copyright by Alexandre Dulaunoy

DIY: what makes English words so difficult?

“Blood and flood are not like food, nor is mould like should and would.” A poem full of confusing pronunciations is making its rounds on the internet. Reading English words out loud can be very tricky. Try it yourself and experience what a person suffering from dyslexia has to go through.

copyright by Alexandre DulaunoyPhoto: copyright by Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr

Below you can find a fragment of the poem The Chaos by Gerard Nolst Trenité from 1922, here you can find the entire version. Try reading it out loud and realise how difficult the pronunciation of English words can be:

Dearest creature in creation,
Study English pronunciation.
Tear in eye, your dress will tear.
So shall I! Oh hear my prayer.
Billet does not rhyme with ballet,
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet.
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.
And your pronunciation is OK
When you correctly say croquet,
Rounded, wounded, grieve, sieve,
Friend and fiend, alive and live.
Stranger does not rhyme with anger,
Neither does devour with clangour.
We say hallowed, but allowed,
People, leopard, towed, but vowed.
Senator, spectator, mayor.
Tour, but our and succour, four.
Youth, south, souther, cleanse and clean.
Doctrine, turpentine, marine.
Finally, which rhymes with enough,
Though, through, plough, or dourgh, or cough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is to give up.

Difficult English words

Why is this poem so difficult? In English, the same sound can be written in various different ways. ‘-ood’ and ‘-ould’ sound the same in ‘food’ and ‘would’; the sounds rhyme even though the spelling gives no indication of that. The opposite is also possible: the same set of letters result in different sounds.  For this reason, the pronunciation of ‘-ood’ can suddenly become difficult when ‘flood’ and ‘food’ are used close to each other.

Dyslexic and non-dyslexic readers of the poem

The combination of these two types of mismatch between spelling and pronunciation is what makes English difficult to read and write correctly, even for native speakers. My own research has shown that English speakers can overcome this difficulty by slowing down pronunciation time to the point where each word is read correctly. For people suffering from dyslexia, this is not sufficient – even very slow reading does not always lead to the correct pronunciation.

Why? Reading a word out loud requires you to translate letters to sounds. These sounds combine to form a spoken word. This process is much harder in the poem above because the translation key for letters to sounds changes from one word to the next. For non-dyslexic readers, slowing down gives them time to switch between translation keys. Many researchers believe that dyslexia is partly a result of an impairment in this translation process. As a consequence, dyslexic readers do slow down when reading these difficult words, but this does not fully resolve their reading problems.

As such, this poem is a nice illustration of the daily challenges dyslexic readers face in a literate society. Some words are written in way that is generally difficult, and nearly impossibly difficult for them.

Source article:

Speed and accuracy of dyslexic versus typical word recognition – an eye-movement investigation

This is how the poem should be read.

This blog post was written by Richard.

Edited by Romy en Piet.

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