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I know that there is at least one language we can pronounce based on the word's form (Vietnamese) which means that once you know how to write it, you will also know how to pronounce it.

But in English, are English words like Chinese words, meaning that we can't pronounce the word based on its form and we must know the sound of the word in order to pronounce it correctly ? (like Pinyin for Chinese). For instance, the word read you must know it's sound is /ri:d/ in order to pronounce correctly.

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I don't understand this question. –  simchona Jan 9 '12 at 19:46
@simchona, sorry for my English. For instance, the word read you must know it's sound is /ri:d/ in order to pronounce correctly. So is that in English, do we indeed have to know the sound of the word in order to pronounce it right ? Can't we just look at read and pronounce it with some rules ? –  JatSing Jan 9 '12 at 19:51
There are multiple pronunciations of read, actually. So your question is basically asking if English has simple rules of pronunciation that guide every word? –  simchona Jan 9 '12 at 19:55
First of all, here are the rules: Hou tu pranownse Inglish. Secondly, no natural language is written 100% phonetically. People often claim that — about German, Italian, Romanian, Belarusian, you name it — and they are always wrong. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Vietnamese: "The correspondence between the orthography and pronunciation is somewhat complicated. In some cases, the same letter may represent several different sounds, and different letters may represent the same sound." –  RegDwigнt Jan 9 '12 at 20:23
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closed as not a real question by RegDwigнt Jan 9 '12 at 20:24

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3 Answers

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It is true that you cannot determine an English word's pronunciation based only on its spelling. As an extreme example, English has a number of groups of words which are heteronyms, meaning that they have the same spelling but different pronunciations. For example, "read" can be pronounced in two different ways, with the vowel being a long e or a short e, depending on whether it is a present tense verb or past tense verb. (Unfortunately I'm not familiar enough with phonetic notation or IPA to be sure of writing it out properly. Hopefully someone else will post a better answer that includes that information.)

As I understand it, these pronunciation "irregularities" occur in a large but limited number of words. A text-to-speech engine would need to store pronunciation information specific to those words, and it would need to have information about the grammatical context to choose the proper pronunciation in each case. But other than that limited set of words, and especially for words that have been recently introduced to the language, you usually can figure out the pronunciation based on the spelling. So a TTS engine would have a set of rules programmed into it that it falls back on whenever it encounters a word that it doesn't have a special pronunciation for. (Speakers of English do the same thing: there is a set of rules that people will fall back on when they don't know how to pronounce a word, although the specific rules vary by dialect.)

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English spelling is based on the pronunciation of the words. However, in some cases the spelling of the word has remained constant while the pronunciation has changed. For example, the Great Vowel Shift, where certain long vowels were shortened, is the reason why "book" doesn't have the same vowel sound as "room". Also, words tend to keep the spelling from the language of origin, and English has many "foreign" words grafted onto its Germanic roots. Thus, "graph" and "staff" end in the same sound but have different spellings. However, these words all fall into categories, and the spelling is not random.

The wikipedia article on English Orthography has more details.

Long story short: English falls in between Chinese (where if you're lucky, one of the radicals in a Hanzi will match or hint at the pronunciation) and Vietnamese/Hangul/Pinyin, where the writing is phonetic.

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The simple answer is no. You cannot be 100% certain of a word's pronunciation simply by examining the spelling. There are guidelines which will lead you to the right conclusion most of the time, but words like read and lead have multiple pronunciations with the short and long "e" sounds.

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