The Spelling Society is to hold its centenary conference at Coventry University, and ahead of this, an article in Tuesday’s Guardian quotes the Society’s Secretary, Dr John Gledhill, as saying “In other languages, like Italian and Spanish, if you learn the alphabet, you know how to spell”.
No one can doubt that learning to spell in either Italian or Spanish is easier than mastering the same task in English, but it isn’t as straightforward as Dr Gledhill claims. Take Spanish. Like English, it uses the same letter to represent more than one sound, and more than one letter for the same sound. There are also ‘silent’ letters.
C is either a voiceless velar plosive /k/ or a voiceless dental fricative /Ɵ/ (or alveolar fricative, depending on the variety of Spanish being spoken). It depends on the following letter (plosive before consonant or a, o, u; fricative before e, i), e.g. cocina (‘kitchen’) /ko’Ɵina/. The velar plosive is also written as QU (before e or i), querer (‘to like, love’) /ke’rer/; and the dental/alveolar fricative is written Z before consonant or a, o, u: razón (‘reason’) /rra’Ɵon/, bizcocho (‘biscuit’) /biƟ’kotʃo/ . That seems clear-cut, but a very few words may be written with Z even before e or i, mostly scientific or borrowed, admittedly, but including zipizape (‘row’, ‘rumpus’). There seems no reason for this not to be spelt with initial C other than the symmetry of the two halves of the word.
G is either a voiced velar plosive (or more often its voiced fricative allophone), before consonants or a, o, u; or a voiceless velar fricative /x/ before e or i. But, J is always a voiceless velar fricative, and occurs in some words before e or i: jefe (‘chief’, ‘boss’) /’xefe/, and jinete (‘horseman) /xi’nete/, to mention two reasonably common words.
H is always silent, except in the spelling -CH- which represents, as in English, a palato-alveolar affricate. So echo (‘I throw’) and hecho (‘done’) have identical pronunciations.
B and V are always interchangeable – they both represent a voiced bilabial plosive or its more frequent allophone a voiced bilabial fricative [β]
There are also problems with what is written as LL. Depending on the variety of Spanish, this can be a lateral, an approximant, a fricative or an affricate or even a plosive. In all cases apart from the lateral, it can coalesce with what is usually considered to be a semi-vowel: /j/, written either I or Y. Consequently it is not uncommon to see words misspelt here as well.
“Greengrocers’ spellings” are found in Spanish-speaking countries just as we have “greengrocers’ apostrophes” in the UK.