A little rant about spellings

originally written Jan 2, 2016

A while back I spent a few years reading a lot of classics from China and India, and trying to figure out how to pronounce things. I’m not saying I was successful or anything, but I noticed a few things along the way.

The nice thing about transliterations (Western alphabet equivalents) is they tend to be fairly consistent.
• In China (pinyin), a hard ‘c’ is always spelled in English with a ‘k’. In India, a hard ‘c’ is always spelled in English with a ‘k’. In the West, not so much.
• In China, a soft ‘c’ is always spelled in English with an ‘s’. In India, a soft ‘c’ is always spelled in English with an ‘s’. In the West, not so much.
• In China, ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ts’ as in tsar. They use ‘ch’ for a soft ‘ch’ as in ‘church’. (Also, the Chinese ‘q’ is pronounced ‘chyu’ or something like that.) In India, ‘c’ is pronounced ‘ch’ as in ‘church’. In the West, it could be anything. Or at least it seems that way.

This is just one set of sounds. There’s also g vs j vs i vs y. And th vs t-h. Sh vs s-h. Ph vs p-h. And probably a bunch of others.

There is no way we will ever have a single Western alphabet that is always pronounced the same way. Accents pretty much eliminate that possibility, especially for vowels. And different Western language groups use different sounds so of course their letters are pronounced differently.

But we could at least try to simplify things a little bit. Someday it may come to a vote and I’m pretty sure China and India can outvote the West quite handily. So why not get a head start?

What I propose (though so far don’t yet have the nerve to actually do) is gradually start using k instead of c in words where k is the correct pronunciation. We start with the rarer words, and I think also it might be easier if we start with a particular situation, like kh instead of ch, since the pronunciation of ch is something you pretty much have to memorize.

Let me see, now. Ch is pronounced like in church, right? Sure it is, except when it’s pronounced ‘kh’ because it’s derived from a Greek word which is spelled ‘kh’. (Sometimes also a Jewish word – oh boy have I been pronouncing them wrong!)

But you can tell whether to pronounce it ch or kh by the vowel that follows it, right, like you can with c? So that ch followed by e or i is pronounced like church, and ch followed by an a, o or u is pronounced like kh?

Well, no. For example, check and chime are soft chs, but chimera is pronounced khimera and chemistry is pronounced khemistry (I knew one of those!). And I can think of a few chus that are soft chs – not just church, but also churn and churl (does quick check to make sure I’m pronouncing these right). And as it turns out, it looks like chu is *usually or maybe even always* pronounced like church. Unlike cu, which is usually a hard c. Arghhh! And then there’s charm, which is a soft ch, and chore. (But consider chasm, and melancholy, both of which I got wrong for years.) I think ch at the end of the word is usually soft, but there are some exceptions to that, too. Loch, for one (as in Loch Ness). And stomach.

So there’s no rule.

So here are some words with a hard ch that are derived from Greek, and spelled with kh in Greek (plus some that are Jewish), that we might start spelling à la Greque to make it easier on everybody, both native English speakers and those trying to figure out English as a foreign language.

Colchis – Kolkhis
Chalcedon – Khalcedon
Chalcis – Khalcis (Khal*s*is in English but Khal*k*is in Greek)
– and other place names –
Chiron – Khiron
Moloch – Molokh
– and other mythological names –
archetype – arkhetype
chaeta (as in polychaete) = khaeta (polykhaete)
chalcedony – khalcedony
chalcid – khalcid (or khalsid if you really want to throw people off)
challah – khallah (Jewish)
chameleon – khameleon (I pronounced Chameleon Boy’s name wrong for so many years)
chametz – khametz (Jewish)
chamomile – khamomile (or camomile)
chaos – khaos
chasm – khasm
chelation – khelation (just found that one out today!)
chelicera – khelicera (ditto)
chemurgy – khemurgy
chi-square – khi-square
chiaroscuro – khiaroscuro (really?)
chimera – khimera
chiro-anything – khiro- (e.g chiropractor, chiromancy)
chitarrone – khitarrone (not Greek or Jewish but let’s toss it in anyways)
chitin – khitin
chiton – khiton
chlamydate – khlamydate
chloral – khloral
chlorophorm – khlorophorm
chloroplast – khloroplast
choler – kholer
chondrite – khondrite
chordate – khordate
chordophone – khordophone
choriamb – khoriamb
chorography – khorography (a word I learned this week)
chrism – khrism
chroma – khroma
chrysalid – khrysalid
chrysotile – khrysotile
chthonic – khthonic or thonic (the ch isn’t pronounced at all, something else I didn’t know)
chuppah – khuppah (Jewish)
chutzpah – khutzpah or hutzpah (Yiddish – and I just found how to pronounce that one out today! probably not for the first time)
chyle – khyle
chyme – khyme
loch – lokh

but maybe not the following to start with, because of how widely used they are:
character – kharacter
charisma – kharisma
chemistry – khemistry
chlamydia – khlamydia
chlorine – khlorine
choir – khoir
cholesterol – kholesterol
cholera – kholera
choral – khoral
chord – khord
choreography – khoreography
Christ – Khrist
chrome – khrome
chronic – khronic
chronicle – khronicle
chronology – khronology
school – skhool
stomach – stomakh

We could do this for a while, especially with the rarer words, the more technical ones, and the obviously Greek ones, and see how it goes.

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