My dad and I have had a number of conversations about the English language and specifically as relates to spelling. It’s clear that English makes very little sense and despite the general griping on Slashdot about the laziness inferred by the spelling reformers I think the point brought up in the article by American Literacy Council’s Alan Mole that modern English spelling requires more rote memorization than logical application is completely valid. I’ve heard that English is one of the hardest languages to learn for non-native speakers primarily because it has little or no internal consistency and I believe it. Heck, it’s hard to figure out for me and I’ve been speaking it exclusively for almost 30 years.
The problem with the way the article presents it in a sort of backhanded tongue-in-cheek way by intentionally spelling words “phonetically” is that it gives readers the impression that reformed spelling would result in idiotic-looking writing. And I actually think the phonetic spellings they chose make it harder to read rather than easier. But that’s because they’re trying to use current alphabetical constructs to fabricate approximizations of phonetic sounds. The real problem isn’t with our spelling, it’s with our alphabet.
Assume for a moment that the ALC’s statement is true and there are 400 ways to spell 42 different sounds. What that suggests is that we need—at most—42 characters in our alphabet in order to have a completely phonetic and logical spelling system. But in truth some of those sounds can come from letter combinations, rather than individual characters. So if you set a couple of ground rules it isn’t difficult to pick out a few simple ways to improve the alphabet (some of these ideas are directly from my dad).
Rule 1: No character in the alphabet may be used for more than one sound on its own. Therefore the hard ‘k’ sound cannot be duplicated by ‘k’ and ‘c’.
Rule 2: No sound must require more than two characters to spell. That eliminates ‘eigh’ as a legitimate spelling for the sound ‘ay’.
Rule 3: Brevity is key so additional characters should not be added simply to convey a single sound; accent characters are preferred.
Rule 4: Doubling up letters is not an acceptable sound/character combination. “Book” and “Glass” should be adjusted accordingly.
So let’s review the alphabet with these in mind. First of all we can clearly dispose entirely of the letter ‘c': It is duplicated in its hard sound by ‘k’ and duped in the soft sound with ‘s’. It goes. ‘G’ is occasionally pronounced with the harder ‘j’ sound so we have to stop that lest we break rule one so ‘g’ is only as in “God” or “Great” but never as in “Gym.” ‘I’ is tricky because as a standalone word it is pronounced like the letter, “eye.” In use though it usually sounds like “ih,” for example “in” and “stupid.” We do still need the “eye” sound for “life” and “quiet.” I say this letter needs an accent, so Ï is now the way the first person pronoun is spelled and likewise lïfe but “pinch” and “grin” remain the same. ‘O’ is occasionally duplicated to make a longer sound. Likewise ‘e’ and ‘s’, but that’s clunky. Instead I suggest that lengthening sounds should be handled by an accent like “grén” and “bók.”
‘Q’ is tricky because it is sometimes used at the end of a work to approximate a ‘ck’ sound (usually for artistic merit) but usually it makes the “Kw” sound… only it requires a ‘u’ to do so. ‘P’ is fine as is, but ‘ph’ is no longer valid: It’s just ‘f’. I’m torn between making ‘Q’ simply have the ‘u’ built into its sound, eliminating it for the ‘kw’ sequence and introducing a replacement character altogether. For now let’s just say ‘q’ no longer needs the ‘u’ to complete its sound: It is complete on its own. ‘X’ is pointless since it only ever replaces ‘z’ at the beginning of a word (“Xylophone”) or it sounds like ‘ks’ so it gets the heave-ho. That leaves us with:
A B D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W Y Z and only two instances of accents to handle either ï sounds and to elongate certain vowel sounds (á, é, ó, etc).
A few other sound combinations that are standardized:
- ‘Ch’ – With no more ‘c’ we need an approximation. ‘Tsh’ might work but that’s three letters and violates Rule 2. So we’ll just use ‘ts’.
- Long ‘a’ sounds require a trailng ‘i’ as in “grain.” Short ‘a’ sounds need only a single ‘a’.
- ‘L’ sounds at the end of a word are modified by a preceeding ‘e’ not a trailing ‘e’ as in “marble,” which would instead be “marbel”.
- ‘Sh’ sounds will always be produced by those two letters and never ‘tio’ or ‘sio’ so it would be “vishon” and “eksklamashon” instead of “vision” and “exclamation”.
Some sample word spellings:
Apel – Apple
Ardvark – Aardvark
Aimy – Amy
Asosheaishon – Association
Buter – Butter
Brayk – Break
Bït – Bite
Dayvid – David
Duns – Dunce
Drém – Dream
So what do you think? Anything I missed? Suggestions for improvement? Leave a comment!
Oh hey, also vote in my poll. No registration required or anything. Convenient!