Phonetic Language Meaning And Usage (Explained)

Learning a language is no easy feat, since there are three parts to every language: reading, writing, and speaking (speaking being the most difficult of the three). While most languages can be easier in one aspect, some suggest those that are more phonetic will be easier in all three factors of language learning.

Therefore we should the question: What does phonetic language mean, and how do we use it?

The common meaning of phonetic language refers to a writing system pronunciation that accurately corresponds to it’s spoken word. This goes both ways too, since in a phonetic language you can know how to spell a word simply by hearing it.

Like with any language, the answer to the meaning of what a phonetic language is requires more than just a few sentences. For starters, can any language be truly phonetic? Is “phonetic language” even a real term? Can there be a non-phonetic language? What well-known languages are phonetic? I’ll answer all of these questions down below!

What Is Meant By Phonetic Language?

When we say “phonetic language”, what do we really mean? Though we sometimes forget how complex languages can be, there are many different moving parts going into what we use everyday. With these many different parts comes various odd and unfamiliar terms.

One of these unfamiliar terms in languages for some could be our topic here. We could ask the question: what is meant by phonetic language?

What phonetic language means is a language that has its words pronounced just as they are written. This largely affects language learning, by making some languages easier to learn if they have phonetics as opposed to those who don’t.

Languages that are more phonetic in this regard can be easier to learn, insofar as languages can be considered “easy”. Though a lot of languages, like the widely spoken English for instance, are not all that phonetic. Thus, it is a hurdle that many people can overcome if necessary.

If you ask questions regarding phonetic languages, some people will love (and I mean love) to say how wrong you are in using the term “phonetic”. Is there any truth to “phonetic” being problematic?

Objections To The Term “Phonetic Language”

When using “phonetic language”, it really is more of a layman’s term. Phonetics technically refers to sound, and every language makes sound with the exception of sign language (though some perform mental gymnastics to include that in phonetics too).

In that case, any language is therefore phonetic. Yet, what most are getting at when using “phonetic language” is having the written and spoken word pronunciations directly the “same”. Is it then wrong to use “phonetic” in that way?

There are those who say that ” it is better to use phonemic vs phonetic”(yes, it is confusing that they look nearly the same), but mainly this is not an interesting issue. Just take a look at the definitions of these two terms:

  • Phonetic: (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
    1. representing speech sounds by means of symbols that have one value only
    2. of or relating to spoken language or speech sounds
  • Phoneme: (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
    1. any of the abstract units of the phonetic system of a language that correspond to a set of similar speech sounds (such as the velar \k\ of cool and the palatal \k\ of keel) which are perceived to be a single distinctive sound in the language

They really can mean the same thing if we want it too, and most people do.

So, don’t worry! I’m not going to beat you over the head on how wrong you are with your use of phonetics, or pretend I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Just make sure to note that I will continue to use the common definition of phonetic language, namely knowing a word’s sound by its spelling, throughout this article.

What Does Phonetically Consistent Mean?

If we have a better idea of what we mean by phonetic language, how does something like phonetically consistent come into play? What does phonetically consistent mean?

Phonetically consistent refers to a language that is more phonetical than others, and more reliable in having less exceptions. For a language to be consistently phonetic, it has to have the majority of its written and spoken word pronunciations coincide without common exceptions.

Could a language be entirely phonetic? Or, could a language be 100% phonetically consistent

Can A Language Be 100% Phonetical?

First off, what do we mean by 100% phonetic?

If a language was completely phonetic, that would mean a word alone is sufficient in knowing how to pronounce it. To be 100% phonetic, it also means that there can be no exceptions.

Is it possible for a language to be like this?

There cannot be a 100% phonetic language in this regard, or if there were one, it would be synthetic in origin. It would have to be artificial since languages are formed over time by people using them.

This means it could be perfectly designed that way if it were designed to be so, but it would not meet the requirements of being an actual language. This is mainly because it would lack the development of meaning through culture and the people who formed it over time.

