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Are there other languages out there, more phonetic than English, in which the sound of foreign words can be specified adequately?

For example, is it the case that when Arabs move to America their names are frequently mispronounced by people reading the English spelling; while Arabs who move to Japan are able to write their names in Japanese such that Japanese people frequently pronounce them well? Is English one of the hardest languages in which to specify the sound of a foreign word?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 15:38
  • This is an interesting question, just asked poorly, -1 – Stu W Feb 28 '17 at 4:01
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    What about the asking strikes you as poor? – Chaim Feb 28 '17 at 13:00

10 Answers 10

56

The problem is that there are a number of hidden assumptions behind this question that need to be picked away before the question can even be posed. Let me take them one by one.

Are there other languages out there, more phonetic than English,

This apparently refers to the English writing system, which is notorious for misrepresenting English pronunciation, as well as the pronunciation of any other language. English spelling is often said to be "not phonetic", though that's popular and not technical usage; phonetic science is actually about speech sounds only, not about writing.

in which the sound of foreign words can be specified adequately?

The writing systems of every language, like their phonemic systems, are unique to and adapted to their own language. All of them are poor at representing sounds and sound combinations that don't occur in their own language; that's not what they're for, after all. What can't be pronounced can not be represented accurately in writing.

So you shouldn't look to other languages; you should look to phonetic science. The International Phonetic Alphabet is exactly what its name suggests -- a standard alphabet to be used to represent all human speech sounds, at the alphabetic (basically the phonemic) level.

For example, is it the case that when Arabs move to America their names are frequently mispronounced by people reading the English spelling; while Arabs who move to Japan are able to write their names in Japanese such that Japanese people frequently pronounce them well?

No, that's not true. When Arabic speakers with Arabic names move to America, it's true that most Americans can't pronounce their names -- no matter how they're spelled -- not because of spelling, but because they don't know how to say many of the sounds. Arabic is full of sounds that don't occur at all in English.

When people who are not Japanese and don't have Japanese names move to Japan, Japanese people often can't pronounce their names, either, because they don't know how to say many of the words. Japanese has an extremely restrictive phonology -- virtually all syllables are Consonant + Vowel, for instance, with no real clusters and a small phoneme inventory -- and therefore Japanese speakers find many English words difficult if not impossible to pronounce.

(Squirrel is the English word my Japanese students found hardest when I was teaching ESL.)

There is a special syllabary in Japanese writing that is reserved for foreign names; but it does not represent their pronunciations -- it just indicates that they are foreign.

(My Japanese students had a lot of trouble with my last name, too -- the kana transcription of Lawler /lɔlər/ comes out as Roreru.)

Is English one of the hardest languages in which to specify the sound of a foreign word?

No. As you see, this question isn't about the English language, but its writing system. The writing system is independent of the language; it's just one method of representing the spoken language.

The spoken language, the evolved language, the living language, the one that everybody learns before they go to school, whether they ever go or not, is the real language, and it would be the same language if it were written differently.

I will say that the English writing system is one of the worst-adapted in the world; however, much the same can be said of the Japanese system. And there are other things besides phonemes that writing systems need to represent.

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    The bit about Japanese isn't really right. Japanese katakana (at least when writing foreign words; there are technically a few exceptions) has a 1-to-1 ratio between glyphs and possible pronunciations. That means that, given the katakana transliteration of a name, the Japanese person will be able to pronounce it as closely as the Japanese phonetic system allows, since the writing indicates an exact pronunciation -- unlike in a language like English where the same spelling could have several wildly different plausible pronunciations. – Casey Feb 24 '17 at 20:59
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    (Whether the Japanese pronunciation is at all recognizable to a speaker of the original language is a different question -- you're right that the phonetic system is restrictive) – Casey Feb 24 '17 at 21:05
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    @sumelic Japanese doesn't have stress accent. Pitch accent is a factor, I guess, but it's pretty negligible compared to stuff like long vs. short vowels. And even native Japanese words differ significantly in pitch accent depending on dialect. – Casey Feb 24 '17 at 22:26
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    I am not aware of any languages with truly phonetic orthography. Some are better at phonemic representation than others, illustrating part of the problem with the phrasing of the question. Not a criticism of your answer, just a statement. – Azor Ahai Feb 24 '17 at 22:58
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    Sorry, I might come across as nitpicking, but "The writing system is independent of the language" seems like a statement which is not compatible with the other claim: "The writing systems of every language, like their phonemic systems, are unique to and adapted to their own language." Adapted and independent seem at least partially contrary to each other. – Grzegorz Oledzki Feb 24 '17 at 23:57
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Whether people can pronounce a foreign word depends more on if the sounds are familiar than on if they have a familiar way to write them. Many Japanese speakers are well aware of the difference between the letters "l" and "r"; that doesn't make it easy for them to hear the difference between English "l" and "r". Similarly, it takes a few minutes to teach an English speaker that French has one vowel written "u" and another written "ou". Teaching someone how to distinguish the sounds of these vowels takes a lot more work.

