As many of my readers know, I have just taken on a lecturing job, giving me the unenviable task of trying to help foreign learners of English translate into our language. I realised just how complicated our spelling system is yesterday, when I couldn’t figure out how to spell “conniving”.
The problem is that the vowel written as [ə] by the International Phonetic Alphabet, often called a neutral vowel, that most basic of sounds that exists in most languages, can be rendered by so many different vowels. In fact, any vowel can be pronounced that way if it is on an unstressed syllable. For example:
So, “conniving” could be rendered “kaniving”, “keniving”, “kiniving”, “coniving” or “cuniving”, with a single or double n, and it would be pronounced exactly the same. This was my problem. I thought the vowel was an e, meaning the word would have to commence with a k, and so I just couldn’t find out how to spell it.
I think what I’ve outlined above explains one of the easiest ways of detecting a foreign speaker of English, particularly monolingual Spaniards — and bilingual Galicians — since the neutral vowel does not exist in these languages. To them, all vowels have to be pronounced [a], [e], [i], [o] or [u] (note that the phonetic symbols are identical to how the sounds are rendered in written Spanish and Galician). When they say, for example Casablanca, they will literally say [ka-sa-blan-ka], whereas an English-speaking person would actually have to make a fair bit of effort to pronounce it that way, and would find it much easier to say [ka-sə-blan-kə].
Of course, this could get me on to why I think English-speaking people are wrong when they think that Catalan is “too hard”. The above example shows why, for Anglophones, Catalan is actually easier to pronounce than Spanish, once you’ve learnt the rules. But that deserves a completely seperate entry, and this is getting too long, so I’ll end it here.