Am I wrong in thinking that a phonetical language, for example Spanish, is a language where the words are spelt as they sound

  • Kind of. All spoken languages have a phonetic element; that is what they sound like. Some languages have more phonemic writing systems than others (phonemic = about contrastive, distinct sounds of a language). A writing system is not a language; there are languages with multiple writing systems, and languages with no writing systems. A relevant question: What do you call languages with words that are pronounced the same way they are written?
    – herisson
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:14
  • It is a myth that Spanish is spelled phonetically. It’s not even spelled phonemically.
    – tchrist
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 0:07
  • Spanish is far closer to "phonetic" than English is. (But then English is such a hodge-podge it's likely one of the worst.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 3:02

2 Answers 2


I don't think that a language itself is phonetic in that sense. It is the written form that can be described as phonetic or not.

Apart from that I would say you are correct. Note that written Spanish is not 100% phonetic. For example 'g' is pronounced differently according to which vowel it precedes and some varieties make no distinction in sound between 's' and 'z''.

  • <Thank you. Then my next question is what does it mean that Romanian spelling is phonemic
    – Richard
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:18
  • @Richard - It means that Romanian monolinguists believe this to be true, and teach foreigners who wish to learn the language to mispronounce everything based on that misguided belief.
    – Ricky
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:20
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    Minor pedantic point: although language teachers often use "phonetic" to mean this, "phonemic" is a more precise word, since phonetics technically encompasses all the variations in sound, like the pitch of the speaker's voice, the speed, and the particular accent used.
    – herisson
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:26
  • 1
    @sumelic: You're absolutely right. I always get annoyed when people say "melodic" when they really mean "melodious." What are you going to do, flog them in the square in front of the city hall? Yeah, I'm pretty frustrated here too.
    – Ricky
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:37
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    More places where Spanish is not spelled as it sounds: h is silent outside of the digraph ch; b/v are not distinct, j/soft g are not distinct, z/soft c are not distinct, for most varieties y/ll are not distinct. And x is sometimes the same as j (like in México).
    – herisson
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 23:30

There is no such thing as a phonetic alphabet. It's a myth popularized by people who either can't see the forest for the trees or have little knowledge of the language they have in mind, at least where European languages are concerned. European alphabets are ancient-Greek-based. No language today even remotely resembles ancient Greek pronunciation. Apart from that, the number of sounds a language has exceeds the number of letters in any Greek-based alphabet by orders of magnitude.

Attempts have been made to create phonetic alphabets, most of them in the beginning of the 20th Century. None of them were successful. What G.B. Shaw pointed out (in the preface to his play "Pygmalion") is still true today: the most frequently used vowel in the English language does not have its own letter.

  • I would say that IPA is a successful phonetic alphabet. It is not perfect but it is PDG. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Phonetic_Alphabet Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:24
  • @chaslyfromUK - It would work if all of us were Irish. Tragically, some of us aren't. Whaddya gonna do.
    – Ricky
    Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:29
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    English has around 50 phonemes. This is not "more than the number of letters by an order of magnitude." Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:32
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    G.B. Shaw was neither a phonetician nor a linguist. The phonetician he based Henry Higgins on would have distinguished that many phonetic variants because they're there -- every native speaker speaks their own version of English. But we don't notice the phonetic differences because we're hearing them phonemically. We're all aiming for pretty much the same set of sounds and we grant one another a lot of latitude; indeed, we use vowel differences to mark our group affiliation and status, like ants leaving chemicals in their trail. Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:54
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    @Ricky I suspect that you have partaken of too much poteen tonight if your comments are anything to go by! Commented Oct 31, 2015 at 22:54

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