No two languages have exactly the same sound systems: this is why people often have noticeable "foreign accents" when they speak a non-native language.

The differences between different languages' sound systems is a major factor that contributes to "mispronunciation" of foreign names. This factor will be present no matter what writing system is used.

Writing systems can also contribute to uncertainty about how to pronounce a name, but

  1. English isn't unique in having an ambiguous and underspecified writing system. It's towards the "complicated" end of the spectrum, but in most languages there are some kinds of spelling-to-sound ambiguities, particularly in areas like stress, tone or vowel sounds. Italian has a very straightforward writing system compared to English, but it often doesn't mark contrastive stress, so there are two Italian words written "principi" that are pronounced differently (one is stressed on the first syllable, the other on the second syllable). In my experience, any language you can find that is said to have a "phonetic" writing system will actually have some complications like this.

  2. In a number of languages (not all), it doesn't even matter if the usual rules for spelling give a strong indication of the pronunciation of a word, because personal names can be exceptions to the usual rules. E.g. a number of people in Spain have the name "Jessica", which might not be pronounced the "regular" way you'd expect from the spelling, /xeˈsika/, but as /ˈʝesika/ instead. A relevant Spanish SE post: Pronunciation of Boca Juniors

  3. Cultures where it is common to alter the spelling of foreign names to conform to the native writing system are probably also likely to alter the pronunciation of foreign names to conform to the native sound system (which you might consider "mispronunciation"). An example: in Lithuanian it is traditional to re-spell foreign names according to Lithuanian spelling conventions, but this process also adapts the sounds to the closest Lithuanian sounds. It doesn't preserve all the distinctions that the foreign language makes. According to the following document "Lithuanisation of Personal Names of the Polish Minority in Lithuania", by Justyna B. Walkowiak:

    Polish letters with diacritics that do not exist in Lithuanian (ć, ł, ń, ś, ź) are replaced with the same letters without diacritics (c, l, n, s, z respectively, e.g. Ćwikliński – Cviklinski(s), Paweł – Pavel(as), Jasiński – Jasinski(s), Śniadecki – Sniadecki(s), Kuźma – Kuzma). Since most of these diacritics (except for ł) mark palatalisation in Polish, such spelling does not reflect standard Polish pronunciation.

So pronouncing names from a foreign language "correctly" (the way a native speaker of the foreign language would) is difficult with or without respelling.

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    I’m a bit surprised that Lithuanian wouldn’t choose the palatalo-alveolar phonemes where available. Sniadeckis would automatically start with [sʲnʲɐ], which is perceptually very close to the Polish; but Kuzma [kʊzmɐ] is perceptually not nearly as close as Kužma [kʊʒmɐ] would be. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 25 '17 at 8:54
  • @Janus: the article says "As regards pronunciation, č, š, ž might also be considered substitutes for ć, ś, ź; such an alternative solution, however, would lead to confusion and to the lack of one-to-one correspondence between the sets of the replaced and replacing graphemes since the latter also correspond to the Polish cz, sz, ż" also "in the dialect of Poles in Lithuania letters ć, ń, ś, ź are pronounced as semipalatal, not fully palatal (this phenomenon is in Polish sometimes called śledzikowanie), thus the Lithuanised orthography in a limited way matches the actual pronunciation" – sumelic Feb 25 '17 at 8:56
  • That doesn’t seem like much of a reason. Polish has a three-way distinction where Lithuanian only has a two-way distinction. However you do it, you won’t get a one-to-one correspondence. Lithuanian c, s, z also correspond to Polish c, s, z, after all. I would have thought it more logical if they’d then gone for perception. But perhaps Lithuanians really do consider the alveolo-palatals in Polish more similar to their own dentals than to their palato-alveolars… – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 25 '17 at 8:58
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Are there other languages out there, more phonetic than English, in which the sound of foreign words can be specified adequately?

