A cruel-coloured scathed crow

Audio pareidolia applied to song lyrics is a potent source of comedy. A single misheard line is often amusing enough, but the illusion is taken to another level when the imposed and original lyrics are in different languages. You may remember the Four Tuna video that went viral several years ago, in which a very well-known Latin song is given English captions that somewhat resemble the Latin phonetics. The result is simultaneously hilarious and fascinating.

I have listened countless times to the Youtube video of Karan Casey singing A Chomaraigh Aoibhinn O — an extraordinarily beautiful Irish song. I first linked to it in 2008, and it’s still a favourite. The lyrics, alongside an accurate English translation, are available here.

Recently I decided to give it the Four Tuna treatment, and my fake English lyrics are given below, underneath the original video. You can follow along and see how well my false lyrics fool your brain.


Moving hard down creek,
Nor the kid is still related;
I come back heaving gold.
Store the vine, though a cool work,
And your do will clearly fail all;
I come back heaving gold.
Laugh, ha-ha, yellow well,
Spoke a kind-hearted greybuck;
The gloam does swallow
The font of the layerer.
Oh, Grandma Creek,
It’s suet like a “K”, lol,
I come back heaving gold.

If stone grew barren
At a cruel-coloured scathed crow,
I come back heaving gold.
Through the last seven sewers,
Little heart’ll want a grainer;
I come back heaving gold.
Our fastest larrikin,
Here gone the pathed fields;
My wrath I show,
Let it show o’er the glazed fair.
Wrote a scar, penned and drew it,
And a new sort of spare art;
I come back heaving gold.

Nor veer sour or solar,
Shadowly we came, which
I come back heaving gold.
He knew we’d get fond
And yearn, let it stay here;
I come back heaving gold.
Our barber carried on,
Got a new sort of cradle;
If a heart got barred,
Fish can like a late shift.
It’s cost me a legion,
I flew a lot of leisure;
I come back heaving gold.

I vaguely entertain the notion that a skilled satirist could weave some story around these words — as another layer of pareidolia, that would be somewhat fitting. They’re utterly meaningless, of course, but it does no harm to caution readers in Ireland to watch out for the cruel-coloured scathed crow, just in case.

Does it work for you?

[I originally shared this on Google Plus --- which is sometimes useful for sharing things that are still taking shape in my mind, with minimal attention to presentation or how they might seem in retrospect --- but I've decided it merits a place on the blog.]

Fragments of song

There are several old posts on this blog about music that I composed when I was younger. But as a teenager in the nineties I also composed some fragments that never became complete songs, and I’ve not yet blogged about those.

So here is a selection. The lyrics are brimming with teenage angst, and are also rich in words I thought of as inherently poetic at the time. If any of them inspire you, you’re welcome to adapt them in your own creative works. All I ask is that you let me know.

Most of the recordings below were made expressly for this blog post, and are not polished performances. Their purpose is simply to demonstrate the tune.

The first one is the chronologically oldest, and here is a tune I recorded some years ago, followed by lyrics:

What I feel is a kind of torture
Every moment reminds me of a thought that once occured
And I feel nothing less than torture
When I remember that the thought is too absurd.
I cannot justify the course this tension’s leading;
I wait unsatisfied, in pain and almost screaming.
Waiting for some release from torture
To release my mind, a thought that’s not absurd
And I feel nothing less than torture
When I remember that the thought has not occured.

The next fragment is intended to sound like some old folk song. It’s rich in metaphor and open to interpretation.

There is no place so distant as my only world;
There is no sound so faint as our most piercing scream.
What shall I build, here where a thousand stones are hurled,
And where the wind erodes away each worthless dream?

This one is about being abandoned by a valued friend. The second verse would have included the line, “And I’ll walk to infinity again today” (invoking a sense of aimlessness).

Every healing word I know is void;
Watching silence greet every desperate cry.
Everything we shared, everything we said;
Watching memories freeze as they pass me by.

A few years ago I wrote the above fragment into a story — as previously mentioned here — and also included this one.

How do I build from impossible stones —
Where’s the ground to hold them?
How do I walk from infinity home
After wandering there?

