The craziest pronunciation in the Latin alphabet

All Languages, London Language SchoolWatching Jeremy Bowen struggle heroically through his report from Taksim Square for Newsnight on Tuesday, it was easy to forgive him for adding the extra ‘w’ into Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name. The teargas might have had something to do with it.

But even without the teargas, Turkish diacritics aren’t the most natural thing for a native English speaker to grasp. The breve over the ‘g’ (as in Erdoğan) signifies that it (the ‘g’) is silent, for instance – not that it should become a ‘w’ (sorry Jeremy). Sometimes greater stress is placed on the preceding sound, but it doesn’t have a sound of its own.

One of my first introductions to Turkish was on the streets of Ankara, seeking directions to Atatürk’s Mausoleum. Holding the badly-drawn tourist map in front of me, I repeatedly leapt out of our vehicle to enquire “Nerede Gençlik Caddesi?”

I’m ashamed to admit it wasn’t our first time in Turkey, but having just arrived – and struggling with a combination of dictionaries and phrasebooks, rather than having any underlying knowledge of the language – we hadn’t even got to grips with the basics of pronunciation, let alone getting the verb at the end of the sentence.

To list my errors: in Turkey the ‘g’ is, of course, always pronounced with a hard ‘g’ (as in goat). The cedilla on the first ‘c’ makes it sound like ‘ch’ (as in ‘church’) whereas the second ‘c’ doesn’t possess a cedilla, so is pronounced like the ‘j’ in ‘jet’. No wonder, then, that people looked at me funny as I tried to enquire the way to “Jen-click Cad-ee-zee?” It should have sounded more like “Gen-chlik jadesee nerede?”

After four attempts, each getting incrementally more desperate, and each garnering equally pitying looks, my partner bravely asked whether I was “saying it right?”. A grumpy strop through the phrasebook later and, boy, did I feel foolish.

The pronunciation seemed pretty crazy to me at the time, lost, tired and wired on cola from the long drive as I was. But, in actual fact, Turkish pronunciation is incredibly regular. Its regularity makes Turkish a really rewarding language to learn for a beginner.

It is the same principle that makes Spanish such a rewarding language to learn: nice regular sounds and rules that, once you have understood them, making speaking it much more intuitive. The short vowels, the stress on the penultimate syllable unless an accent is present, the relatively regular construction.

I suppose the regularity of Turkish pronunciation is, in some part, down to the fact that it wasn’t written in its current form until 1928, when Atatürk decided that a ‘modern Turkey’ needed to use the Latin Alphabet.

The regularity of Spanish is something of a feat. As a language written in its current form, it is older than Turkish and was subject to considerable influences of the Moors, of Empire, of conquest. Spanish regularity has withstood the kind of pressures that the English language caved to.

This wonderful article (not written by us, but truly fascinating) gives a hint to some of the reasons behind the crazy irregularity of English. And English is crazily irregular – let me cite here that old chestnut about how one spells ‘fish’ in English – taking the ‘gh’ from ‘enough’ and the ‘o’ from ‘women’ and the ‘ti’ from ‘station’ – hence ‘ghoti’ is pronounced ‘fish’.

So, on irregularity grounds alone, when it comes to the craziest pronunciation in the Latin Alphabet, English has to take the biscuit! Or should that be ‘bisskit’?

Or shall we just settle for ‘cookie’?

What do you think? Know any better examples of crazy pronunciation? Share them with us!


3 responses to “The craziest pronunciation in the Latin alphabet

  1. Interesting read, but there are a few errors.

    You have to define “crazy pronunciation.” What makes pronunciation crazy? In your examples, like “biscuit” and “cookie,” you point out the crazy spelling, not the pronunciation. Or maybe you meant pronouncing Latin letters how they shouldn’t be pronounced? If so, then Turkish violates that rule too, where Y represents a consonant.

    I am not sure if you were condemning English spelling or not, but if you treat English orthography as a phonemic representation of the spoken language, then of course you will see that it is completely not. The aim of English spelling is not to reflect pronunciation, but rather to show the origin and history of the word itself. In that, it does a much better job than a language like Turkish, where loanwords are fully assimilated and all you know is how to pronounce it. English still is quite irregular, though, due to a lack of governing language board to lay down the rules. Technically there aren’t even any rules, but you have to give English credit where credit is due.

    The Turkish Ğ is silent but it does not place emphasis anywhere: it simply lengthens the preceding vowel.

    Spanish orthography is not perfectly regular either like how you present it. There are a large number of non-integrated loanwords, with W and K becoming letters when they shouldn’t. Y represents both a vowel and a consonant, depending on how it is used. And these are only some of the irregularities. As you can see, Spanish has a lot of kinks to learn as well, but it is standardized (for the most part).

    Spanish’s phonemic writing system is not a unique feat either: many languages employ a phonemic writing system, such as Korean, Russian, German, Norwegian, and others.

    Spanish emphasis is only on the penultimate syllable if the word ends in S, N, or a vowel; otherwise, it is on the last syllable unless noted differently by an accent.

  2. Thanks for your comment Elsmere. You raise some interesting points. As for the use of the word ‘crazy’ in the title, it was more than a little tongue in cheek… one man’s loco is another man’s steam engine afterall…

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