(I think you may have meant to say 'with a more robust writing system' rather than 'phonetic'.)

The answer to that is 'No'. There is no natural language which is universally good at writing/pronouncing foreign words. The existence of English's 'r' and 'th', Germanic 'r', Russian's 'ы' and stress-specific pronunciation, Chinese tones, East African clicks, French nasals, etc. make it impossible for such a language to exist. There are simply too many foreign sounds to even try.

Furthermore, it's hard to say that any language is better than the other - is English bad since it can't pronounce Arabic, or is Arabic bad since it cannot pronounce Igbo, or is Russian bad since it can't pronounce Italian? There are many language families to mispronounce, and the mispronunciations often go both ways.

Is English one of the hardest languages in which to specify the sound of a foreign word?

This is highly opinionated, but I say 'no'. English has a great deal of practice with many foreign words and the fact that our spelling system sucks can work to our advantage - once a word is known to have a certain pronunciation, its spelling doesn't matter (see 'bologna' for a perfect example of this.) Most other writing systems would be incapable of doing that - they can't just throw down letters, assign a pronunciation, and call it a day: they have to try and approximate, which means that English can win eventually over almost any other writing system.

Also, I'd say that English being the international language in so many fields makes it more frequent to deal with English mispronunciations. (I wager that very few people here have had their name mispronounced in Mongolian.) Thus, it's not that English is worse at specifying foreign words, the problem is that people run into this more commonly and draw the wrong conclusions.

I'd also like to point out that many people who run into this problem have been using alphabet-based transliterations. I'm most familiar with Russian/Ukrainian problems with this, so I'll give an example.

Let's look at the city 'Kharkiv' in Ukraine. I 100% guarantee you that the residents of Kharkiv pronounce it 'Harkov' (stress on the 'a' and a little harsher 'h' than most English speakers would guess, but still close.) The presence of the letter 'K' in the official spelling is pure and utter crap, but it's there because Ukraine's official transliteration pattern requires the 'K'. Despite the fact that English is ~95% capable of pronouncing the city's name, most English speakers will end up mispronouncing this city's name. Whose fault is this, English or Ukrainian? There are certainly Ukrainian and Russian words where English just can't write out a good spelling, but the problem is often due to the fact that the transliteration prioritized strict alphabet matching over pronunciation.

Finally, I wouldn't be too harsh on English - unless you can write all of these perfectly in your language:

  • thouroughbred
  • fanciful
  • forthwith
  • rarified
  • stethoscope
  • veritable
  • under
  • wainwright
  • wyvern
  • illicit
  • womb
  • colonel
  • Bayesian
  • queue
  • suffocatingly
  • cloying
  • naysayer
  • zoological
  • falx
  • insufferable
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    Ah, the curse of official romanizations. This is how the Korean name 백 becomes the absurd Paik instead of the friendlier and more accurate Beck. But I suppose it is not just romanizations; the standard way to write 최 in Cyrillic is Цой (Tsoy), when the pronunciation is more like chyeh or chweh. – choster Feb 25 '17 at 1:05
  • Unihan ban strikes again. – choster Feb 25 '17 at 1:07
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    You misspelled "thoroughbred". Extra support for your point, or Muphry's law in action? ;-) – trentcl Feb 25 '17 at 3:25
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    Let's pretend it was premeditated and call it square – Jeutnarg Feb 25 '17 at 3:55
  • After reading these responses a few times I'm beginning to see an ambiguity in my original question. But as to the question I thought I was asking, I would say that the fact that our spelling is crazy is not strictly the point; the question I meant was, is it relatively hard to use writing to specify a pronunciation. If I wrote thur-o-bred, would everyone pronounce "thoroughbred" correctly, middle syllable rhyming with "sew?" Or would some people unfamiliar with the word have to guess at that middle syllable, perhaps rhyming it with "caw"? – Chaim Feb 27 '17 at 13:25
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A unique advantage of English is that, in a limited but nevertheless quite varied range of cases, if you write a word in the right way, many readers will produce a good approximation of the pronunciation. Note that as other respondents have said, no language is going to be good at representing sounds that simply don't exist in the language, but some take this restriction much further. This feature goes hand in hand with English's highly irregular spelling, in two ways.

