Back to English spelling


One of the problems with English spelling is the number of borrowings there have been from other languages. It is often said that English should follow the lead of languages like Spanish, that spell as they are pronounced. Leaving aside the fact that this is not strictly true of Spanish in any case, English adopts a different policy to borrowings. Spanish tends, where possible, to adapt the spelling of foreign words to Spanish orthographic conventions. Football, for instance, is borrowed as “fútbol”. This allows an approximation to the English  pronunciation to be represented and copied.

English does the opposite: the original spelling is maintained (when the source language uses the Roman alphabet), with the result that English readers are expected either to know the spelling conventions of all these languages, or to ignore them and develop new pronunciations based on the English interpretation of the letters used.

In practice, of course, we get a mishmash. People use what they think is the appropriate letter-to-sound correspondence, and more often than not, get it “wrong”. Take the sequence -au- in words borrowed from German. The electrical goods manufacturer Braun is generally pronounced as /brɔːn/, taking no notice at all of the German convention for -au-. On the other hand, the beer, Löwenbräu, is pronounced /ˈləʊənbraÊŠ/. Perversely, here the -au- is pronounced as it would be in German if there were no umlaut above it, so while many people probably think they are being quite clever, because they ‘know’ that -au- is pronounced /aÊŠ/ in German, they are still “wrong”.

Similarly, the Italian product bruschetta is most often heard as /brʊˈʃetə/, because people think they know that -sch- is pronounced /ʃ/ in foreign words. They would do better to think of it in the normal English way of school, scheme, etc (and increasingly schedule in Britain as well as America).

The letter “z” is a particular problem: the prefix “schizo-” is itself fairly schizoid. Here the sch- is ‘correctly’ pronounced as in Greek, but the -z- is given a German (or Italian – but in this word German) pronunciation /ts/. The same ‘wrong’ foreign interpretation is put on the -z- in words such as chorizo (Spanish, and so originally either /θ/ or /s/), and the style of curry called dopiaza /dÉ’piˈætsÉ™/. The last two are presumably based on memories of the Italian pronunciation of -z- rather than the German.

Chorizo demonstrates -ch- pronounced as it is in both Spanish and English, but the adjective macho is often heard as /ˈmækəʊ/. Is this because it is assumed to be originally pronounced /x/ as in German or Scots, a sound not in the inventory of ‘English’ English, and replaced by /k/?

Any revision of English spelling would have to find a solution to these problems. Perhaps using the Spanish way, giving us Brown, Lervenbroy, skizofreenia, broosketta, choreetho and matcho for the words discussed above.


  1. In the US, knowledge of Spanish is usually greater than in the UK, and so Spanish loans are usually pronounced closer to the original (no one ever pronounces “macho” with a /k/). On the other hand, French loans tend to be more mangled (I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard “coup de grace” with a silent /s/ at the end).

    Incidentally, I’ve never heard “dopiaza” with a /ts/.

  2. Nice points, Graham. You’re quite right about ‘bruschetta’, of course. But pained tho we are by these unhappy pronunciations, I dont think there’s the slightest chance of us Anglophones adopting the ‘Spanish way’. I, too, suffer when I hear bruschetta uttered as if it didnt have its h. A few years ago, in the most delightful Italian restaurant I’ve ever known outside of Italy, I even had the horror of finding myself protesting to the Italian-speaking waiter, son of the Italian-speaking proprietor, that he was — unawares as it turned out — mistreating the word Anglo style.
    I notice that, while quoting us an unsuitable way of saying ‘dopiaza’, you dont provide us with something better. What d’you recommend for the vowels? Neither CEPD nor LPD has the word. Nor has OED even within a quotation. The redou·table Wikipedia has the word alright but no IPA for it.
    Your Spanish-fashion respellings wd still leave us with a degree of vowel ambiguity in ‘skizofreenia’ and ‘broosketta’. The kays, which I’ve fortunately on·y he·rd in machismo, cd paps have some relation to the hesitations between /makɪneɪʃn/ and /maʃɪneɪʃn/.
    As for reform — not a hope in hell. Even so, all by myself, I enjoy improoving on some of the spellings that bug me most.