Another problem comes along with things like stress and tone of voice, they don’t translate well from a word alone. This is due to the context required, along with the general knowledge of the language and culture behind it.

Pitch, Stress And Vocal Tones In Phonetic Languages

One thing to consider with phonetic languages, some are better at giving hints in regard to pitch, stress, and other vocal tones.

Even though some languages are considered to be phonetic, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t require just as much knowledge of the languages as if they weren’t.

What Does Non-Phonetic Language Mean?

If we have a better understanding of what a phonetic language is, and what it means to be phonetically consistent, could a language be non-phonetic? We should then ask: what does non-phonetic language mean?

A non-phonetic language is one that does not have written and spoken vocabulary pronunciations correspond. These languages are generally those who use pictographs or logograms, since the pronunciations of a term cannot be inferred from most of these symbols.

Pictographs and logograms are more symbols than characters, with pictographs illustrating what they mean and logograms having meaning placed upon a particular symbol.

Non-Phonetic Languages And Phonetically Inconsistent Languages

When asking if a language is phonetic, we’re really asking if it is phonetically consistent. The same is when asking about non-phonetic languages, we are mainly dealing with inconsistent languages.

The only 100% non-phonetic languages are those who fully adopt a pictograph, or more likely logogram, writing system.

Just so the definitions of these terms are clear:

  • Logogram: (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
    1. a letter, symbol, or sign used to represent an entire word
  • Pictograph: (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
    1. one of the symbols belonging to a pictorial graphic system
    2. a diagram representing statistical data by pictorial forms

Why Is English Not Phonetic?

Having a better idea of what a phonetic language is, will in turn naturally reveal the reality that English is by no means phonetic. As a whole, English is always seen as being the “language of exceptions”, along with being “lingua franca” (mainly a title for being the most useful international language).

So, you might be wondering: why is English not phonetic?

English is not phonetic, or more accurately is phonetically inconsistent, due to the vast number of “loan” words it possesses. Influences from other languages, like Latin and French, along with natural trends within the Germanic languages pushed English’s spoken word past its written word.

A language is formed by the people who speak it, but they can be influenced by other cultures as well. English was affected centuries ago by cultures like French, and is still influenced by others today.

When you’re in a culture using one of the most international languages in the world, you’re gonna pick up words from other languages along the way.

The biggest problem with English is we attempt to say these words as they are in their language of origin. This is by no exaggeration an absolute travesty when it comes to phonetics.

As is discussed in this article, the right pronunciation of English is very important. With English being less phonetically consistent, it can make it harder for some to pronounce it. This doesn’t stop it from being the most spoken language in the world, so it is something people learn to deal with.

If interested in other topics about language learning, or something related to a specific language, then read one of my other articles.

What Are Some Phonetic Or Non-Phonetic Languages?

Knowing what “phonetic language” means, and more importantly what people mean by it, then we can move on to: what languages are phonetic? Or, what languages are non-phonetic?

The top “is it phonetic?” languages people ask about are:

So, what can we learn about these languages?

Is Japanese Phonetic?

The culture of Japan is a weird one, especially when coming from any country in western civilization. Though this doesn’t stop many people from learning Japanese as a second language, in fact it is probably a deciding factor in them choosing it.

As it is one of the most popular second language choices out there, we should ask: is Japanese phonetic?

Japanese is phonetical in parts of its writing, but not all. It has three writing systems that all complement each other, known as Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana. While both Hiragana and Katakana are both alphabetic and phonetic, Kanji is not.

Coming from our perspective of English, it is certainly hard to imagine having three whole distinct writing systems working in unison.

I go into this in greater detail, specifically about the use of Kanji, in this article: What Is Kanji Used For In Japanese Writing?

To briefly touch upon the subject, Kanji is a logogram writing system. Though there are thousands upon thousands of symbols used to communicate, in reality they use only a few thousand in daily use.

