The anti-phonics cartel makes a big deal of this variability. But their objection is hysterically overstated and largely irrelevant as children show up in first grade recognizing 15,000 words
Is English a Phonetic Language?? Of course. 100%.
Comments | Print friendly | Subscribe | Email Us
Welcome to the Reading Wars. One of the weirder aspects of this conflict is that some so-called experts say a lot of untrue things, for example, that English is not a phonetic language. Sure, and birds do not fly.
To set the stage for this debate, I want to remind you that Rudolf Flesch concluded in his 1955 book “Why Johnny Can’t Read” that English is 97.4% phonetic. Denise Eide, in her recent book “Uncovering the Logic of English,” states that English is 98% phonetic.
These are wonderful smart people, scholars both, and I certainly mean no disrespect when I tell you they are wrong. English is 100% phonetic.
Now, to make that clear, let us look at a word that is surely not phonetic. For example, if wrtq were an English word pronounced shuffleboard, we would correctly say that it is not phonetic. That is, there is no connection between the letters and the pronunciation.
By the way, I searched for strange words on the Internet and found: finnimbrun, nudiustertian, phenakism, pronk, pulveratricious, agastopia, cabotage, erinaceous, firman, gabelle, oxter, ulotrichous, misodoctakleidist, pulveratricious, inaniloquent. But none of these whacky words turned out to be non-phonetic. If anything, our easy mastery of these never-before-seen words shows the genius of our phonetic language!
But suppose English included fjg1h, fjg2h, fjg3h and they were pronounced, respectively, apple, strawberry, and peach. Ah, now we would clearly be dealing with a non-phonetic language.
But we have no words like fjg2h. Or can you think of one? In that case, I would have to concede that English is merely 99.999% phonetic.
For now, I’ll argue that there are absolutely no non-phonetic words whatsoever. No, not even one.
Basically, we have many small inconsistencies scattered about. Our vowels do triple or quadruple duty. But consider the fact that you can go to a hardware store and find 25 shades of blue paint. Some are almost green, purple or gray; but shades of blue are still “blue.” Similarly, inconsistent phonetics is NOT the same as “non-phonetic.”
The 26 letters are used to make about 44 sounds. For example, there are short a‘s, long a‘s, and some minor variations. The anti-phonics cartel makes a big deal of this variability. But their objection is hysterically overstated and largely irrelevant as children show up in first grade recognizing 15,000 words (Flesch estimated 20,000). The kids know how to say most of them from speaking them; the rest they have heard spoken. They do not need to know the rules of phonics. Indeed, one can go through life without ever knowing these rules, or that some words supposedly violate them. So all this chatter about English not being phonetic is, finally, disingenuous.
Whole Word: An Ocean of Lies
Here’s the real reason for the propaganda. Our Education Establishment, since about 1930, wanted to impose Whole Word on the US (same thing in Canada) ; and to do this, the simplest pretext was to declare that English wasn’t phonetic.
Education-wise, we are all of us drowning in an ocean of lies. Perhaps the biggest one is that Whole Word can actually work. (In fact, it almost never does, as literacy statistics prove.) The next biggest lie is: “We can’t teach English with phonics because English is not a phonetic language. Our hands are tied.”
Our pretend-educators declared all-out war on phonics. How could they justify this when all the research favored phonics? Possibly you find people with Ph.D.‘s who are stone-cold ideologues or who want to advance their careers. A gang of these might insist with a straight face: “English is not phonetic.” This assertion is much like Hitler’s Big Lie and Orwell’s 2 + 2 = 5. Preposterous. But if enough people repeat the lie, maybe the poor rubes who deliver their children to public schools will believe.
The prototype is Dr. Paul Witty who asserted circa 1950 that “English is essentially an unphonetic language.”
Then there are the latter-day Witty’s on the Internet: “With phonetic languages, there is a direct relationship between the spelling and the sound. It is important to grasp that English is not a phonetic language.”
Again: “The English language is not a phonetic language. Many words are pronounced differently from how they are written. This is confusing for learners of English, especially for those who have a phonetic language.”
Again: “Why is English pronunciation so unpredictable and so inconsistent? For one, English is not a phonetic language.”
If I say that the sky is green, the moon is made of cheese, and yesterday the earths plunged into the sun, does that make it so? Not at all, and neither do our faux-educators change the reality of our language.
English may be a bit messy, it may be showing its age, it may have spread around the planet and consorted promiscuously with many a foreign tongue; but it is the very definition of a phonetic language. You have an alphabet (your ABCs), and just like the Greeks, Romans, French, Germans, Spanish, Romanians, and other Europeans, you have your phonics.
Here’s one sure way to know that our reading experts lie. Spanish is often praised as a perfectly phonetic language, with the operatic lament: “Ohhh, if only English were like Spanish, alas!“But guess what? There was a movement to teach Spanish with sight-words. And you can this minute find lists on the internet of “English-Spanish Dolch Sight Words.” By this device, kids can be made illiterate in two languages at once.
As a practical matter, every language has a big-city version and a rural version. Which is the phonetic one? As a practical matter, there is actually a different English spoken in Boston, London, New Orleans, Jamaica, Scotland, and Australia. No matter how you adjust the alphabet and the phonics, you will have so-called inconsistencies. That’s why I always took the campaign to make English spelling “phonetic” to be madness. This scheme would make all libraries obsolete, create chaos in the classroom, and could never be successful because there are so many regional accents. Indeed, it’s the printed language, inconsistencies and all, that unite all these different groups.
At worse, a child has to memorize a few hundred of these minor inconsistencies. Mostly, we do this on the fly. To/two/too? Bear/bare? Where/ware? Lie/lye? Mite/might? So what? English does this all the time—spins off multiple looks for the same sound. Visually, everything is clearer. Pea/pee—yeah, let’s not confuse these. We lose a little consistency; but it’s probably a big net gain, and hardly worth mentioning until our Education Establishment started telling whoppers about English in order to sandbag phonics.
After all, every word is spelled some way or the other. Isn’t that what kids have always done all day in school: learn to spell? “Love"is an emotion. “Cove"is where you shelter a boat. Sure, they look as if they might rhyme. They once did, I suspect. Now they don’t. Get used to it. All these much-lamented inconsistencies are not really a problem of language. They are a problem of pedagogy. Or the lack of it.
Who, after all, is saying that minor variations are a hurtle that children can’t get over? It’s the same gang of sophists that pushed Whole Word, which requires that children memorize 100,000 sight-words. Even at a glance, the trade-off is insane. Nobody ever memorized all those sight-words; but hundreds of millions of fluent readers have routinely dealt with the minor nuisance of bi/by/bye, cove/love, and the like.
I asked a phonics expert for an example of a really non-phonetic word. She said: “sew.” The only word, apparently, where ew is pronounced o.But isn’t the sperfectly phonetic? Say you’re from Mars and you mispronounce the word: “sue.” That’s very darn close. English has several similar words: sow (plant) and sow (pig). If you spelled sew as it’s pronounced (so or sow?) you would have more visual confusion. Probably every language has its trade-offs. Would you prefer the case endings in Latin or the endless inflections that the Chinese rely on? Or would you rather memorize a short list of exceptions and irregularities?
My guess is that all this whining is just one aspect of the horrific legacy given to us by a highly politicized Education Establishment that was always more interested in social engineering than in literacy. It’s hard to win the battle against illiteracy when there are so many ideologues in the way.
Give your kids a chance—insist on phonics. And don’t forget to celebrate the wonderful diversity that English presents to us!Bruce Deitrick Price -- Bio and Archives | Click to view Comments