English is hard to spell. Nevertheless, most of us get by with a combination of some basic phonetics, habits from school, and occasional trips to the dictionary (and learning from a few embarrassing mistakes along the way). English has the most difficult spelling of any Western language (and, after all, we have spelling bees, which are nearly unique to the United States). This is partly due to the mongrel nature of the language, which evolved from a combination of Anglo-Saxon (also known as Old English), Latin, Old Norse, and the Anglo-French of the dominant class following the Norman Conquest in 1066.
This motley jumble of languages, plus time (we won’t even get into the great vowel shift), has made English spelling confusing and frequently counterintuitive. It also makes it hard to pronounce many words confidently and correctly, due to the inconsistent relationship spelling has with pronunciation. Consider the various ways we create the \f\ sound in cough, photo, and giraffe, or the \sh\ sound in special, issue, vicious, and portion, or the \k\ sound in tack, quite, and shellac, and how we pronounce the "o" in do, core, lock, and bone, or the "ea" in lead, ocean, idea, and early. And, of course, there’s cough, rough, though, bough, and through.
Let’s look at some words that sound quite different from what one might expect from the way that they are spelled. A few of these are fairly common words, but most are more frequently encountered by reading than from spoken English. Even avid readers with big vocabularies can be surprised by how some words sound. One thing is for sure: if you pronounce these tricky words correctly, it shows that you also know what they mean.