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English pronunciation

There are lots of weird and wonderful things in life and, in my opinion, English pronunciation would top the list. There are very few things I find more puzzling yet as intriguing.

There are words that sound alike but have different meanings, they are called homonyms. Then there are words that sound alike but have different meanings and different spellings, those are homophones.

There are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, those are called homographs. Then you have heteronyms that are also spelled the same but sound different and have different meanings.

Words that sound and are spelled the same are both homonyms (same sound) and homographs (same spelling).

I bet you’ve read and re-read that over and over again just to take it all in Open-mouthed smile It’s amazing that anyone actually learns how to speak and write English at all with all these peculiarities!

Anyway I came across a poem that so accurately captures the complexities of the English language pronunciation and thought I’d share. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

It’s called The Chaos by Dr. Gerard Nolst Trenité who was a Dutch observer of English. It first appeared as an appendix to his 1920 textbook Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. The subtitle of the book means “English pronunciation exercises”.

“Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse, and worse.

I will keep you, Suzy, busy,
Make your head with heat grow dizzy.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.

Just compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
(Mind the latter, how it’s written.)

Now I surely will not plague you
With such words as plaque and ague.
But be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;

Cloven, oven, how and low,
Script, receipt, show, poem, and toe.
Hear me say, devoid of trickery,
Daughter, laughter, and Terpsichore,

Typhoid, measles, topsails, aisles,
Exiles, similes, and reviles;
Scholar, vicar, and cigar,
Solar, mica, war and far;

One, anemone, Balmoral,
Kitchen, lichen, laundry, laurel;
Gertrude, German, wind and mind,
Scene, Melpomene, mankind.

Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

Viscous, viscount, load and broad,
Toward, to forward, to reward.
And your pronunciation’s OK
When you correctly say croquet,

Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Ivy, privy, famous; clamour
And enamour rhyme with hammer.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.

Souls but foul, haunt but aunt,
Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant,
Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger,

Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge,
Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.
Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.

Dost, lost, post and doth, cloth, loth.
Job, nob, bosom, transom, oath.
Though the differences seem little,
We say actual but victual.

Refer does not rhyme with deafer.
Foeffer does, and zephyr, heifer.
Mint, pint, senate and sedate;
Dull, bull, and George ate late.

Scenic, Arabic, Pacific,
Science, conscience, scientific.
Liberty, library, heave and heaven,
Rachel, ache, moustache, eleven.

We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Mark the differences, moreover,
Between mover, cover, clover;

Leeches, breeches, wise, precise,
Chalice, but police and lice;
Camel, constable, unstable,
Principle, disciple, label.

Petal, panel, and canal,
Wait, surprise, plait, promise, pal.
Worm and storm, chaise, chaos, chair,
Senator, spectator, mayor.

Tour, but our and succour, four.
Gas, alas, and Arkansas.
Sea, idea, Korea, area,
Psalm, Maria, but malaria.

Youth, south, southern, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Compare alien with Italian,
Dandelion and battalion.

Sally with ally, yea, ye,
Eye, I, ay, aye, whey, and key.
Say aver, but ever, fever,
Neither, leisure, skein, deceiver.

Heron, granary, canary.
Crevice and device and aerie.
Face, but preface, not efface.
Phlegm, phlegmatic, ass, glass, bass.

Large, but target, gin, give, verging,
Ought, out, joust and scour, scourging.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but ere.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Ask, grasp, wasp, and cork and work.

Pronunciation (think of Psyche!)
Is a paling stout and spikey?
Won’t it make you lose your wits,
Writing groats and saying grits?

It’s a dark abyss or tunnel:
Strewn with stones, stowed, solace, gunwale,
Islington and Isle of Wight,
Housewife, verdict and indict.

Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dough, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up!!!”

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5 thoughts on “English pronunciation

  1. Where do you unearth these gems from? Reading through made me forget the pronunciations I thought I was sure of! Very nice.

  2. Oh my gosh! Nkem what a fantastic find! It’s a poem you have to read out loud, so I found nyself mumbling, smiling and laughing out loud on the train! Thanks so much for unearthing such a gem! xxxx

  3. I loved the poem
    I must admit that my pronunciation has been helped by helping three kids learn their phonics 🙂
    Even then, I still get mixed up sometimes LOL
    xxxxxxxxxxx

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