To finish, a fragment that is only one line long, but which I’ve always thought has potential for a pop song.

Unwelcome conclusion of a painful illusion.

I hope these brought you pleasure, and that they don’t evoke your current state of mind. But you have my sympathy if they do.

The Gzarondan language

Among the blog posts I’ve revised in my current archive clean-up is my 2006 article on conlanging. That blog post discusses artistic language invention in a general way, but makes only a passing mention of my own conlang, Gzarondan.

That’s because I didn’t have any documentation ready to share. Last time I’d worked on the language, I’d left a lot of details in flux, so the documentation I had was a bit of a mess. But although I have no plans to do any more conlanging in the future, I did always want to publish an official documentation of the language I created. Sometimes it just takes a few years of cold storage.

To that end, I published a short article about it near the end of 2012. This document has been sitting quietly in case further editing proved necessary, but I’m ready to share it now. First, though, a few words on what this documentation is and is not, because many conlangers are used to documentation written by other active conlangers, and this governs their expectations.

I spent a lot of time working on the Gzarondan language back in the day, but for most of the decisions I made (or periodically changed my mind on), I simply don’t care anymore, so I have no interest in documenting them. What I’ve written therefore documents only the aspects of the language that I feel some attachment to: The Best Of Gzarondan. Everything else has been discarded.

To make this possible, I’ve taken the perspective of an outsider, describing the language as if it were something I’d read about in an old scroll or something. That way, if I don’t wish to document some feature, I can simply describe it as “unknown”. Other conlangers are welcome to build on my creation, or to simply pinch some ideas here and there for their own art.

You can read my five-page article on the Gzarondan language here.

[Minor corrections made to PDF document on February 9]

More silly pulp covers

Back in February I linked to the Pulp-O-Mizer cover generator, which lets you design magazine covers in the style of 1950s pulp science fiction. One entertaining way to use it is to design spoof covers for works that are manifestly not pulp science fiction.

At the time, I’d designed this cover for Mike Brown’s “How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming“.

Pulp Pluto

Recently I decided to see what else I could do, and decided I might as well design a cover for the Bible. (It’s been a while since I was last burned at the stake.)

Pulp Bible

If you haven’t explored the Pulp-O-Mizer for yourself yet, there are a certain number of magazine titles, background images, and foreground images available, from which you can choose any combination, and then add your own text. Obviously none of the options are remotely Biblical, which is what makes it an interesting challenge to find the best match possible. I chose:

  • Magazine title:Amazing Wonder Stories” — the only other remotely appropriate choice is “Enormous Stories“, which doesn’t go as nicely with the background.
  • Background: Futuristic city through round window — the nearest pulp science fiction gets to Heaven, and at least as good as the version in Revelation.
  • Foreground: Little guy jealously guarding his pot of gold — it’s not hard to find a Biblical character who fits this archetype, although not with a gun.

I hope that Christians and atheists alike can appreciate the humour in what I’ve done here.

I also wondered what cover would be most appropriate for my own autobiography, which I assure you will never be written. I’ve left out the custom text, which would only say Insert Title Here in any case. It’s the nearest I can get to a representation of what goes on inside my head (robots playing games under the stars).

Pulp Autobiography

Looking on my bookshelf for inspiration, I decided to have a go at “The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language“. (Geoff Pullum’s comment in email was: “We are going to switch to this cover at the next reprint. If we can persuade Cambridge University Press, which unfortunately was founded in 1534, and has proved just a teensy bit conservative in the past…“)

Pulp Grammar

I’ve done a few others, but these are representative. Feel free to say if you have requests, or if you’ve taken inspiration from any of my designs above.

Updates to my online store

I recently added a few new products to my online store, and pruned away a few old ones. The current inventory follows:

Products with fractals:

  • Coffee mug with two related fractal images on a black background.
  • Mousepad with fractal image resembling a sort of recursive spider web.
  • Gift box with fractal image resembling a sort of recursive spider web.

