In some languages such as Korean or Japanese hiragana, the pronunciation of words is exactly derived from the characters in the words. On the other hand, for languages such as English, you cannot accurately pronounce the words simply based on the spelling of the words.

What do you call each of these languages?

  • 1
    In my experience this applies much more to Japanese, than Korean. But still, neither language follows this convention exactly--each have irregularities.
    – amcalde
    Mar 21, 2015 at 1:00

3 Answers 3


You are referring to languages with phonemic orthographies :

  • an orthography (system for writing a language) in which the graphemes (written symbols) correspond to the phonemes (significant spoken sounds) of the language. Languages rarely have perfectly phonemic orthographies; a high degree of grapheme-phoneme correspondence can be expected in orthographies based on alphabetic writing systems, but these orthographies differ in the degree to which they are in fact fully phonemic. English orthography, for example, though alphabetic, is highly non-phonemic, whereas Italian and Finnish orthographic systems come much closer to being consistent phonemic representations.

  • Orthographies with a high grapheme-to-phoneme and phoneme-to-grapheme correspondence (excluding exceptions due to loan words and assimilation) include those of Maltese, Finnish, Albanian, Georgian, Italian, Turkish. (Wikipedia)

  • 2
    I've heard also that Japanese kana is "phonetic", but I've always wondered if that's actually true. For example, the character は is phonetically pronounced /ha/, but when the character is used as a topic-marker it is pronounced /wa/. There may be just one or two "exceptions" to the phonetic pronounciation, but how many such exceptions are tolerable until it is no longer "phonetic".
    – Brandin
    Mar 21, 2015 at 9:06
  • 1
    @Brandin In standard Japanese, I would say that kana constitute a phonemic orthography with the exception of は <ha> → /wa/ and へ <he> → /e/. Not perfect, but certainly close to it.
    – senshin
    Mar 21, 2015 at 18:38
  • @senshin And を/お. Mar 21, 2015 at 23:47

This is actually a feature of the writing system, the orthography, rather than the language itself. Some languages have multiple writing systems or have changed writing systems over the course of history; an example of the latter is Korean, for which the Hangeul writing system was created in the 15th century.

How close the written representation of a word is to its pronunciation is sometimes referred to as "orthographic depth", with orthographically "shallow" languages having a closer relationship between the two, and "deep" languages having more complicated one. Other terms used are "consistent/non-consistent", "regular/irregular" or "transparent/non-transparent" orthographies.*

Usually a simpler writing system doesn't result from pronunciation somehow being derived more directly from the spelling of words. That's because in any language, the pronunciation of the most common and important words isn't derived from the spelling at all, but from oral transmission. Pronunciation based on spelling is a much smaller influence, which usually only occurs for fancy or scholarly words that people learn later on in their lives.

Instead, a simpler writing system usually indicates a younger orthographic system, or one that has been adjusted recently to make it reflect the pronunciation in a relatively direct manner. For example, the reason the current system of Japanese kana is so transparently related to the pronunciation is because they were reformed in 1946, replacing a more complicated older system that was based on the historical pronunciation of words. On the other hand, English spelling has changed rather little since Samuel Johnson's dictionary of 1755, and many proposed comprehensive spelling reforms have failed to catch on.

*Source: http://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/35562310.pdf

  • +1 You make some good points. It is also worth bearing in mind that with Japanese the vast majority of the words are 'written' as kanji which were borrowed from the Chinese. They never set out to be phonetic at any time, but were pictographic. (Hiragana and Katakana are reserved, in the former case, for minor parts of speech, and in the latter case for foreign words). Thus it is that both Japanese and Chinese are known as ideographic languages. And they both produce far lower rates of dyslexia than English does.
    – WS2
    Mar 20, 2015 at 23:35
  • "Language" is often used to refer to verbal communication systems, with "writing systems" considered merely representations of their corresponding verbal language (since this is how communication systems on Earth evolved). I prefer a more abstract definition of language: a set of symbols (words) and rules which assign meaning to groups of symbols (grammar). With this interpretation, the phonemes spoken for a word are as arbitrary as the characters, ideographs, etc. written. Therefore, orthographic depth is really just about how similar two encodings of a language are.
    – bcrist
    Mar 21, 2015 at 19:20

The concept is also called orthographic transparency.

So e.g. Spanish is more orthographically transparent than English.

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