Firstly, English's spelling is adapted to producing a wide variety of sounds in spite of a limited alphabet. Through the use of di- tri- and n-graphs, many sounds that you cannot obtain from the nominal values of letters or their concatenations are found. So while in a completely regularly spelled language like Finnish you cannot produce vowel sounds other than those represented by a, ä, e, i o, ö, u, and y (and their diphthongs), in English there are already over ten basic vowel sounds with only 6 vowel letters!

Secondly and more importantly for this question, when English adopts a loanword, it tends not to alter the spelling, yet it often retains the pronunciation, or at least an Anglicised version of it. Thus a name like "Benoit", to most educated English speakers, will be recognised as a French name and not pronounced like "Benoyt" but more closely to the intended French pronunciation. If you tried to fully anglicise the spelling of Benoit according to nominal English spelling rules you'd end up with something like "Benwa" and people would pronounce it less accurately. French is of course a particularly good candidate for this due to borrowed vocabulary, but the same can be done if the circumstances suit for names from many languages. Spellings of foreign names can be adopted which emulate existing loanwords, suggesting the same or analogous pronunciation. Sometimes this can be a curse, as in the case of "chorizo" being mistakenly pronounced with an Italian "z".

So I hope that makes sense: while English spelling is highly irregular, when transcribing a new word or name into English this actually gives you a lot of flexibility, because you can make use of all the intuition English speakers have. Other respondents mistake the irregularity for meaning that you just have to give up, but this is not the case. Sure, some people will mispronounce Benoit as Benoyt, or Gianluca with a hard "G" but enough people will get it right that you're starting in a better position than many languages with stricter rules. And then, as @Jeutnarg points out, once the pronunciation has been fixed, the loose "rules" convey another advantage: the owner of the name can just say "that's how it is" and people will do as he or she asks! That won't work nearly as well if the speakers of the language are not used to irregular spelling.

  • How do you respell a sound which English is completely lacking in? – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 0:15
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    As I said, "no language is going to be good at representing sounds that simply don't exist in the language". I'm guessing you know or can guess the real answer since it's quite common: you approximate and drop information. So tones disappear, clicks are turned into consonants (or punctuation) and everything is generally munged to some approximation. – Chris Le Sueur Feb 27 '17 at 0:58
  • How would you help an English speaker correctly pronounce Johanna? So they don't turn it into Joanna with an H in the middle? – aparente001 Feb 28 '17 at 2:25
  • @aparente001 I'd tell them to imagine it was spelled "Yohanna"? – Chris Le Sueur Feb 28 '17 at 11:10
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I disagree with the perspective of most of the other answers you have received. I would say that the writing systems customarily used in some other languages can reduce the likelihood of mispronunciation of foreign words, if we judge a "correct pronunciation" by its closeness to the intended, rather than original, pronunciation.

No language has a writing system used by laymen that accurately represents foreign pronunciations using sounds that are not available in that language. IPA would be your best bet there. But some languages do write foreign words in a way where the intended pronunciation is much less ambiguous. For instance, Japanese writes words in a 47-character syllabary called katakana. Because each character can only be pronounced one way and lasts for one standard beat, it is quite clear which Japanese syllables are intended to represent the foreign word. Japanese has relatively few phonemes, so the word may end up almost unrecognizable (e.g., McDonald's -> Ma-ku-do-na-ru-do), but there is no analogue to the experience of seeing an English word and having no idea whether to use a long or short vowel sound, whether two vowels should be part of one syllable or split into two, etc. The most you would see is variance in pitch.

