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A phonemic orthography is a writing system where the written graphemes correspond to phonemes, the spoken sounds of the language. In terms of orthographic depth, these are termed shallow orthographies, contrasting with deep orthographies. These are sometimes termed true alphabets, but non-alphabetic writing systems like syllabaries can be phonemic as well.


Scripts with a good grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence include those of Albanian, Armenian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Basque, Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Kurdish, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Sanskrit, Somali, Spanish, Serbian, Swahili and Turkish.

Most Indian Languages such as Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Gujarati, etc. have phonemic orthographies.

Most constructed languages such as Esperanto and Lojban have phonemic orthographies.

Dialects of English

As dialects of the English language vary significantly, it would be difficult to create a phonemic orthography that encompassed all of them. However, it is fairly easy to create one based on a standard accent such as Received Pronunciation. This would, however, exclude certain sound differences found in other accents, such as the bad–lad split in Australian English. With time, pronunciations change and spellings become out of date, as has happened to English and French. In order to maintain a phonemic orthography such a system would need periodic updating, as has been attempted by various language regulators and proposed by other spelling reformers.

Loan words

Phonemic orthography in a language is affected by the borrowing of loanwords from another written in the same alphabet but having different sound-to-spelling conventions. If the original spelling and pronunciation are both kept, then the spelling is "irregular": for example, fajita is pronounced /fəˈhiːtə/ to reflect the Spanish pronunciation of /faˈxita/, rather than /fəˈdʒaɪtə/ as the spelling would suggest under normal English spelling rules. Phonemicity may be preserved by nativizing the loanword's pronunciation as with the Russian word шофёр (from French chauffeur) which is pronounced [ʂɐˈfʲor] in accordance with the normal rules of Russian vowel reduction. Spelling pronunciation is another common phenomenon. Nativizing the spelling of loanwords is also common; for example, football is spelt fútbol in Spanish and futebol in Portuguese.

Difference from phonetic transcription

Methods for phonetic transcription such as the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) aim to describe pronunciation in a standard form. They are often used to solve ambiguities in the spelling of written language. They may also be used to write languages with no previous written form. Systems like IPA can be used for phonemic representation or for showing more detailed phonetic information (see Narrow vs. broad transcription).

Phonemic orthographies are different from phonetic transcription; whereas in a phonemic orthography, allophones will usually be represented by the same grapheme, a purely phonetic script would demand that phonetically distinct allophones be distinguished. To take an example from American English: the /t/ sound in the words "table" and "cat" would, in a phonemic orthography, be written with the same character; however, a strictly phonetic script would make a distinction between the aspirated "t" in "table", the flap in "butter", the unaspirated "t" in "stop" and the glottalized "t" in "cat" (not all these allophones exist in all English dialects). In other words, the sound that most English speakers think of as /t/ is really a group of sounds, all pronounced slightly differently depending on where they occur in a word. A perfect phonemic orthography has one letter per group of sounds (phoneme), with different letters only where the sounds distinguish words (so "bed" is spelled differently from "bet").

A narrow phonetic transcription represents phones, the atomic sounds humans are capable of producing, many of which will often be grouped together as a single phoneme in any given natural language, though the groupings vary across languages. English, for example, does not distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated consonants, but other languages, like Bengali and Hindi, do.

See also

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