Products with photographs I’ve taken in Australia:

  • Coffee mug with two coastal scenes from Victoria, unified by use of black.
  • Gift box with atmospheric sunset photo from Innes National Park, facing Wedge Island.
  • Playing cards with waterfall photograph from Belair National Park. [NEW!]
  • Keychain with photograph of a run-down old farmhouse.

Products with photographs taken overseas by me or my relatives:

  • Playing cards with photograph of the Heavenly Lake, near Urumchi, China (taken by parents). [NEW!]
  • Notebook with photograph from the Austrian alps, indicative of mountainous journey.
  • Christmas tree decoration with winter scene from Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany (taken by parents).
  • Keychain with photograph from Arundel Castle in England.
  • (Also: calendar with photographs taken by parents on Beijing to St Petersburg tour. The published design is for 2012, but it should be possible to customise it for other years. I would consider publishing a new version if there is demand.)

Miscellaneous products:

  • Coffee mug with collage of works by Renaissance artists, plus artist information.
  • Coffee mug making fun of homeopathy, assisted by the Loch Ness Monster (featuring Antarctica photo by Paul Willis). [NEW!]

(Note: When browsing my store, the homeopathy parody mug will only show up if you have filters set to Moderate rather than Safe. A direct link will work either way.)

Friends with online stores include Stan Carey (Spreadshirt) and April Schoffstall (Zazzle). Also, I’m still using this mousepad, which I bought on Zazzle several years ago and would recommend to others.

Astronomy in conjunction with more astronomy

I’ve recently done two very exciting things that are both of astronomical significance.

One of them — which has just happened as I begin writing this — was attending a public lecture by Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, on his Australian tour. More on that later. The other was the opportunity to design a logo for an astronomical organisation.

About a month ago, there was a crowdfunding campaign to help import a digital planetarium to Kenya and train operators in its use (I donated a small amount of money). Shortly after the campaign succeeded, there was a Facebook update asking if anyone had ideas for a new logo for the Amateur Astronomical Society of Kenya — which is recently formed, and will be taking charge of the planetarium for the benefit of Kenyan students. (The Society uses astronomical and astronomy interchangeably, but officially it’s the former.)

I got in touch by email and basically said, “I’ll do it!”, supplementing this offer with a rough draft.

Now, at this point I need to digress and explain what I do when I’m at work, which is not something I talk about much on this blog. I work at a graphic design studio called Inprint Design, which is part of an umbrella organisation called South Australian Group Enterprises. As part of their business model SAGE provides employment for people with disabilities (asperger’s syndrome in my case), which you can read about in more detail on their site.

At Inprint there are a handful of trained graphic designers, plus a larger team of grunts who (with few exceptions) have on-the-job training only. Two production supervisors distribute jobs to the team, often giving the same job to several of us in order to make the most of our creativity. They also approve our work before sending it to the client, and assist us when we need it. Senior designers (including the production supervisors) handle jobs that require a more experienced touch.

There are designers — out there in the world — who moan when amateur organisations and the like ask supporters to submit logos etc for free (even if, as in this case, the client is donation-supported in the first place). I won’t get into that argument, but it’s an attitude you will not find at Inprint Design. In fact, given our set-up, public design competitions can work in our favour because they are a training opportunity for supported staff.

Which takes us back to the story of my logo. I spoke to our manager before sending my draft to the AASK, and again after hearing that they were interested in Inprint’s services; she was more than happy for me to work on the logo. Because I would be doing it personally with none of the usual supervision, the AASK would get the logo for free. But I would still be using state-of-the-art graphic design software and a fair bit of experience in using it.

Here is the logo I came up with, which has been accepted by the Amateur Astonomical Society of Kenya [update: link added]. Click to see it large. I would say this is the highest profile design that I’ve ever personally been responsible for, and I’m very pleased with it.


My original idea — practically all of which survives in the final design above — was as follows. As an equatorial country, Kenya has an unobstructed view of both northern and southern hemisphere skies — a point well made on the crowdfunding campaign page — so I represented this with an iconic northern hemisphere constellation (Big Dipper) on the left and an iconic southern hemisphere constellation (Southern Cross) on the right. I put a giraffe between them because I imagine giraffes get a good view of most things, so this helps represent the notion of a good view of the sky. The colour scheme was based on the Kenyan flag, plus a little yellow to add a sunset effect.