The Korean and Chinese ways or representing foreign words largely have similar properties. The biggest difference is that these aren't alphabets, though -- they're syllabaries used to write these language (in the case of Chinese a subset of the characters is used purely for sound values when transcribing foreign names). Alphabets have some real advantages -- there are fewer characters to learn, meaning attaining literacy is easier, and it is possible to at least make an attempt to represent unfamiliar syllables ("plfeest" isn't a permissible English syllable but I can nevertheless write it out and you can have some idea how it would sound). Syllabaries are far less ambiguous about the intended pronunciation, but the downside is that they simply cannot represent any syllable they weren't intended to.

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    The Korean writing system is sort of an alphabet, though. You take various 'letters' and arrange them into one-character blocks to make a syllable. – Aeon Akechi Feb 26 '17 at 17:12
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    @Nothingatall Yeah, that's true, although in practice only certain combinations are allowed. Still, it's a fair point. – Casey Feb 27 '17 at 17:35
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If one assumes that the subject is simply pronunciation among speakers, without any intermediate written expression, then the answer is no, there is not much special about English phonology that makes it harder for its native speakers to have difficulty with other languages, any more (and this is the important part) than any other language. All languages are equally difficult to pronounce to others.

Well, that's an oversimplification. Geographically nearby languages will tend to have similar features (e.g. clicks in South Africa, tones in East and Southeast Asia). But past a certain 'distance', it's all difficult to get right.

If we're talking about pronouncing written words, then it's actually a bit more complicated. We must ignore the aforementioned purely phonetic difficulties (a speaker of Mandarin will have difficulty with the European r vs l distinction no matter how it is written).

A language is not identical to a writing system, though of course culture tends to fix one writing system. English orthography is infamous around the world for being a bit chaotic; it has lots of general regular laws (mapping sounds to alphabetical combinations), but also lots of exceptions to those rules, exceptions to those exceptions and lots of one off that's-just-the-way-it-is. Because of this, there is often multiple 'allowable' ways to pronounce a sequence of letters (and frankly a number of actually word spellings that can legally be pronounced multiple ways (e.g. homophones like 'bow', or 'desert'). So a foreign word, transcribed into English might have multiple ways of pronouncing it, by English orthography-pronunciation rules.

So there are three ways an English speaker/reader can make errors in pronouncing a foreign word. First, because a sound in the foreign language just doesn't appear in English. This is nothing special about English; every pair of languages will have this problem. Second, the orthography of English may allow multiple pronunciations and the English reader may make a choice not corresponding to the original. This is definitely a problem with English writing rules. Thirdly, someone has to decide how to map the foreign sounds into English, either a translator or a committee that decides a general transcription mapping. And maybe a 'mistake' is made there.

But of these only the second, the problems with English orthography, is particular to English and more likely there than any other language.

(well, maybe Irish. Or Russian. Or French. Their spelling rules are really messed up. And then there's Chinese. Frankly IPA is supposed to take care of all languages, but accents can really make two different speakers pronounce the same sequences almost entirely mutually uninterpretable.)

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Are there other languages out there, more phonetic than English, in which the sound of foreign words can be specified adequately?

Yes. The problem with English is that it is not one-to-one. By one-to-one, I mean exactly one notation corresponds to exactly one sound and vice versa.

Are Arabs who move to Japan able to write their names in Japanese such that Japanese people frequently pronounce them well?

Sorry, I don't know.

Is English one of the hardest languages in which to specify the sound of a foreign word?

I don't know if it's one of the hardest, but it's harder than in the other three languages I know, Spanish, French and German.

