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Is there a rule to understand how the group "Cha" has to be pronounced?

"Character" sounds with a hard first syllable, while "Charm" sound softer, but I don't find how to tell which sound to use before earing someone saying the word. It could be because of the double consonant "rm" vs "ra"? Or is it just a matter of knowing the rule for every single word?

EDIT: More specific, let's talk about UK english pronunciation.

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The soft / hard / ? issue arises in all English words containing ch. Loch, a loan word from Gaelic, has yet another pronunciation for the ch. The fact that the usual US and British pronunciations of the word schedule are different gives us a clue that there are no simple rules. Of course, related words such as school and scholar are likely to behave the same way. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 10 '13 at 13:22
It's interesting that when a word starts ch- followed by vowel-consonant-vowel it's likely to be /k/, but if it's vowel-consonant-consonant then it's likely to be /tʃ/. But I have a feeling that any "rule" must involve etymology. – Andrew Leach Apr 10 '13 at 15:28
Please do not use "hard" and "soft" terminology: it is both wrong and misleading. The "ch" sequence can represent at least /tʃ/, /ʃ/, /k/, and /kh/ in English. You have to look it up to know which is which. – tchrist Apr 10 '13 at 16:19
Thank you, @tchrist. I was about to make the same point. Using impressionistic phonetic terms (like hard/soft, strong/weak), while writing on the internet (i.e, without sounds to point at as examples of the terms), is not a useful way to discuss pronunciation. Especially when real articulatory phonetics is available. – John Lawler Apr 10 '13 at 16:50
I'm sorry for the misleading use of "hard" and "soft" but I'm not an expert in phonetic and I didn't know which symbols I had to use... – Frhay Apr 11 '13 at 7:15
up vote 6 down vote accepted

I already dealt with <GH> pronunciation variation here; <CH> is a more interesting situation because it involves borrowings from familiar European languages, rather than languages written in other orthographies.

The grapheme <C> goes all the way back to the Semitic glyph gimel, the third letter of the original alphabet: 'aleph 'cow', beth 'house', gimel 'camel', etc. 'Aleph represented a glottal stop, a phoneme the Greeks didn't need, so they threw it away and invented vowel letters (which Semitic writing didn't need so much and didn't use).

So they made alpha a vowel letter. Beth became beta and /b/ is /b/, pretty much the same thing. Gimel /g/ became gamma /g/, and the letter still had the same camel-like hump.

When the Romans borrowed Greek letters, alpha became <A>, beta <B>, and gamma <C>. But it no longer meant /g/; it got devoiced to /k/; <C> always represents /k/, in Classical Latin (Medieval Latin is quite another matter).

And that's the last time that <C> always represents anything. When Latin split into the Romance languages, and Latin writing became a standard for other languages, <C> split into many varieties, depending on the original histories of the various languages, what sound changes had occurred when to which one, and which words had been borrowed into which languages (before or after the sound changes). Some of these variations acquired new spellings as <CH>, because the grapheme <H> is often used to differentiate letters.

From the standpoint of English, the various pronunciations of <CH> include:

  • [x] (a voiceless velar fricative, which does not exist in Modern English;
      but which does occur in German Loch, Scots loch, Hebrew /ləxayim/, and Russian /xoroʃo/)
  • /k/, a voiceless velar stop, often a subsitute for [x], as when Americans say Loch Ness /laknɛs/;
      but also in words borrowed from Italian, if <CH> is followed by <I> or <E>,
      and also in words borrowed from Latin, no matter what follows <CH>.
  • /ʃ/, a voiceless alveolopalatal sibilant, in words borrowed from French.
  • /tʃ/, a voiceless alveolopalatal affricate, in most native English words;
      and also in words borrowed from Spanish.
      (This is probably the most common pronunciation)
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Hm, “charm” likely comes from French, and it's a variation of /ʃarm/ in French (and, at least, in Russian). So it's a bit strange that it has /tʃ/ in English… – kirelagin May 11 '14 at 18:46
Spelling pronunciation; French CH = /ʃ/, English CH = /tʃ/. – John Lawler May 11 '14 at 19:04
"charm" was borrowed from Old (Norman) French, where ch was pronounced /tʃ/. "character" (at least in this spelling) was borrowed from Latin. – fdb Feb 1 '15 at 16:57

At the risk of preaching to the choir, for many here have heard this tired old refrain before, I'm afraid that with this one, as with everything in English spelling, you need to chalk it all up to the overriding truism that in English there is no consistent connection between the spelling and the pronunciation, for no sooner than you think you find one, to your chagrin you also find an exception or three.

There is no other way than to check a dictionary each time: that is the only abiding rule that will do you any measurable good.

