Why do various languages that use basically the same alphabet have sometimes wholly different pronuciations for said alphabet?

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For instance, in Spanish, the letter “v” is pronouced like the letter “b” in English. Why not just use the letter b? Who decided that for this sound, we’re going to use this letter, even though other users of this alphabet use a different one? I’m not trying to be English-centric here. We could just as easily use the Italian “ci” for the English “ch.” And don’t get me started on how “eaux” somehow equates to a long “o.” I get that English has a different language branch than the Romance languages, but we all use (basically) the same alphabet.

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14 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

The Spanish “v” and “b” thing is regional. In Spain, the b and v sound different, like in English.

Anonymous 0 Comments

For every language at some point somebody just decided that these letters correspond to these sounds. There is no right or wrong way to do it and different languages just sometimes chose different letters for different sounds. 

Different languages also have different sounds which also might make a difference. Maybe one language has two sounds that are close to the English b sound, but no v sound so they might write one of the b sounds with v instead. 

Languages also change their pronunciation over time and sometimes the spelling is not changed accordingly. This can be seen in many English words. For example the k in knight was not always silent.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The short answer is the Romans.

The Romans conquered a ton of Europe and spread their language and writing system to lots of places.

And then Roman Empire fell apart and all the places they conquered became separate nations again and the language developed in its own direction in each place. But they kept a lot of the writing system, even as sounds drifted apart gradually over time.

That’s for the Latin alphabet and Europe at least, but similar stories have occurred around the world.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Two groups speaking the same language but “isolated” from each other will start to develope dialects pretty fast. But written language usually changes much slower. So you have two groups using the same written language but diffrent spoken language. Sometimes the written language is adjusted to fit the spoken language more other times the written language stays the same. When the written language stays the same you adjust the pronouciation of letters to fit the spoken language.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It didn’t start that way, in various regions the sounds changed due to people mispronouncing things. Over time a mutation gets so popular that it just becomes the new “correct”. That’s how you get Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian languages (as some examples) being variations of Latin. If everyone stuck to being perfect “by the book” per se than language wouldn’t evolve and most of Europe would still speak Latin.

You can also just look at regional dialects of the same language. In Boston the letter R sounds like “ah” to other English speakers. In the south east US the letters “oi” together sound like “er” (oil rhymes with Earl).

Anonymous 0 Comments

There are various reasons for this, but the most important are:

1. Sound changes — even if a language does have a very phonetic spelling system, with time there would be sound changes that would make it less phonetic. For example the silent h in romance languages or the silence e on the end of English words used to be pronounced. Sometimes sounds merge (like with Spanish b and v). Sometimes they split (like with English vowels that have different pronounciations). You could have a spelling reform, but that is always controversial.

2. Loanwords — sometimes the people responsible for creating a spelling system want to keep the way loanwords are spelled, sometimes they get adopted phonetically. The first can add to the chaos of spelling.

3. Different sound inventories — when a language adopts a writing system from another language it usually has to do some adjustments. Create ways to spell sounds that don’t exist in the other language, drop or repurpose letters that are no longer needed. E.g. the whole confusion about the letter <c> can be traced to the fact, that Etruscans didn’t differentiate between [g] and [k] sounds, but they were the intermediate ones between Greeks and Romans, that both did.

Anonymous 0 Comments

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Anonymous 0 Comments

The Roman alphabet was created to match the set of sounds that classical Latin was composed of. For classical Latin, one letter matches one sound. Because of the importance of the Roman Empire and the continued use of Latin after its end, when other languages came to be written, the Roman alphabet was used, and where sounds in those languages were the same as in classical Latin, those letters were used. Where sounds that did not exist in classical Latin existed in those languages, modifications were made, either using accent markings, combinations of letters (eg ch, th, sh in English), or just accepting that a letter might have a slightly different sound.

Until the invention of the printing press, it was normal for people to just write phonetically. There was no concept of fixed spellings, you would just put the letters that correspond to how you speak on the page. People with different regional accents would write things differently, and the person reading it would just have to figure it out. After the printing press was invented, things changed, and the idea of a “standard” correct spelling of words took hold. Even if I say the word as “root” and you say it as “rowt”, we both spell it as “route”.

The problem is, the way people actually pronounce words changes over time. In different languages and different dialects and accents within different languages, those changes happen differently. While some spellings have changed to a greater or lesser extent, in most languages, the spellings have been more likely to remain fixed than the way people actually speak the language. The result of this is that spellings reflect the sounds of their spoken languages several centuries ago, for each respective language, and often the way it was spoken in a specific, often prestige accent and dialect from that time in the past.

A further complication comes when words are borrowed from one language to another. Often when a word enters from a foreign language, the foreign spelling comes with it. In some cases the spelling and pronunciation from the source language remain, in some cases the spelling is changed to match the spelling conventions of the language that borrowed it, and in other cases people using the word change it to match the odd spelling.

Anonymous 0 Comments

Language evolves steadily over time, based on the conventions of the geographic areas where it’s spoken or written.

Sometimes languages start out with the same alphabet and diversify over time. Other times preexisting languages “adopt” an alphabet and map their existing sounds to the alphabet as best they can.

Anonymous 0 Comments

There are a few reasons for this:

First, an alphabet is a way to represent the spoken language, which is always going to be more complex than the alphabet. Consider, for instance, the different ways that a New Englander and a Texan would pronounce the word “can’t”. Spoken languages come first, alphabets second.

Second, alphabets are rarely invented from scratch to fit each language. The Latin alphabet we use in English was developed from the Old Italic script, itself derived from the archaic Greek alphabet, which in turn derives from the Phoenician alphabet. When adapting an alphabet to a new language, the people doing the adaptation have to do their best to agree on a fit. Sometimes, the alphabet is modified to improve the fit (e.g., by adding diacritics). Sometimes it isn’t.

Third, once an alphabet is in use, it can conserve older forms of pronunciation, as the spoken language changes but the written language resists. /u/Tayttajakunnus mentions the example of “knight”. Modern Icelandic is similar, in that the orthography doesn’t directly reflect many features of pronunciation (e.g., *ll* is pronounced *tl*). In the case of Romance languages, including Romance borrowings in English after the Norman conquest, those spellings were often influenced by late Latin, too.

Spelling can change, of course. In archaic Latin, K was used for the hard c sound, while C was used for the hard g sound. But as C began to be used for the hard c, and G was introduced as a new letter for hard g, K became redundant and persisted only in a few words such as Kalends. (That’s why the Roman praenomens Gaius and Gnaeus are abbreviated as C. and Cn., respectively: the abbreviations preserve the old hard g sound of C.) The spelling of Romance languages did evolve in some ways to somewhat better match pronunciation. And sometimes there are attempts at spelling reform to match the alphabet with the way words are pronounced now, e.g., the 1996 German spelling reform. But once you adapt an alphabet to a language, you’re likely to wind up down the road with odd divergences between current pronunciation and current spelling.