  3. Jack – I agree that there’s no chance of improving the situation (that’s why I kept putting the word ‘wrong’ in inverted commas – I may not like everything I hear, but I’m still aware that you can only observe what is happening), but I think it all demonstrates how impossible it is to reform English spelling to any great extent. As you point out, my respellings Spanish-style still leave the vowels ambiguous. As for ‘dopiaza’, I suppose it depends on whether you live in the north or the south – either dohpi-aaza or dohpi-azza (doh as in the first note of the diatonic scale). On the ‘a’/’aa’ point, am I right in thinking that the only word that in English can have ‘aa’ before a double ‘t’ is ‘latte’?

  4. dopiaza derives from Hindi-Urdu pyaaz (onion), which has a long A vowel, so the PALM vowel seems appropriate for English.

  5. Dw – thanks for that clarification.
    Jack – the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation does have an entry and gives DOHpi-aaza or dohpi-AAza.

  6. As you say, Graham, the Oxford Dictionary of Pronunciation does have an entry and gives DOHpi-aaza or dohpi-AAza. If your ‘north or south’ for Ó• or ɑː comment wasnt jokey and in ref to England, it may have misled some readers into thinking it referred to India. I was quite surprised to think the ODP editors thaut it was wurth including. It’s not in any Webster I’ve consulted.
    As to your query “On the ‘a’/’aa’ point, am I right in thinking that the only word that in English can have ‘aa’ before a double ‘t’ is ‘latte’?” my reply is — You’re not quite right. I’m sure you’d soon ‘ve thaut of the other Italian word ‘ciabatta’. There’s also ‘chupatti’, which of course you’ll know, and there’re a cupple of other Indian loanwords not very common: ‘agarbatti’ for an incense stick and ‘chatta’ for an umbrella.

  7. Jack – as an English northerner myself (linguistically speaking, although Stoke on Trent is definitely geographically in the midlands), I say chaBATTa and chaPATTi. Maybe these two aren’t so noticeable because when you’re buying them, you pick them off the supermarket shelf rather than ask somebody for them, as you have to do for a latte. As for ‘agarbatti’ and ‘chatta’, perhaps I’ve led a sheltered life, but they’re not words I’m familiar with.

  8. Graham — as a native-English-speaking westerner myself (linguistically speaking, altho Cardiff is in politico-geographical terms undeniably on the Welsh side of the border) I too prefer to use ă in ‘ciabatta’ and ‘chapatti’. I prefer ă also for ‘latte’ rather than /lɑːteɪ/. I think peeple who increasingly use such an /ɑː/, like those who say /lÉ™zɑːnjÉ™/ for ‘lasagne’, have pickt up the habit from American models. An intresting complication.

  9. Jack – I’ve now asked a couple of people who I heard saying ‘LAAtay’ what they do with ciabatta, and they both said chaBATTa. Not scientific, I know, but as anecdotal evidence goes, pretty conclusive!

  10. The one that gets me is how English people often know to pronounce the j sound in Rioja, (as in the Spanish wine) as /x/ , but invariably pronounce the similar sound in Scottish loch as /k/. Perhaps it’s because the Spanish name is seen as ‘foreign’ and therefore different, but ‘loch’ is seen as British and should therefore follow ‘standard’ rules?

  11. @Warsaw Will:

    I have heard English people pronounce /x/ in “Loch”. Indeed, I do so myself.

  12. @ dw and Warsaw Will: The difference between Rioja and loch is that in loch, the [x] is final, whereas in Rioja it is syllable initial. Many non-Scots treat [x] as an allophone of /h/, which never occurs word finally, so they ‘cannot’ pronounce loch other than as /lÉ’k/, while Rioja, divided as ‘Ri-o-ja’ has a syllable initial /h/. That said, I’ve heard many people say /ri’É’kÉ™/.

  13. Many non-Scots treat [x] as an allophone of /h/, which never occurs word finally, so they ‘cannot’ pronounce loch other than as /lɒk/

    Except that, as JW mentions in Accents of English, many “non-Scots” have /x/ as a loan phonemene.

  14. dw – Both John Wells and I use the word “many”. Neither of us says “most”, so I think his “many” and mine can be mutually exclusive!

  15. @Graham:

    My apologies: I didn’t read your post carefully enough. Happy New Year!

  16. dw – I wasn’t criticising! A Happy New Year to you too, and to all my readers.

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