What Are Some Phonetically Consistent Languages?


Any language learner, from beginner to expert, will always judge a potential choice by three criteria: difficultly, practicality, and culture. The most common is whether a language is difficult or not, and a language can be difficult for a variety of reasons. To avoid difficulties with languages, we’ll ask: what are some phonetically consistent languages?

Languages that are the most phonetically consistent are: Russian, Korean, and Arabic. Phonetically consistent languages are those that are unchanging in pronunciation between spoken and written speech. Other phonetically consistent languages are: German, Dutch, and Swedish.

If these languages are phonetically consistent, what are some that aren’t? What do we even mean by phonetically consistent languages anyways? Are commonly spoken languages like English, Spanish, and French phonetically consistent? Can there be a non-phonetic language? I answer all of these questions and more down below.

What Does It Mean For A Language To Be Phonetical, And Consistent?

When discussing just about anything, we should always make sure we’re using the same definitions. This goes even more so when a topic revolves around languages, because they are naturally complex. What does it mean for a language to be phonetically consistent?

For a language to be phonetical it refers to two things: the sound of language, and whether a word can be pronounced only by judging upon the contents of it’s written form. To be consistent means that a language does not have commonly used exceptions for its pronunciation.

Let’s look a little deeper to get a better understanding of a phonetically consistent language?

To Be Phonetical

Phonetics refer to the sound of a language, essentially meaning that any language is phonetic. If a language has vocal speech, it is therefore phonetical.

What most consider phonetical however, is a bit different from that definition. Usually we think of it as knowing how to pronounce a written word by its own sound make up. Some languages can then be more or less phonetical, depending on how reliably you can do this.

To Be Consistent

To be consistent merely refers to not having exceptions be common. In some languages, grammar or speech rules are unwavering and don’t change. Whereas others have a million different ways around their own guidelines. For a language to be consistent, it just has to favor the former over the latter.

Is English A Phonetically Consistent Language?

Clearly English is one of the first languages we should start with, as most everyone reading this article will speak this language to some degree. As such we really ought to ask ourselves: is English a phonetically consistent language?

English is not a phonetically consistent language. One can not consistently look upon a written word and tell it’s pronunciation in English. This is due to it’s vast vocabulary and foreign words being brought in without integration into English’s particular phonetics.

As English speakers, we can all pretty much attest to it as being a language full of exceptions. Grammar in particular is known as being “loose” in English. This is in stark contrast with languages like German and Russian, with their rules being fairly set in stone. We’ll find that this quickly becomes apparent when looking at written phonetics too.

Why Is English Phonetically Inconsistent?

With it’s incredibly large vocabulary, English has taken in a lot of foreign words without adjusting them to English phonetics, namely how English speakers say things.

We’re trying to speak these “loan” words as those who speak the foreign language we borrowed it from would (badly, I might add). This of course is a nightmare in relation to the sound of a term and how we write it.

Generally the more widespread a language is, with a larger vocabulary, the more it will become phonetically inconsistent.

Combined with English’s general relaxed rules, we’ll find that English is a pretty phonetically inconsistent language.

Interestingly this does not stop people learning the language. If you count both native speakers and those who speak it as a second language (third, fourth, etc.), English is the most spoken language in the world with 1.348 billion.

This goes to show that it isn’t the end if a particular language is phonetically inconsistent, though people will take every opportunity to complain about it (as it is with English).

Is German A Phonetically Consistent Language?

A well known Germanic language, German has a large significance in the European economy. Though not as popular as some others, German is a common choice for a second language too.

If It isn’t an uncommon choice for language learning, some might wish to know: is German a phonetically consistent language?

German is a phonetically consistent language because a word’s pronunciation can consistently be known by the spelling of the word itself. German’s also has a unique way of combining words to form new meanings. As a whole the German language is secure in its rules, and has few exceptions.

There are a lot of compound words in German, meaning two words are mixed together to create a new one. The sound with these compound words does generally still remain the same. Thus, German is fairly consistent with its phonetics.

Is Russian A Phonetically Consistent Language?

Being an incredibly unique language, by its own features and the culture behind it, some might wonder about Russian regarding our topic. Is Russian a phonetically consistent language?

Russian is a phonetically consistent language, due to its staunch and unwavering rules. From grammar to pronunciation, Russian has few widely used exceptions. In regards to phonetics, the Russian written form corresponds accurately with the sound of spoken speech.

The stress of a word is not easy to pick up in Russian. Before understanding this part of Russian, it will seem not phonetically consistent. After having Russian’s unique way to stress a word under your belt, then it will almost magically seem to be consistent.

