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The most phonetic languages

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 Message 1 of 96
18 May 2009 at 10:43pm | IP Logged 
Which languages have the most phonetic writing systems? In other words, which languages are actually pronounced very much as they are written, so that if you came across a new word in a book or newspaper, you'd immediately know exactly how to pronounce it, even if you had to learn the meaning?

My understanding is that Indonesian/Malay, Spanish, German and Polish are the most phonetic, with Italian a bit less so, and most others much less so (including English, French, Dutch, Danish, Thai, Korean, Arabic, Persian, Urdu).

Chinese and Japanese, of course, could be called the least phonetic languages on earth, because Chinese characters aren't really phonetic at all (I know many of them do provide some *clue* to pronunciation, but nothing you could really rely on for accurate pronunciation). On the other hand, these two languages do have nicely standardized, very phonetic systems of romanization to help with learning (Pinyin and Romaji, respectively).

Swiss German is a real nightmare, as it usually isn't written at all, and when it is, there's no one standard way to do so. I really can't imagine having to learn a language entirely by ear. I know we all learn our first language that way, but we were all geniuses as babies, weren't we?

Am I right so far? What about other languages? Portuguese? Russian? Hindi? Norwegian? Swedish? Turkish? Vietnamese? Cambodian? Others?

Edited by pmiller on 18 May 2009 at 10:45pm

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 Message 2 of 96
19 May 2009 at 1:10am | IP Logged 
Someplace else I read that the Esperanto spelling is very regular/phonetic (by the way, Swedish is not).
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 Message 3 of 96
19 May 2009 at 1:12am | IP Logged 

One I found to be incredibly phonetic was Croatian.
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 Message 4 of 96
19 May 2009 at 1:26am | IP Logged 
BCS/Serbo-Croatian is a "phonetic language" if you overlook that the alphabet doesn't account for pitch-accent and vowel length but follows a principle that each symbol represents one sound.

I too read that Esperanto was designed to have a phonetic alphabet. I also keep thinking that I read somewhere that the Finnish alphabet is fairly phonetic.
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 Message 6 of 96
19 May 2009 at 1:41am | IP Logged 
Spanish, very much so.

Norwegian, not so much...
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 Message 7 of 96
19 May 2009 at 8:06am | IP Logged 
In my experience:

English is not phonetic but has some rules where one can occasionally figure out the sounds/spelling of a given word.

German is more phonetic, not completely but certainly easier to learn phonetically-speaking.

Esperanto is very phonetic, perhaps the most phonetic language I know of.

Speaking of constructed languages, Klingon has an interesting collection of sounds that are represented one sound = one word, but some of its sounds would be harder to distinguish for at least English speakers: H is like the aCH of German, q is a sound I can't replicate in any example, but it's like a "k" sound from a constricted depth of the throat, and Q is a mixture of the two.

French is phonetic in that if you see a word, you can have an idea of how its sounded (if you know the rules) but if you hear it, you might not be able to correctly spell it. However, my feeling is that like English, you can more or less get the hang of figuring out how to spell an unknown heard word.

Norwegian, again more phonetic but not 100%. From what I can gather, it is the most phonetic of the three main Scandinavian languages, with Danish being the least phonetic and Swedish being between the two. But my knowledge of Norwegian is rather basic, and of Swedish and Danish it's nearly zero.

Finnish, very phonetic, but I'm not sure if there are some sounds that have two letters, as in Spanish. I don't think there are, though.

Spanish is not completely phonetic as you sometimes hear. I often see native speakers leaving the h off the beginning of words because h actually have no sound by itself. I've seen native speakers also confuse the letters s, z, and c (like in combinations of ci or ce), and b for v (which I think technically are two subtly different sounds, actually). X and j are also suffer mistaken identity sometimes, though not as often as I've seen, and in fact some words have two official spellings (Jalapa and Xalapa, Mexico and Mejico).

I think Hungarian is very phonetic, but I've never studied it, so I don't know how phonetic it actually is.

I've heard that Irish is indeed a chaotic orthographic jungle.

I've found certain versions of written Lakota to be very phonetic, and I've also found other versions to be unreliable. Lakota (the Native American language used in "Dances with Wolves") was given a few different spelling systems in the 1800's and 1900's. A German priest tried to come up with a decent system but certain distinct sounds were represented by one letter and this among other problems made for a rather cumbersome and murky written form of the language. The orthography was revised, modified, or re-invented and within the last year a dictionary was published that contains the most reliable version of spelling giving each sound one letter, as well as accent marks to show word stress. From what I have studied, this most recent orthography makes Lakota as close to phonetic as possible, perhaps on par with Esperanto, and certainly at least giving Spanish a run for its money.

Those are all the examples I can think of right now.
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 Message 8 of 96
19 May 2009 at 8:16am | IP Logged 
Well, if you count furigana in (or the kanji out), Japanese would be the most phonetic language there is...

Finnish is pretty much perfect, I think. Never saw any word pronounced differently from how it was written. But then again, it's not like I've seem a lot of Finnish.

German appears to be pretty weird too, though a lot more regular than English. Not knowing exactly which of the "ch" pronunciations to use is horrible.

Portuguese is also not very good, with a lot of digraphs and different letters for the same sound and letters with more than one sound. Diacritics usage is also weird and does not perfectly account for everything. Still a lot better than English, but it seems to me to that Spanish has it way better than both.

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