Ok, so with the phonetic alphabet, there is a 1 to 1 correspondence with how we actually say a letters in a word and how it's actually read outloud. That is, according to the phonetic alphabet, the word 'at' would be pronounced 'ah-tuh'. If we were to pronounce it according to the nonphonetic alphabet (I really don't know what/if there's an official name for it apart from ''the alphabet''), it would be pronounced more like eighty, such as 'Ay-tee'. So to me the phonetic alphabet is the 'true' alphabet, because of this 1-1 correspondence.

So why do we teach children the alphabet in the way we do? It seems to have no temporary nor permanent value.

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    We do teach children /æ/, /bə/ /kə/ /də/ etc. It's just that letters have names which are not entirely related to their sound. – Andrew Leach Sep 5 '16 at 9:55
  • But there isn't a one to one correlation between letters and sounds. Do you pronounce the 'a' in 'at' the same way you pronounce it in 'ate' and in 'bath'? (I pronounce it much the same in 'at' and 'bath' but there are accents which don't, including RP.) – Spagirl Sep 5 '16 at 13:19
  • Because evolution... – Drew Sep 5 '16 at 17:37
  • It's the alphabet that is not phonetic, our pronunciation is just fine (writing is supposed to reflect pronunciation, not the reverse). – goji Oct 3 '18 at 9:43

The answer is: tradition. There is some regularity to it (most stops and affricates have their sound followed by -ee, but some with -ay; most continuants have their sound following e-) but there is lots of arbitrary historical oddity.

In the case of the vowels, they each have the so-called "long" sound of the vowel - actually the diphthong that resulted when the English long vowels chased each other round the mouth in the Great Vowel Shirt. Apart from Y.

Some of the oddities seem to have been borrowed from French: H is "hache" /aʃ/ and W is "double-vé". R -'ar' - may possibly have been affected by the same sound change as "sergeant", "parson" and (in British English) "clerk".

Z - "zed" in British (but not American) English - appears to go back all the way to Greek "zeta" in some odd fashion.

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  • I like the "Great Vowel Shirt", and would love to get one. Alas, you probably meant shift, not shirt. – Drew Sep 5 '16 at 17:36

"Phonetic" in this context is relative term.

Our script is somewhat phonetic: compared to the logograms of Chinese writing, one might describe our latin alphabet as strongly phonetic - though even then the difference is not as stark as you might assume. Compared to Japanese kana, perhaps our alphabet seems a little less purely phonetic and a little more reliant on remembering contextual rules - a little more mired with special cases and exceptions that arise from certain sequences of letters but only in certain situations.

Compared to the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is based on the latin alphabet but modified to be a truly unambiguous phonetic notation, the pronunciation rules for our writing system seem like a tangled mess of culture and history that must be learned to have any hope of really understanding when a given letter is voiced one way, and when it is voiced another. And even IPA requires extensions to capture aspects of pronunciation that were not as often considered when the system was originally devised.

In short: it's complicated, and what we've got works pretty well. There's still plenty of room for experimentation. If you try a different approach to teaching the alphabet to your kids, I'm certain that there will be phoneticians who would be very interested to hear how it goes! :)

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    This doesn't answer the question, which was about the naming of letters. – Colin Fine Sep 5 '16 at 10:43

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