One unique fact about Kanji is that it’s the same writing system the Chinese use, but called Hanzi instead. Essentially they have the same writing systems, though they use them differently. The reason for their shared writing systems is worthy of an article of its own, thus we’ll leave it for another day.

Is Chinese Phonetic?

As one of the most spoken languages in the world, or the most spoken in the world if only counting native speakers, naturally there are those who will be wondering about Chinese. Thus, the question should be asked: is Chinese phonetic?

In the “Chinese” language, or better known as the various Chinese dialects of Mandarin, Cantonese, and others, the writing system of Hanzi is used. Hanzi is not phonetic nor is it alphabetical, but rather it consists of logograms. Thus, “Chinese” is not phonetic.

As it was mentioned before, but it bears repeating, the connection between Hanzi and Kanji is a unique one. This also means that with Kanji not being phonetic, so too would Hanzi not be phonetic.

Seeing as Hanzi came before Kanji, it would be better to say that Chinese writing influenced Japanese’s writing system.

Due to the unique, and quite frankly difficult nature of Hanzi, certain literary “devices” were created to help language learners from the west to write in Chinese. One notable example of this is Pinyin, where it uses Romanized characters to help language learners practice Chinese pronunciations.

Is Arabic Phonetic?

As it is an old and popular language, even considered holy by some, Arabic is next in our list of “is it phonetic”. A lot like Chinese and Japanese, Arabic is very foreign compared to a language like English. No surprise then that Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic are all considered some of the hardest languages for an English speaker to learn.

Back to our topic at hand however, we should ask: is Arabic phonetic?

Arabic is considered to be very phonetically consistent. This means in Arabic the way a word is spelled is how it sounds when spoken. However, it is common in Arabic to leave out short vowels, thus a reader must learn context clues to know what vowel the writer is intending to use.

This can be a problem, since if you don’t learn this “quirk” then you can’t pronounce the word right. In a way this actually makes some believe Arabic to not be phonetic, or at least not phonetically consistent.

When able to pick up on what short vowel a writer is using, then a language like Arabic will be phonetic and hopefully just a tad bit easier to learn.

Another exception to note includes differing dialects. In Arabic, dialects have a mind of their own, and thus can change their consistency regarding phonetics.

Is German Phonetic?

Though it might not be able to boast as large of a population as Chinese or Arabic, the German language influence in Europe’s history and modern day economics cannot be denied.

Being an influential language for business, and having a unique culture and history that many find themselves drawn to, we should ask: is German phonetic?

German is seen as being a fairly phonetic language. Despite some minor and infrequent exceptions, you can tell a word’s pronunciation by the very word itself. While some languages can be phonetic, but are unreliable with their rules, German remains incredibly consistent.

It is commonly said as a whole, that Germans are rule followers (this is by no means negative). Germans as a whole follow rules consistently, and as such their language will tend to reflect this.

German is commonly considered to be way more phonetic, better known as phonetically consistent, compared to languages like English, French, and even Spanish.

Is Spanish Phonetic?

Being a very popular choice for a second language, especially in places like the US, people might wonder if Spanish is phonetic or not. Spanish is in fact one of the most spoken languages in the world, usually in the top three depending on your criteria. Clearly we should then ask: is Spanish phonetic?

Spanish is mostly phonetic, but not always consistent. Most Spanish words can be pronounced how they’re spelled, but there are popular foreign words used that don’t go by normal Spanish phonetics. Different dialects can change how phonetically consistent Spanish is too.

Essentially, Spanish is in a sort of a middle of the road scenario. Though it might not be the most phonetically consistent language, it certainly is not the least consistent language out there.

When compared to languages like English or French, Spanish is more Phonetic. As opposed to when compared to others like Russian or German, Spanish is less phonetic.

Is Russian Phonetic?

Though not as large of a speaking population as others, and less frequent choice for a second language, Russian is by no means lesser in value. Being useful in business deals dealing with raw exports, namely oil, along with other trades help makes Russian important.

On a deeper level, the unique culture and history of the Russian language fascinates many into wanting to know more about them.

