Studying English pronunciation,
I will teach you in my verse
Sounds like corpse, corps, horse
So begins Gerard Nolst Trenité's poem "The Chaos," (the italics are his) a wonderful demonstration of the incomprehensibility of English pronunciation. (Which you basically have to hear read out loud; I have a fairly solid command of the language and I
can't figure out which pronunciations he meant in each place. Fortunately, the video does this nicely)
People often mistake this for the English language
being difficult, but it's actually something rather different: English has a relatively simple grammar, but its writing system is quite bizarre, with written forms giving only the roughest clues to how words are pronounced. It's almost closer to logographic writing systems like Kanji than it is to ordinary alphabetic writing. (To give you a comparison, several years ago I had to spend some weeks in Poland for work; as prep for this, I drilled on the basics of the language, including the rules of pronunciation. After a few hours of study, I found that I could read any passage in written Polish out loud without difficulty, and well enough that native speakers were completely flummoxed that I didn't speak the language at all. Go ahead and try that in English; I dare you.)
There's an interesting history behind this. Part of it comes from the heavy borrowing of words from other languages into English -- "croquet" and "lingerie," for example, use French pronunciation (although in the latter case, not French meaning!) and you simply have to know that in order to pronounce them; an experienced English reader will recognize the "-quet" as being a distinctly French pattern, and use those rules, much as they will pronounce "xeriscape" using a Greek-derived sound pattern, even if they don't know Greek.
But there's more to it than this, because every language that's spoken by people who travel or trade is rife with borrowing. What's unusual with English is that it hasn't had any deep spelling reforms (which is likely tied to the Anglophone world's lack of strong monarchies or other forces which imposed such reforms elsewhere) in a while: instead, there have been several waves of standardization which basically fossilized whatever was in the language at the time.
For example, one of the huge standardizing influences was the rapid rise of printing starting in the late 15th century, which caused texts to be much more widely available than ever before. With so much reading going on, people tended towards single spellings for single words. However, the period from the 14th through 18th centuries was also the time of the "Great Vowel Shift," a major transition in the way English was pronounced. Spellings which made perfect sense prior to the shift -- for example, "name" being pronounced "NAH-meh" -- suddenly made no sense at all as the vowels moved.
But at the same time that this was happening, words were getting imported into the language in tremendous bulk, and those words came from languages which were now standardizing their
spelling in their own way, so the words got both the spelling and pronunciation of their parent language; thus we get, for example, "corps," which came into English from French in the late 16th century, versus "corpse," which came in via Old French several hundred years earlier.
"Corpse" was standardized with printing, being spelled (just to make this more confusing) "corps," and pronounced much like the modern word "corpse." (This word didn't happen to get modified much in the Great Vowel Shift) The French word, meanwhile, had changed a good deal under French's own sound shifts: since the Gallic "r" is very far back in the mouth, the following "ps" sound got lost. Under French's own standardization-by-printing, it kept its spelling but changed its sound, and so when English borrowed the word yet again, it kept the spelling "corps" and the French pronunciation "kor," and a final "e" was added to "corpse" to distinguish them -- probably on the theory that silent "e" was a fairly common feature at this point (thanks to the Great Vowel Shift) and would serve to indicate that the previous letters needed to be pronounced.
English is simply a web of stories like these. But unlike various other languages, it never got fixed.
French had some major sound-shifts, but they were fairly predictable consequences of the ways in which French articulates various sounds (things like a back "r" swallowing up following front consonants, or the combination front vowel + s + front consonant losing the "s," that sound being turned into the circumflex), and French had relatively little borrowing afterwards, due in no small part to the rising power of its own standardization bodies which were rigorously anti-borrowing. As a result, you can roughly guess how things are written. Spanish, likewise, had a major reform in the early 19th century.
Other languages were even more recent. Hebrew, for example, has had a notoriously Baroque spelling system, as it has what's technically called an "abjad" rather than an alphabet: that is, the letters represent consonants, and you just have to know the right vowels. As a result, the standard exam for prospective newscasters in Israel was to simply give them a sheet of text and have them read it out loud. Even fairly ordinary words would quickly start to read like Trenité's poem, and very few people could read it all correctly. The language had a major spelling cleanup in 1996, standardizing on the "ktav malé" system, and it's now possible for even people without profound mastery of the language to read an arbitrary piece of text out loud.
So while English isn't the worst language to learn, by far, it has ended up with a complete mess of a spelling system.
It could be worse; it could be Chinese.
You can find the full text of the poem at https://web.archive.org/web/20050415131319/http://www.spellingsociety.org/journals/j17/caos.php
A good history of English spelling is at http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Histengl/spelling.html
, and you can read about the Great Vowel Shift at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Vowel_Shift