I just read a question with answers about the letter u making the sound /w/ in penguin and sanguine. However, the word language was not mentioned. What is the explanation for the spelling of language?

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    Well, it's borrowed from French, for starts. And the letter U acts like a /w/ before the vowel that the letter A represents. A better than usual match between spelling vowel letters and actual vowel phonemes in the word. /'læŋɡwɪdʒ/. Of course you can't tell from the NG that it's sposta be pronounced with a /ɡ/ rather than just /'læŋwɪdʒ/. But that's normal for English, too. I don't see a problem; language acts just like it says; /u/ is the same sound as /w/, just used as a vowel instead of a consonant. That's why they call /y/ and /w/ semivowels. – John Lawler Feb 26 '15 at 22:16
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    @JohnLawler. Yes, but the question is about spelling. The English spelling language is actually the result of a contamination of French langage with Latin lingua. – fdb Feb 26 '15 at 23:55
  • English is a mutt. It's heritage includes Latin, Norse, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Arabic and likely several others. When these diverse languages were merged the "rules" were merged in a haphazard fashion. Then, over the years, pronunciations have changed (as the divergent styles were brought together) and often a word's pronunciation is nowhere near what it was 500 years ago. And, for that matter, spelling was pretty much up to the writer until 200-300 years ago. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '15 at 0:05
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    As for "language", one can almost "sound it out" -- "lang-u-age". When you say that quickly and let the adjacent sounds merge it's pretty much the way we pronounce it. – Hot Licks Feb 27 '15 at 0:08
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    @fdb: spelling has nothing to do with pronunciation, at least in English. Spelling has been frozen since before the great vowel shift, and it is in fact simpler for many people to ignore the so-called pronunciation rules for English spelling and simply memorize the pronunciation and the spelling separately, like the gender and plural form of German nouns. – John Lawler Feb 27 '15 at 1:00

Here is how the spelling evolved: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=language

Pronunciation note: Because of the mentioned varied origins of English words, you pretty much need to memorize which words with "gui" or "gua" have a "w" sound. And which ones don't.

For example, "guarantee", "guard" "guest", guild", "guile", "guilt" "guillotine", and "guise" have no such sound; they have a simple "g" sound.

Words from Spanish with "gua" tend to have the "gwa" sound (guano, guacamole, Guantánamo). Also language, which is from French.

An then there's GUI, which stands for Graphical User Interface, and is pronounced "gooey"!

Good luck to you. Luckily, there aren't very many of these words.

  • 1
    This doesn't answer the question "What is the explanation for the spelling of language?" – Andrew Leach Feb 27 '15 at 9:51
  • Point taken. I added a link to an etymology. – Brian Hitchcock Feb 27 '15 at 12:03
  • Sorry I can't paste in the text from that etymology link. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 30 '15 at 0:05

Part of the problem of the differences and inconsistencies between spelling and pronunciation in English is that there is no central arbiter of what is "right" and what is "not right". France has the Académie Française and Spain has the Real Academia Española or RAE to keep things in some kind of order. English doesn't.

The French and the Spanish both began government backed standardisation of grammar and spelling as from the 16th and 18th centuries. As late as 1989, French prime minister Michel Rocard appointed the Superior Council of the French Language to simplify the orthography by standardising and bringing it up to date.

This has never happened for English. As far as I know,there is no English speaking state whose government has tried to impose standards.

The spelling and pronunciation of "language" as opposed to the spelling and pronunciation of "guard" often cause problems for non-native speakers.

Fortunately for the job security of English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers, there are many other examples that can cause problems, as the poem below shows. I don't remember where I found it, so hat's off to whoever wrote it:

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?
Well done! and now you wish perhaps
To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead: it's said like bed, not bead
For goodness sake don't call it "deed"!
Watch out for meat and great and threat
(they rhyme with suite and straight and debt).

A moth is not a moth in mother
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there's dose and rose and lose -
Just look them up - and goose and choose,
And cork and work and card and ward.
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart -
Come, come, I've hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Man alive,
I mastered it when I was five!

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