Why is English so phonetically inconsistent?

Why is English so phonetically inconsistent?


Among the many challenges of learning English there lies the feature of this language being phonetically inconsistent. Having an inconsistent phonetical system refers to the fact that English alongside a few other languages is not bound to a specific spelling rule and its words can be pronounced in a variety of ways.  A major reason for English being phonetically inconsistent is that this language can be seen as a collection of utterances that have been gathered from other different spoken languages around the world.

Causes of English’s phonetically inconsistent

For a language that is phonetically inconsistent, English can name a number of reasons for it lacking certain pronunciation rules. One common reason for the varieties of spelling found in English is that time can play an important role in transferring a language by altering its spoken form. Other reasons include borrowing terms form other languages, assimilation, and dissimilation.


As the time passes by and different communities go through changes, the speeches of those societies also experience a wide variety of transformations making them phonetically inconsistent. Though it is known that at some point, every English word was pronounced the same way as it was written in the old days, today it is believed that what has caused for the written and pronounced forms of language to drift apart is time. With the passage of time more and more people will look for an easier way to utter a word and with these demands in hand, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that despite the written form remaining the same the pronunciation of words has changed.


Another reason for the existence of phonetically inconsistent words in English is that similar to other languages English also has the experience of borrowing some of its words from other non-English languages. By taking a word from different languages, English also adapts the pronunciation of that word into its context, which explains why the written and the spoken form of that utterance are not the same. An example of borrowing can be found in the word “cookie”, which is originally a Dutch term, and it can be noticed how in English the letter “e” of this word is silent.


Among the many phonetically inconsistent terms in English, some words are altered by the speakers of English themselves to make their speech smoother and easier. One process for simplifying the pronunciation of words is assimilation in which the sound of one letter of a specific word is changed and its sound is made more similar to the letters standing next to it. This occurrence can be found in one word or it can happen between two words. In general, there are several types of assimilation including regressive, progressive, coalescent, full, and partial assimilation. An example of this type of linguistic event is seen in the word “handbag”, which is pronounced as [ˈhambag], making it easier to say.


In the case of dissimilation, the phonetically inconsistent words witness a sound change, where a letter of the word is altered to look less similar in features to the other letters around it. Just like assimilation, this process is also taken into consideration in terms of simplifying the way of speech for the speakers. One example of dissimilation is the word “sixth”, which though written as [sɪksθ] it is uttered [sɪkst].

Being phonetically inconsistent in structure makes English a very distinguishable language and a large part of this feature is the result of occurrences such as time, borrowing, assimilation, and dissimilation, which give this language a wide variety of rule-less pronunciations.


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