Tag Archives: pronunciation


8 Feb

One of the most difficult things about learning English must be pronunciation: even well-educated English people pronounce some words differently – and then there’s the problem of words that are spelled the same, but mean something different when the stress is moved from one part of the word to another.

There’s considerable controversy, for example, over how to pronounce “controversy”: is it controversy or controversy; also is it combatant or combatant; exquisite or exquisite? (I would choose the first of each of these, but it’s common to hear the alternative.)

Part of the problem is, as I have written before, that there are few hard-and-fast rules in English – and there are no accents to help with pronunciation. As a result, we have to guess whether, for example, “e” is pronounced ee (as in equal) or eh (as in echo), and whether “a” is ah (as in party), ay (as in age), or a (as in cat).

Matters are further confused by words being pronounced differently in US and UK English ­– for example, in the UK the “g” in hegemony is as in get, but in the US is as in gem – and, since most people learn how to say words from hearing them, the predominance of US television programmes and speech patterns is beginning to affect the way English people speak. The most common, and most annoying, of these is harass, which is now invariably said as harass. That is not only ugly, it is also wrong!

I think, however, that the biggest confusion arises over words that are spelled exactly the same, but are pronounced differently, and sometimes even mean different things. For example:
present (noun, e as in echo) means “current”, “now”, but also means a gift; present (verb) means to give something, such as an award or a speech;
combine (noun), is an association, or an object, such as a combine harvester, that does more than one thing at a time; combine (verb) is to unite;
defect (noun, e as in equal) is a flaw or a fault; defect (verb) is to desert or leave;
desert (noun, e as in echo) is a wasteland; desert (verb) is to defect or leave – and dessert (noun) is what you eat after dinner;
leave (noun) is a holiday; leave (verb) is to go, defect, or desert – but “leaves”, which can be “the train leaves tomorrow at eight”, is also the plural of the noun “leaf” (but the train might not leave tomorrow at eight because there are leaves on the line!)

Finally, for now at least, we get to the letter “h”, which is a particular trap. Alone, it is pronounced “aitch”, although there is an increasing – and deeply irritating – tendency to pronounce it “haitch”. Sometimes “h” is silent, as in “heir”, “honest”, “hour”, “honour” (and the noun is, therefore, “an honour”,); other times it is pronounced, as in hill, hospital, hope, hilarity, etc. (The jury’s out on “hotel”: it now sounds old fashioned to say “otel”, but “an hotel” still sounds better than “a hotel”.)

Oxford English (my copy was, admittedly, published in 1986) has a useful section on pronunciation, but the compiler writes: “It is impossible to formulate rules accounting for the position of the stress in every English word, whether by reference to the spelling or on the basis of grammatical function.” All one can do is listen and learn.

To do that, BBC’s Radio 4 or World Service are no longer infallible, but they are better than most.

Today’s picture

Taken on the beach at Elviria, Andalucia, Spain, December 2012