an area of hundreds of dialects and with less letters in the alphabet than sounds in the language is a mixed blessing so from the second half of the 17th century the process of standardization set in. Now, at that time the classical ideal was very much in the ascendent, and with it the concomitant belief that the present was a degraded version of a glorious past; so the criteria for fixing the spelling became etymological, what the words were originally written like, and so English spelling came on occasion to become a rough-and-ready phonetic rendering of the language 300 years before. Luckily immigrants had gone to the US before that and they took the earlier phonetic spellings with them, with the result that American spelling appears more modern than British spelling but is in fact older.

    c) Althugh a poor guide to pronunciation English spelling does have many other advantages, not the least of which is that it aids comprehension by speakers of Romance and German languages as the spelling of the words is akin to that in the original languages.  Also it makes clear the relationship between different forms of the same word (library + librarian) for example that would be lost by a purely phonetic spelling that would have the schwa synmbol replacing more than half of all English vowels.

  43. As a swede with quite a lot of time spent in Germany, I have had quite a few reactions on speaking a tonal language from non-tonal speakers.

    During my first period in Germany – an exchange year during secondary school – my host family used to come listen whenever I was on the phone with my family; since it to them sounded as if I was singing into the phone.

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