  • How do specify in any or all of Spanish, French, or German some sound which that language doesn't even have? Moreover, each of those three uses the same Lain letter sequences to mean something which means something utterly different in the other two. You can respell if they write the same sound differently but won't work if as so often is the case they simply do not have that sound at all! – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 0:05
  • @tchrist - Do you have some specific examples to share, of words or names whose pronunciation you have tried to convey to a speaker of one of these three languages, resulting in major frustration? (I've had very few instance of that kind of frustration, but plenty with English. For example, if I create a character named Caroline, I have no control over how the reader will pronounce this name.) – aparente001 Feb 27 '17 at 7:58
  • Start with an evil English [ˈskwɝəɫˈmɝdəɹɚ]. How do you write that in Spanish, French, or German under those tongues’ orthographic conventions so they'll say it correctly, given their lack of [ə,ɚ,ɝ,ɫ,ɹ] sounds in most of those languages? That jerk was targeting [œ̃ ekyʁœj œʁø] in France, which given the English and Spanish lack of [ø,œ,œ̃,ʁ,y] sounds will be impossible to write in those languages. The French fellow had been eating some [ˈaɪ̯çˌhœʁnçən ˈbʁøːtçən] from Germany but that is impossible to write in a way that Spanish people can say it correctly for their lack of [ç,ə,ø,œ,ʁ] sounds. – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 14:36
  • Those were the easy ones. Now consider how to write simple Spanish words like [θe̞niˈθe̞ɾo̞] or [e̞ɲɟʝe̞ˈsaɾ] so that French or Germans will say those right. They don’t have those sounds in their languages. Impossible too are Spanish proper nouns like [xiˈχõ̞ˠ] and [äɾˈɣ̞we̞ʎe̞s̺] when said in [ˈt̪äräɣ̞o̞nä] with its dental t, rolled r, and fricative approximant, or when said [ẽ̞ɱ β̞äʎäð̞oˈlið̞] with simply all kinds of impossible sounds unrepresentable in English or German, and probably French either. – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 14:43
  • Now let us travel west Portugal, where simple words and expressions like [pɾɯ̽ˈɣaɾ] and [ˈmũj̃t̪ʉ ˈβ̞ɐ̃j̃ ʉβ̞ɾɨˈɣ̞äð̞ʉ] can never be represented so English speakers can say those properly, and as for proper nouns, poor old [fɨɾˈnɐ̃w ð̞ɨ mɐɣ̞ɐˈʎɐ̃jʃ] and [lʉˈiʒ ˈvaʒ ð̞ɨ kɐˈmõjʃ] are just as out of luck getting rewritten into the English alphabet in a way that will elicit those proper pronunciations as Shakespeare’s name is unwritable in Spanish and Portuguese in a way to bring out its accurate English pronunciation for those non-English speakers. Now say Galician saudades e morriñas rightly – tchrist Feb 27 '17 at 14:47
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The problem is that the notion of "perfectly" includes a prescriptive assumption, namely that there is One True Way to pronounce any word. Sadly, life is too messy for that. Native speakers vary in their pronunciation, sometimes by a very large amount (e.g., a shipyard worker from Glasgow and a cider miller from Somerset).

So a better question would be "are there better languages than English for acceptably transcribing the pronunciation of foreign words".

For my part, the answer to that question is a hearty "you betcha!". I'd suggest that Russian, Polish, and German are all better. Not that they can handle all languages, but they don't suffer from the inbuilt problem English has that "ghoti" can be pronounced "fish".

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    Ah but you see, ghoti cannot be pronounced [fɪʃ] ! That’s just another urban myth. Anybody who’s anybody pronounces it [ˈɣ̥o̹ʷɹɨ]. – tchrist Feb 26 '17 at 15:07
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Squirrelly Words

This is material from comments to remarks in an answer by aparente001, but it grew too awkward for the comment format there. That answer’s author said it was harder to specify the sound of a foreign word in English than in the other languages they know, Spanish and French and German.

I don’t think I believe that. It really isn’t possible to represent any other language’s pronunciation in one’s own alphabet, and this goes to the heart of the original question. Even when sticking to words written in the Latin alphabet, everyone murders “foreign” words because they are naturally using their own language’s mappings of letters to sounds.

They have to, whether because they don’t know how the rules for what letters make which sounds in that other language — or whether it’s because the other language has sounds that aren’t in their own language at all, and so they would have to put their mouth in contortionist positions to make those “foreign” sound. It turns out that you cannot just “swap out” the mouth position to make those other language’s sound authentically; you have to reset your whole way of speaking to do so, and it slows you down.

It works both ways, too. A Frenchman or Spaniard will struggle immensely if they come upon the English term squirrel-murderer, a word no native speaker of English has ever once been troubled by. The French and the Spanish would struggle because the letters in that word stand for sounds that those languages either don’t have or cannot be produced in those positions. By the same token, a happy squirrel in France is torture for the English-speaker to pronounce “correctly” because English lacks the sounds found in un écureuil heureux: [œ̃ekyʁœjœʁø] doesn’t even have any stresses to it.

