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Phonetic lookup
Posted: 11 November 2010 04:44 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Is there a resource (online or otherwise) whereby someone who knew the pronunciation of a word could find its spelling?

Obviously for homophones there would be multiple entries with definitions.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 04:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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No, I haven’t seen anything like this. It would be pretty cool, but I suspect the limiting factor is how to input your pronunciation. IPA characters would work, but nobody knows IPA. You could do something with plain English, but it would be imprecise. I don’t think voice recognition is at the point where it can, without a lot of examples, determine the phonemes in an individual’s speech. (Typically, one must “train” voice recognition systems to understand an individual’s speech.)

Then you would need a huge pronunciation database, focusing on a lot of obscure words and dialectal pronunciations—after all, that’s what people would most likely be looking up. I don’t think such a database even exists.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 06:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m drifting OT here, but memories of extreme frustration surface here. One of my primary school teachers made it a policy never to help with spelling. She always said, “If you don’t know how to spell a word, look it up in the dictionary.” Arguments that you need to know how to spell it in order to look it up never seemed to impress her.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 12:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Google sort of does that with their “Did you mean ... ?” feature. 

One of the plot points of the 1967 comedy Fitzwilly concerned a penniless dowager’s efforts at writing a “dictionary for people who can’t spell”.  All the other characters in the movie smile condescendingly whenever the project is mentioned, but at the end of the movie (spoiler alert) she signs with a publisher for $75,000 and is once again wealthy (in 1967 dollars).  I always wondered, even as a kid, why the idea of looking up a word you can’t spell is supposed to be so hard.  It’s just a process of elimination as long as you are pronouncing the word correctly and have some idea of which letters can form which sounds.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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It’s just a process of elimination as long as you are pronouncing the word correctly and have some idea of which letters can form which sounds.

aesthetic
bdellium
chthonic
djinn
ealdorman
gnat
heiress
Jotun
knapsack
mnemonic
ouija
ptarmigan
qintar
tsetse
uakari
wren
xebec
yttrium
zaddik

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Posted: 12 November 2010 03:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’m having spelling frustration with medieval Latin. All the dictionaries use classical spelling. Sometimes you can figure out the differences, like ae being elided to e, but often the word can’t be found.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I don’t own it, but would Latham’s Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (London, 1965) help?

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Posted: 12 November 2010 05:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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jtab4994 - 12 November 2010 12:41 PM

It’s just a process of elimination as long as you are pronouncing the word correctly and have some idea of which letters can form which sounds.

OK, silent first letters can throw off your search by a mile.  In fact, seeing the word “djinn” now reminds me that I thought it was spelled “gin” when I first heard it on TV a few decades ago.  So, statement withdrawn and decades-old opinion updated.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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I don’t own it, but would Latham’s Revised Medieval Latin Word-List from British and Irish Sources (London, 1965) help?

Yes, that helps some, but many of the alternate spellings in Latham are listed as variants under the classical spelling.

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Posted: 12 November 2010 06:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I have an acquaintance who has some kind of learning disability, as it is now called. He seems bright enough in the main but can’t spell for shit: e.g can be relied upon to spell rare as rair, or believe as beleave. He is adamant it is not dyslexia. That’s what made me think of this.
Point taken about the input, Dave. Why IPA is not taught in kindergarten, I don’t know…

Perhaps some kind of regular English spelling could be used, with a lookup table.
AIR, example Bair with a picture of a bear
EE, example Bee with a picture of a bee.

Then again if my friend can’t spell, maybe he also can’t use a lookup table. Maybe I should start on the less ambitious goal of setting up such a phonetic lookup dictionary for people _without_ learning disabilities.

I think most people could learn IPA. Given that most ordinary dictionaries seem to use it as their pronunciation guide, it can’t be that obscure. My paper copy of the SOED uses IPA as the pronunciation guide, and at the bottom of each pair of pages is a guide to IPA, with examples.

Surprised that nothing like what I propose exists, I’m sure it would be useful for some people.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 05:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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The trouble with using regular English spelling to represent phonemes is that each dialect pronounces them differently. BAIR might be BAHR in certain dialects, not BEAR. You really need one to one correspondence between symbols and phonemes, i.e. IPA.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 08:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I think most people could learn IPA. Given that most ordinary dictionaries seem to use it as their pronunciation guide, it can’t be that obscure.

The latter statement is so far from being true that not a single one of my many English dictionaries uses it, and frankly I think it’s a lousy system for ordinary use, with too many weird characters and unintuitive usages.  Simply invent a consistent, easy-to-understand system and use that.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 10:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Yes, most people could learn IPA. Also they could learn to use the Dvorak keyboard. Or they could learn one of the reformed spelling systems. Or, if Americans, could learn the metric system. They could, but they ain’t going to.

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Posted: 13 November 2010 10:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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languagehat - 13 November 2010 08:30 AM

I think most people could learn IPA. Given that most ordinary dictionaries seem to use it as their pronunciation guide, it can’t be that obscure.

The latter statement is so far from being true that not a single one of my many English dictionaries uses it, and frankly I think it’s a lousy system for ordinary use, with too many weird characters and unintuitive usages.  Simply invent a consistent, easy-to-understand system and use that.

You hit the nail on the head.  English dictionaries rarely use IPA, foreign dictionaries (at least the Romance and Germanic ones that I am aware of) rarely use anything else.  Most people that I know find IPA extraordinarily useful for getting a quick handle on pronunciations. It may not be perfect, but it seems to me to make a whole lot more sense than most of the systems that are to be found in my English dictionaries.

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Posted: 14 November 2010 05:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Maybe I’ve just been lucky, then, languagehat.

And I think you’re being very defeatist, Dave…

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Posted: 14 November 2010 09:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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That’s not defeatism, it’s realism.

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