Foreign Spelling Conventions in English

By Maeve Maddox

In a recent post I discussed the letter c and the sounds it represents in English words. I said that the English letter c “does not have a sound of its own.”

A reader pointed out that in other languages that use the Roman alphabet, c has a distinctive, palatal sound. So it has, and English has appropriated some Italian words in which the letter c does represent that sound, for example,

cello
cinquecento
ciao
ciabatta
sotto voce
Medici

One reason for spelling irregularities in English is the fact that many foreign borrowings have brought foreign spelling conventions with them.

In addition to words in which c stands for the Italian c, we have German words in which the letters s and z follow German spelling conventions.

According to German spelling rules, an initial s followed by p or t is pronounced /sh/. Depending upon the context and the speech habits of the speaker, many Americans observe the German rule in pronouncing spiel and strudel. Charles Elster comes down on the side of SPEEL rather than SHPEEL, but he allows for the fact that many American speakers do say SHPEEL without jocular intent, so for them, SHPEEL is acceptable usage.

German z is not pronounced like English z. For example, the name Mozart sounds as if it has a t in it: MOHT-sahrt. Unfortunately, some unschooled radio announcers pronounce it “MOH-zahrt.”

Another example of a German z-word in English is Alzheimer as in “Alzheimer’s disease”: AHLTS-hy-murz.

Generally speaking, English spelling is badly taught in the schools. True, our spelling is challenging, but constant whining about “how hard” English spelling is does children a disservice–especially when it comes from the teachers.

For example, instead of presenting concerto in a spelling list as if it were just one more English word with a crazy third sound for c, the teacher could point out that it’s an Italian borrowing and that Italian speakers sometimes pronounce c the way we do, and sometimes they pronounce it as /tch/. Doing this with foreign borrowings that have not been completely anglicized would not only improve children’s spelling, but would also open a window on the world for them.

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7 Responses to “Foreign Spelling Conventions in English”

  • Paul W Dixon

    Interestingly, in Slovene the letter “c” has a “ts” sound. The tch sound is a c with a stresica on it (a stresica is a small letter V which is used on top of C, S and Z)

  • AnWulf

    English spelling is more than “challenging” for many. What should be done is that once these words (aside from names) are truly a deal of English, they should be respelt.

    And no, we shouldn’t hav to teach our kids the spelling ways of other tungs … that is what has led us to many (not all) of our crazy spellings. There is no good reason for English speaker not to write chello insted of cello. This doesn’t “open the world” to them. What balderdash!

    BTW, per the Oxford Dict. Online, ‘strudel’ is said as ˈstro͞odl.

    I hear both shpeel and speel … I speak German and neither hurts my ears.

  • Nancy Romness

    “Doing this with foreign borrowings that have not been completely anglicized would not only improve children’s spelling, but would also open a window on the world for them.”

    Good point, Maeve. I love to watch the National Spelling Bee, which happens every May. The children who conquer their local bees to arrive in Washington, D.C. are well-practiced in the ways of words that have been borrowed from other languages. Many will ask questions such as, “Is this word originally from German?” Knowing the origin helps the speller immensely.

    What can confuse the kids is the sometimes not-so-great, too-Americanized pronunciation of foreign borrowings by the man who gives the words.

  • Elysia Brenner

    Thanks! I think I was the reader with the question about Latin Cs. 🙂 Interesting note about the German…perhaps that’s why I grew up pronouncing street “shtreet” until I left my town and it was pointed out to me?

  • Widdershins

    Sometimes it’s the littlest things. People saying Mo-zart drive me to … contemplate diabolical things!

  • venqax

    One reason for spelling irregularities in English is the fact that many foreign borrowings have brought foreign spelling conventions with them.

    And that is the chief problem. English is the only language that routinely maintains foreign spellings of borrowed words, then expects its speakers to imitate the alien pronunciation. Every time I see *beisbol* on the Spanish channels, or *baseburu* (transliterated) on Japanese ones, I’m unhappily reminded of this. The rule should be that if the desire is to maintain the foreign pronunciation, then the spelling should be anglicized to produce it. So: halapenyo, hiro (Greek pita-sandwichy-thing), fillay minione, veener, cappachino. That is the courtesy we usually give when we transliterate from languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet, to the degree possible. Or, if the spelling must be maintained, then accept the anglicized pronunciation: Jalapeeno, jai-ro (like gyroscope), fillet mignon (rhymes kill-it big-nun), weener, and cappaseeno.

    In addition to words in which c stands for the Italian c, we have German words in which the letters s and z follow German spelling conventions.

    We shouldn’t. How many languages’ pronunciation rules are anglophones supposed to master when 90 percent can’t pronounce their own language competently? (check out Maeve’s excellent 50 Incorrect Pronunciations That You Should Avoid— the vast majority are exactly right.) Elster is correct: Say speel. Say stroodelYou aren’t speaking German.Proper names deserve somewhat different treatment, but even then we don’t say Yulius Kessar, or Yesho of Natzerat. AnWulf is right; English speaking people should either play the chello, and eat tamollies and keesh; or else eat tamails and kwitch, and play the sello. They should not be expected to speak every other language.

  • Gregory H. Bontrager

    I couldn’t agree more with the remarks of Paul W. Dixon, AnWuld, and Venquax. There really is no reason not to re-spell loanwords once they’ve been sufficiently integrated into the language. If you want to preserve the original pronunciation, spell those sounds in the English way. If you want to keep the original spelling, don’t expect people to maintain the foreign sounds.

    To try to have it both ways is just silly and more trouble than it’s worth. I have a B.A. in Spanish and a working knowledge of five other languages (including French, Latin, and classical Greek, arguably three of the most prolific sources of English imports). None of these, not even French, displays the kind of etymological pack-rat behavior to which English clings so stubbornly.

    If you want to open windows onto other cultures for children (which I agree is a commendable goal), let them actually learn a full foreign language or two. A pedantic hodge-podge of foreign spelling conventions in what is still one’s native tongue does not a cosmopolitan make.

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