Love for languages

I’ve always loved languages. Not that I thought I would be really good at them, but I was genuinely intrigued by the fact that they work differently from each other. You can’t just assume that because something works in one language it will work in other too. But when it does, it makes me happy. And when things work in some way in most languages you know and suddenly it’s different in another one, now that’s interesting!

This blog is not about grammar or vocabulary; it is about scripts. The different way in which we write sounds. The same sounds (some would argue that they are not exactly the same but that would ruin my point!) can look completely differently, even in languages using the same alphabet. Or maybe not completely. What I noticed in languages I bumped into is that the English “s” and “sh” sound tend to be related in the way they are written.

For example, in English if you want to write an “sh” sound, you just put an “h” behind the s, as in “rubbish”. The same sound in German is represented by “sch” as in “die Schule”. Fun stuff is that to have an “s” you have to write it double, ss, otherwise it’s a “z”. The “ss” is similar in French. But the options are wider. “S” can be either “s” or “ss” and “sh” can be either “sh” or “ch”.

In Italian one writes “sce” or “sci” to get the sounds as in “shell” and “ship”. This is because the “e” and “I” soften the sound after “c”, changing it from “k” sound into “ch”.

The softening process is quite different in some other languages, possibly because there are many more soft syllables. For example, in Slovak the “s” would be “s” and “sh” would be “s̆”. In Polish the “sh” is “sz”. In Hungarian, on the other hand, it is vice versa! “S” sound is written as “sz” but “sh” sound is just “s”.

Now let’s move to non-latin scripts. In Arabic, the “s” sound is represented by س, whereas “sh” as ش. As you can see, the principle is the same. Hebrew is very similar, with “s” being שׂ and “sh” שׁ. The position of the dot on the top changes, but the basics are the same.

Then we get to Cyrilic and Russian alphabets, which have are completely different. In these two, the “s” is represented by C and “sh” by ш. Why?

The best explanation I could come up with is that there is another letter in these alphabets, to which is “sh” phonetically more similar than to “s”. It is щ, “shch” in Russian and “sht” in Cyrilic. The more similar the sound, the more similar the letter.

Whether the explanation is valid or not doesn’t really matter, more important is that if you made it to the end, there is a chance that this piece sparked some interest in languages. Or at least it gives you fun facts to talk about.


Notes: I only included languages I know, or I know people who know them. If you know some other language with “sh” sounds, please share the spelling with me!

Also, I didn’t include east Asian languages, because they don’t have letters in the same way as Europeans do, the letters often represent a whole word.


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