Saturday, November 12, 2011

English is hard

I ran across an interesting spelling pronunciation the other day (I have the sense that it was on Not Always Right, but I've been unable to find it). A woman ordering quiche asked for kwɪki rather than kiʃ. These types of spelling pronunciations are not uncommon for low-frequency words, where low-frequency varies according to dialect and context. Of course, English pronunciation rules don't get you from kiʃ to kwɪki. Since English has borrowed heavily from a number of languages (viz., French, Latin, and Greek), we have to figure out the source of a word before we can come up with a reasonable pronunciation. In the case of "quiche", we have to realize that the word originates in French, in which case we will probably know that "qui" is [ki] and that "ch" in French loans is typically a postalveolar fricative. It seems, however, that this woman thought the word was Greek, where word-final "che" is not uncommon in terms borrowed from Greek (e.g., synecdoche), and is pronounced [ki]. "Qui" as [kwɪ] is typically for English, though unusual for foreign loans. These types of errors are consequences of borrowing from so many different sources, and even more so of having a non-phonetic orthography.

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