We could go on and on like that. Even between the closely related languages mentioned of English and German and French and Spanish, each of those has many, many words that at least one and probably all of the others just “cannot” say. The sounds simply are not there. Even “simple” sounds like how what we call the /t/ phoneme gets said are doing to end up varying considerably across languages. Heck, even within English that one varies a lot.

Below are a better formatted version of my illustrative suggestions of such words, including their regular spelling as well as their phonetic spellings.

English

  • squirrel murderer [ˈskwɝəɫˈmɝdəɹɚ]

French

  • un écureuil heureux [œ̃ ekyʁœj œʁø], a happy squirrel

German

  • Eichhörnchen Brötchen [ˈaɪ̯çˌhœʁnçən ˈbʁøːtçən], squirrel bun/roll

Spanish

  • cenicero [θe̞niˈθe̞ɾo̞], ashtray
  • enyesar [e̞ɲɟ͡ʝe̞ˈs̺äɾ], to plaster
  • Gijón [xiˈχõ̞ᵑ], largest city in the Spanish principality of Astrurias
  • Argüelles [äɾˈɣ̞we̞ʎe̞s̺], a Madrileñan barrio
  • Tarragona [ˈt̪äräɣ̞o̞nä], a province and city in Catalan Spain
  • en Valladolid [ẽ̞ɱbäʎäð̞o̞ˈlið̞], "in" + the Old Castilian city
  • Sevilla [s̻e̞ˈβ̞iʝ̞ä], the city of “Seville” in Andalusian Spain

Portuguese

  • pregar [pɾɯ̽ˈɣaɾ], to nail/peg/stare
  • muito bem [ˈmũj̃t̪ʉ ˈβ̞ɐ̃j̃], great
  • obrigado [ʉβ̞ɾɨˈɣ̞äð̞ʉ], thanks
  • Fernão de Magalhães [fɨɾˈnɐ̃w ð̞ɨ mɐɣ̞ɐˈʎɐ̃jʃ], whom we call “Ferdinand Magellan”
  • Luís de Camões [lʉˈiʒ ˈvaʒ ð̞ɨ kɐˈmõjʃ]

Don’t worry if you can’t figure out what the fancy IPA is saying, because that’s really the point here. Every alphabetic system is tuned to the language it's being used for, and those letters map to sounds very differently than in other languages.

The non-English words above were chosen specifically because they each have sounds that ᴅᴏ ɴᴏᴛ ᴏᴄᴄᴜʀ in English. Of course English speakers butcher then; they have no choice. Everyone uses their own language’s rules, and those never work for “foreign” words.

The only system of writing that attempts to represents actual sounds is IPA when used for narrow phonetic transcriptions as I have attempted to do in the brackets. Every unfamiliar symbol there, ever little speck of diacritic means that that is not a sound that you might otherwise think it is in English, and so if you say "that letter" as if it were English, you’ll get it “wrong”.

At some level, that’s ok. There are good reasons we give “foreign” words our own pronunciations even when we don’t given them “our own” spellings. It’s often a lot easier to get people to know which word you just said if you don’t try to pronounce then authentically. These sounds won’t map to letters in an English-speaker’s head, and so even if you do manage to say them correctly, the person listening to you will often have no idea which word you actually just said.

I mean, seriously, if instead of talking about Magellan you used the “real” Portuguese pronunciation [mɐɣ̞ɐˈʎɐ̃jʃ], do you really think people would even know what word you’d just said? Most would not. It’s the same with the happy French squirrels. We just don’t have those sounds.

