LINGUIST List 6.1756

Sun Dec 17 1995

Disc: Phonemic Spelling

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Phonemic Spelling, A comment

Message 1: Phonemic Spelling, A comment

Date: Sat, 16 Dec 1995 17:45:37 Phonemic Spelling, A comment
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Phonemic Spelling, A comment

Sorry to resurrect a topic from August, but I must have missed this
earlier--and just happened to find the relevant issue of LINGUIST
while looking for job ads. Richard Sproat had asked for examples
of languages whose writing systems allow one to predict the pronunciation
(or at least the segmentals) from the spelling and then posted
a summary, which suggests to me that the topic is worthy of
discussion and is more difficult than might appear.

For example, Polish is listed as having such a spelling system (except
for words of foreign origin). However, in reality, the situation in
Polish is much more complex. Thus, the sequence of letters 'rz'
can be either /rz/ or /z^/, the sequence of letters 'ni' before a
vowel can be either /nj/ or /n~/, for those speakers (unlike me, but
very numerous) who have palatalized labial phonemes, these are never
distinguished from sequences of labial + yod except when a we have
a prefix ending in a labial before a stem beginning with yod (which
happens rarely), the 'zi' can be /zi/ (at morpheme boundaries)
or /z'i/ (otherwise), for many speakers the voicing of obstruents
before certain suffixes is not what the spelling would seem to suggest,
etc. Moreover, since there is certainly no algorithm for distinguishing
words of foreign origin from others, to merely say that, in yet other
cases than those mentioned, a certain pronunciation is predictable
except in words of foreign origin is not going to help with automatic
text-to-speech work.

There are other examples in the summary which were similarly oversimplified,
but Polish is the one I know best, so I will stop here.

It seems to me it might be useful to try to see if there are any
languages where the pronunciation is really completely predictable
from the spelling. I am not sure I would care to wager more than
a dollar one way or the other.

Alexis Manaster Ramer
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