Something Old, Something New,
Something Borrowed, Something Chew

Here's a list of words with ch in them, some of which are rare, some of which are common, and many of which are cantanchorous:

Achaean, ache, achieve, Aeschylean, affiche, amuse-bouche, anchor, anchovy, anchusin, Anschluss, Appalachian, Archaea, archaeology, archaic, archipelago, architect, archive, bacchanal, Bach, Bacharach, Barchetta, bardache, bichon, blanche, borsch, brachiate, branchiate, brioche, brochure, bronchial, bronchitis, bruschetta, cache, cachet, cachou, cartouche, cha, chagrin, chai, chaise, chaitya, chalet, chameleon, champagne, chandelier, chandler, chaos, chaperone, character, charade, charisma, charlatan, Charlotte, chasm, château, chatelaine, chaton, chattel, Chaucer, chauffeur, chauvinist, Cheech, chef, cheiropod, chemical, chemise, chemist, Cher, Cheryl, Cheshire, Chevrolet, chevron, Cheyenne, chianti, chiaroscuro, chic, Chicago, chiffon, chinook, chirality, chiton, chivalry, chive, chlorine, choenix, choir, cholera, Chopin, choral, chord, choreography, chorus, choucroute, chough, choux, chowry, christen, chrome, chronic, chronological, chrysanthemum, chupatti, churl, chute, chutzpah, chyometer, cleruchial, cliché, coachee, coffee-klatsch, conche, corniche, couch, couché, couchette, crèche, croche, crochet, douche, echo, epoch, eschalot, eschatology, escheator, eunuch, Fischer, flèche, fuchsia, hypochondriac, ichneumon, ichor, ichthyology, ischaemia, Kampuchean, kerchief, kitsch, Lachmann, lachrymous, lechayim, leche, lecher, lechwe, lich, lichen, louche, macchiato, machete, Machiavelli, machine, machismo, Manichaean, Maraschino, marchioness, matriarch, mechanic, Michael, Michelle, Michigan, microfiche, milch, mischievous, monachal, monarchy, Münchausen, Munich, musichall, mustache, niche, Nietzschean, Noachian, nonchalance, ochre, orchestra, orchid, Pachycephalosaurus, pancheon, parachute, parcheesi, parochial, paschal, patriarch, petechia, pistachio, porch, Porche, psychic, putsch, quiche, ricochet, ruche, saccharine, saurischian, schedule, schefflera, Scheherazade, scheme, scherzo, schimmel, schism, schist, schitzy, schizophrenic, schizzo, Schlitz, schloch, schlong, schmaltz, schnapps, schnauzer, scholar, school, schooner, Schopenhauer, schryari, schwa, seneschal, stancheon, stomach, synchisite, synchronize, tcha, Tchaikovski, technician, technique, technology, tschermakite, Tsuchido, tunichood, Wirtschaftswunder, zucchini.

If you prefer to come at those "tail-sorted", that's:

Archaea, cha, tcha, petechia, ischaemia, fuchsia, charisma, schefflera, cholera, orchestra, Barchetta, bruschetta, schwa, chaitya, hypochondriac, archaic, chic, psychic, mechanic, schizophrenic, chronic, orchid, tunichood, cheiropod, chord, nonchalance, charade, Scheherazade, coachee, ache, cache, bardache, mustache, leche, affiche, crèche, flèche, microfiche, niche, cliché, corniche, quiche, blanche, conche, brioche, croche, Porche, amuse-bouche, douche, couché, louche, cartouche, ruche, Michelle, schedule, scheme, chrome, champagne, chatelaine, machine, saccharine, chlorine, Cheyenne, chaperone, ochre, Cheshire, brochure, chaise, chemise, brachiate, branchiate, machete, tschermakite, synchisite, couchette, Charlotte, chute, parachute, choucroute, technique, achieve, chive, archive, lechwe, synchronize, chef, kerchief, schlong, chutzpah, Bach, stomach, Bacharach, Cheech, lich, Munich, milch, schloch, epoch, matriarch, patriarch, porch, borsch, coffee-klatsch, kitsch, putsch, eunuch, couch, chough, chai, Tchaikovski, Machiavelli, zucchini, schryari, parcheesi, chianti, chupatti, chinook, chronological, chemical, monachal, paschal, seneschal, bronchial, parochial, cleruchial, bacchanal, choral, Michael, schimmel, chattel, musichall, school, churl, Cheryl, lechayim, chasm, schism, chrysanthemum, Achaean, Manichaean, Nietzschean, Kampuchean, Aeschylean, Michigan, technician, Appalachian, Noachian, saurischian, charlatan, lichen, christen, Münchausen, Chopin, chagrin, anchusin, Lachmann, pancheon, stancheon, chameleon, chiffon, bichon, ichneumon, chevron, chaton, chiton, Tsuchido, Chicago, archipelago, echo, pistachio, machismo, Maraschino, chiaroscuro, macchiato, scherzo, schizzo, scholar, Chaucer, Wirtschaftswunder, Cher, lecher, Fischer, chandelier, chandler, schooner, character, chyometer, Schopenhauer, schnauzer, choir, ichor, anchor, escheator, chauffeur, bronchitis, chaos, schnapps, marchioness, Anschluss, lachrymous, mischievous, chorus, Pachycephalosaurus, architect, cachet, ricochet, crochet, chalet, Chevrolet, eschalot, schist, chemist, chauvinist, cachou, château, choenix, choux, archaeology, technology, eschatology, ichthyology, monarchy, choreography, chivalry, chowry, chirality, anchovy, schitzy, Schlitz, schmaltz.

You'll note that I've included several words with multiple pronunciations, something that will get in the way of most of the simpler forms of rule-making.

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If one is willing to learn some simple foreign spelling rules and learn to recognize the linguistic origin of borrowings, quite a few of the difficulties go away. But you do have to learn that. It's not so difficult; most foreign spelling systems are much more consistent than English. – John Lawler Apr 10 '13 at 16:37

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