  • I understand that each language predisposes its users to hear and pronounce in certain ways, and that foreign ways are often hard for all of us. My own name Chaim is hard for many Americans; they often ask me what to say, and I am frankly happy with any honest effort, such as KI-yum or HI-yum, although it would be better pronounced CHA-eem, the CH as at the end of Bach. Perhaps all of that is the reason it is spelled as it is and yet pronounced (by Americans) as it is. – Chaim Mar 6 '17 at 17:08
  • But I don’t understand whether, for you, that is the whole story. Doesn’t it remain almost a certainty that some languages have (1) a wider variety of native sounds and (2) a writing system more useful in transcribing sounds, so that foreign words have better luck amongst speakers of that language than another? – Chaim Mar 6 '17 at 17:09
  • @Chaim Chaim a good example. English lacks the [x] sound and so cannot spell it reliably. Spanish has it, and so quite naturally respells your name to Jaim so that people know how to pronounce it. That's also why Spanish spells the composer Chaikovski. The Spanish strongly believe in phonetic spelling, so they respell foreign words whose phonetics lie, even names. But many languages don't even try. Russian and Arabic have more phonemes than English has. – tchrist Mar 7 '17 at 0:06
  • @Chaim Of the words I listed from EN/DE/FR/ES/PT, we've three English sounds the Romance languages "can't" spell, [ɝ, ɹ, ɫ] (Catalan has a dark-L though, and some versions of Portuguese have [ɹ]). But there are at least 24 sounds from those examples which English cannot spell: The vowels [ɐ̃, ɐ̃j̃, ẽ̞, ø, œ, œ̃, õ̞ᵑ, õj̃, ɯ̽, ũj̃, y] and the consonants [β̞, t̪, ð̞, ɣ, ɣ̞, ʝ̞, ɟ͡ʝ, ç, x, χ, ɾ, r, s̺, s̻]. We already used all 24 letters in English, and use combos to represent our 44ish phonemes. No language can represent 24 phonemes it lacks. Some you could handle in RU/AR, but only IPA is 100%. – tchrist Mar 7 '17 at 0:12
  • @chaim names in particular often lack clues as to the source language. I can think of at least three different pronunciations of the initial consonants ch which are logical assuming different languages and a similar number for the pair of vowels ai. This actually addresses your question title as English borrows from a lot of languages. Once put on the right track people should at least try to get it right but plenty of people persist in their preconceived errors. – Chris H Apr 7 '17 at 12:06
1

Is English one of the hardest languages in which to specify the sound of a foreign word?

Yes. Writing a sound in English can be a major task for a native English speaker. English orthography is very difficult to deal with.

Koran, Quran, Qur'an

There is no "right way" to spell the Islamic Holy Book in English.

This morning I walked into a retail shop and heared something like singing. I stopped and listened a bit. I told the proprietor that I though the voice was reciting. He said "it was The Koran". I said "I thought it was "القرآن‎‎ and he sort of laughed, realizing he had anglicized the name, and I had not.
There is no good way for me to write in English letters the name I used.

Mostly, English spelling only roughly approximates the sounds intended. Include the additional burden of dialectical differences in English sounds, and the task is truly imposing.

Most languages have a real problem writing non-native sounds. But English spelling is so inconsistent that the difficulties are increased by several factors.

I do business with a bank that has a German native speaker as a cashier. I will speak German to her as a courtesy, as she rarely gets to speak her native language. I would have a real job writing those simple dialogs in English letters, even though German might be easier to transcribe into English letters than many other languages.

The answer is an emphatic yes.

  • 1
    So would it be fair to say that speakers of some other languages -- other than English or Arabic -- make a better job of pronouncing Koran correctly, based on their own transcription of the word? Which languages, and why? – Chaim Feb 24 '17 at 19:56
  • 1
    @ Chaim---could be. Some speakers of Modern Hebrew might do much better, as the sounds, the difficult sounds ( "K" or "Q" and "R" in English transcription) can be very similar in their language.. The problem with a single word, like "Koran" is that it is not pronounced the same by all people who use it. I cannot much deeper into this as "comments" do not allow a lot of words. You have asked me a Final Examination question that I fear I cannot answer here.I did like your question. – J. Taylor Feb 24 '17 at 21:14
  • Those spellings are not really English so much as transliterations into the Latin Alphabet. Often such transliteration systems are unambiguous, but you have to know their own rules, which differ from English, to pronounce them correctly. For example you can learn to pronounce Chinese words spelled in Pinyin fairly well, but letters/digraphs such as Q, X, J, E, SH, CH, ZH represent phonemes not found in English. – Andy Feb 26 '17 at 16:44
  • @ Andy ....of course. I hoped I could make a point about how little agreement there is among English speakers as to how a series of such letters might be pronounced.. But, beyond that, "K" is not really a "Roman" letter, and the Latin "R" wasn't much like the current English "R" or like many other European language "R"s. – J. Taylor Feb 26 '17 at 18:21

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