The phonemic alphabet: Why is it used?

English is a language with many ancestors, and many of its words have been derived, borrowed, or even lifted directly from hundreds of other languages.

Most of the time, these new words carry their original pronunciation, or a close approximation of it, with them when they enter the English language. This is the reason for the numerous apparent inconsistencies in the relationship of spelled words to their pronunciation. For example, the combination “ea” is pronounced differently in “great” [greĭt], “treat” [trit], and “threat” [θret]; the letter “g” has a different sound in “give” [gɪv] than in “gist” [dʒɪst]; and so on.

Some differences are easy to hear, but others are more subtle. Phonemic symbols connect the sounds to a consistent system of written representation that can be used for all spoken languages.

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Jeremy Coffman, English teacher & diction coach, Paris