Russian does not often import foreign words into their vocabulary, and when it does, it translates it into how Russian’s would speak it. The same goes for languages like Korean, Dutch and others.

Another factor that they all share is their general isolation, being only spoken in their place of origin.

If you are interested in more topics regarding language learning, check out some of my other articles.

Is Spanish A Phonetically Consistent Language?

One of the most spoken languages in the world, Spanish is a common choice for a second language. Anyone considering learning Spanish would want to know: is Spanish a phonetically consistent language?

Spanish is more phonetically consistent than others like English or French. One can generally pronounce a word just by looking at it’s written form. Spanish wouldn’t be one of the most phonetically consistent, but it can be said to be more so than other languages.

Compared to languages like English and French, Spanish is more phonetically consistent. On the other hand with languages like Korean or Russian, Spanish would be considered less consistent comparatively.

Is French A Phonetically Consistent Language?

As it is one of the most popular choices for a second language, many might wonder: is French a phonetically consistent language?

French is not a phonetically consistent language. The way one pronounces a word in French commonly does not represent how it is written. French has a large vocabulary, and has acquired many foreign words. This makes it inconsistent in regards to phonetics, due to foreign influence.

French is notoriously known as not being phonetically consistent by language learners. With some regretting not fully understanding the difficult task ahead of them when originally attempting to learn French.

Many even go so far as to say that French is not phonetical because it’s pronunciation is different, especially compared to other Latin based languages.

This isn’t the case however, since phonetics only pertains to a language’s sound (making French phonetic), and if you can tell a written word’s pronunciation just by looking at it (in this case French would be inconsistent).

I go into why French is different from other Latin base languages, and how it relates to French’s pronunciation, in my article: Why Is French Different Than Other Latin Based Language?

Like how it is with English, spoken French and written French differ widely in how one would think they should be pronounced. One cannot speak French and automatically understand all of written French, and vice versa.

Despite people’s troubles with French, it is still hugely popular as a second language.

What Is The Most Phonetically Consistent Language?

We talked about some of the most well known phonetically consistent languages, but is there a “king” among them? Is it even possible to have a completely phonetic language? What is the most phonetically consistent language?

The most phonetical consistent and complete language would be Esperanto, as it was engineered as such. Esperanto is an artificial language, and is not spoken by any large population. Apart from Esperanto, the most phonetically consistent language would be Korean, or Arabic.

Unlike Esperanto, Korean and Arabic are not completely phonetical in the written sense. Compared to any other language however, they would be the most phonetically consistent.

Esperanto really shouldn’t be taken seriously in being 100% phonetic, since no one really speaks it natively. A language like Esperanto is unnatural because it does not have the organic culture that normally forms a language.

As was discussed in this paper, languages are an important part of any culture and vice versa. The way to know a language and even like one, is to know the culture behind it.

The culture of language is what makes some languages great and some hard to use. Esperanto lacks this vital aspect.

Are There Non-Phonetic Languages?

We discussed languages that are phonetical, but are there those that are non-phonetic?

Some non-phonetic languages are Chinese and Japanese. These languages don’t have alphabets based on sound combinations. Another example of a non-phonetic language would be American sign language. It has no intended vocal use and is for those who are hearing impaired.

No language would be non-phonetic in the traditional sense, since phonetics pertains to the sound of a language. If any sound you make with a language is phonetic, then there would no non-phonetic languages

The only exception would be sign language, due to the unique aspect of it not using vocal sounds to communicate.

Besides that definition, how can languages be non-phonetic?

How Can Languages Be Non-Phonetic?

Other languages can be non-phonetic in a different way, namely how a spoken word does not sound how it should when written.

In this case, English would be less phonetical. There are many instances in English where a letter is silent, or just sounds completely different as it should phonetically.

Some actually can be considered fully non-phonetic regarding writing. With Chinese and Japanese, they are non-phonetic because of how they don’t have an alphabet or words like we do in other languages.

They instead have thousands of pictograph symbols representing their meaning. These symbols do not tell you how to pronounce them, thus it is not phonetic.

Either being less phonetically consistent with English, or not having alphabet using words altogether with Chinese and Japanese, is how a language can be considered non-phonetic.

The Final Talking Point On Phonetically Consistent Languages…

Phonetically consistent languages are those whose word’s pronunciation can be known just by looking at the word itself. Some of most phonetically consistent languages are:

  • Korean
  • Arabic
  • Dutch
  • Swedish
  • Russian
  • German
  • Spanish

On the other hand, some of the most phonetically inconsistent languages are:

  • Chinese
  • Japanese
  • English
  • French

If interested in more relating to language learning, read through 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, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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