Then it goes without saying, we should ask the question: is Russian phonetic?

Russian is phonetically consistent, but has notable exceptions. The main problem for language learners is its unpredictable stress patterns, which can make it difficult to accurately pronounce a written word. Once an individual is familiar with this, then Russian will seem to be phonetic.

A lot like Arabic, Russian will be more phonetic once you learn its particular quirk. In this case, it involves where exactly one puts stress in a word or a group of words.

One thing that many often ask is if Russian is more phonetic than English, and the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Is Hebrew Phonetic?

Hebrew is an ancient language dating all the way back to biblical times, of Moses, Abraham, and other historical figures. In the relatively recent hundred years or so, Hebrew has seen resurgence in Israel. More commonly considered as modern Hebrew today, many might wonder: is Hebrew phonetic?

Hebrew is a phonetic language, and generally consistent. However, certain letters can have more than one pronunciation. This means that it is not as phonetically consistent when compared to other languages like Russian, German, or Korean.

When it comes to ancient Hebrew, we don’t exactly know what it sounded like back then. As such it is difficult to know whether or not it was phonetically consistent.

Modern Hebrew on the other hand, we can know that it is generally phonetically consistent.

Is French Phonetic?

French is one of the most popular second languages, and France is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Since it has such a sizable speaking population, it is no wonder why some would ask if French was phonetic or not. So, Is French phonetic?

French is not a phonetically consistent language, because it requires more than a word alone to know how to pronounce it. At times you can know how a word sounds by its spelling, leaving it to be somewhat phonetic. Yet, overall French still remains inconsistent with its phonetics.

French, like English, is notorious for being inconsistent with its phonetics. This can be annoying for quite a few people when trying to learn these languages, but they both happen to remain incredibly popular regardless.

Is Italian Phonetic?

Italy, the seat of Catholicism (and in turn some would argue Western Civilization), is a very popular tourist trap with the Vatican and its many beautiful cities. Along with its rich history and culture, Italian is a well-beloved language. Obviously we should then ask: is Italian phonetic?

Italian is phonetic, and as such one can know the sound of a word by how it is spelled. Exceptions exist, but they are few and far between compared to most other languages. This means that Italian is very phonetically consistent, thus making it easier to learn in that aspect.

Interestingly, Italian is one of the closest languages to French. Though the sounds of the two languages certainly do not give that impression. In fact, Italian and French share an incredibly high lexical count with each other, with around 89% lexical similarity.

It makes it something to note, since even though they both share quite a bit when it comes to other things, in regards to phonetics they deviate drastically.

I actually have an article: What Languages Are Most Similar To French?, where I go into how Italian is one of the closest, among others.

Is Korean Phonetic?

Another well-known and beloved language in Asia would be Korean. A lot like Japan, the culture of Korea is odd, quirky, and unique compared to those from the Western countries. Yet, this very “strangeness’ makes so many interested in learning the language. Thus, we should naturally consider: is Korean phonetic?

Korean is almost entirely phonetic, but exceptions exist. Compared to other Asian languages like Japanese and Chinese, Korean is much more phonetically consistent in its writing system. As with anything there are exceptions, but the rule is that one can pronounce a word by its spelling in Korean.

When compared to a lot of languages, Korean is seen as being more phonetic than most. While languages like English or French are seen as being less phonetic than most.

The Final Talking Point On The Meaning Of Phonetic Languages…

A phonetic language is one where a word’s pronunciation can be determined by how it’s spelled. Likewise, a word’s spelling can, for the most part, accurately be known by hearing it.

Some languages are more or less phonetic, and this mainly is due to a language’s particular consistency. Of all the languages talked about in this article, these are considered to be phonetic:

  • Arabic
  • German
  • Spanish
  • Russian
  • Hebrew
  • Italian
  • Korean

While these languages were those who are less phonetic or even non-phonetic:

  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • English
  • French

If you are interested in more topics relating to all things language learning, or even about specific languages, then check out some of my other articles!

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

Recent Posts