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,
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.