Below is the original draft. Note that I accidentally represented the Little Dipper instead of the Big Dipper because I’m Australian and cannot be expected to know the difference (I picked up on the error myself, eventually). Also, at this point I had not yet given any thought to orientation.

AASK draft

The feedback from the AASK was very positive. Requests included adding the tagline “We Explore”, making the letters AASK stand out, and — if possible — including an outline of Kenya somewhere on the design. As you can see I succeeded, but not before mulling it over for some time.

At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to include the outline of Kenya. In my design, as you’ll remember, left represents north and right represents south, and I was worried that a map — with the conventional west-east orientation — would conflict with this. But once I hit on the idea of representing the green earth at the bottom of the logo, everything fell into place. (The map I used is freely available here.)

One suggestion was to use star colours (blue, white, yellow, orange, red) to make “AASK” stand out. I put the letters on the giraffe’s neck instead, but I liked the idea of incorporating star colours into the design, which is why the spectrum around the edge includes bands of blue, white, yellow and orange, taking the place of the sunset effect in my draft.

My AASK contact person noted that the font I chose for the “We Explore” tagline is reminiscent of the solar analemma. This was entirely unintended: I just liked it because it contrasted with the main font and filled up the space nicely. But I did choose my main font on the basis that it looks like the sort of thing a spaceship’s name might be written in.

I made the logo mostly in Adobe Indesign, with a touch of Adobe Illustrator for the stars. Feel free to ask technical questions if you think you can learn something from the answers.

OK, now let’s talk about Phil Plait.

I’ve been reading Phil’s blog and following him on Twitter for years, and I also have one of his books. When I heard he was visiting not only Australia but Adelaide (which, as a small city, all too often misses out), I jumped at the chance and acquired two tickets, one for me and one for Dad. Phil’s insatiable enthusiasm for science would be bound to appeal to Dad, who — being a geologist — thinks rocks are interesting. (OK, enough cheekiness for this paragraph, if only because it’s over.)

Phil’s talk was on the evening of Wednesday August 14. Dad and I arrived early and got good seats (speaking of which, the seats were the only part of the evening that I could possibly complain about, as they were not the most comfortable or spatious, but hey, free tickets). On the way in I introduced Dad to Paul Willis, director of the Royal Institution Australia — which was responsible for the Adelaide event — and no small name in Australian science communication.

I enjoyed the show. Having watched videos of other talks Phil has given I had a good idea of what to expect, but it is better live. For one thing, you see the speaker and the projected slides and movie clips in the proportion they are meant to be seen. I kept half an eye on Dad’s reactions and he clearly enjoyed it too.

After questions it was time for the signing queue, which is the bit I had really come for. That was where the two astronomical events — the logo and the talk — came together, because it meant I had something specific to share (no doubt the fact this opportunity was coming up gave me an extra incentive to do my best on the logo). The point of a celebrity signing queue, as I see it, is the opportunity to give them a brief moment of pleasure in return for the years of pleasure they’ve given you (having something to be signed is not important at all; anyone can use a pen).

It was an interesting experience; the word “awesome” feels about right. Most of what I said consisted of pre-rehearsed lines strung together, because that was the only way I could handle the pressure. I introduced myself with a cheeky “Very nice of you to come over from … um … you know … that place on the border between Mexico and Canada” — but he didn’t react to the national slight, being more interested in saying how happy he was to be in Australia. We talked about my AASK logo (which he liked a lot) and then the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast (because I did one episode for it, back in 2011).

Then comes that moment when you’ve said as much as you dared hope you’d have the chance to, talking to an internationally renowned arch-geek and aware of the queue of people behind you waiting their turn. There is literally a universe of topics I could have raised (like, I dunno, my memories of the first Hubble pictures, to pick something at random), but I felt it was time to go.

It is now almost the end of the following day. I’ve lent Dad my copy of Phil Plait’s book “Death from the Skies” (see, I told you he enjoyed it), and spent most of the day with family. The highlight was seeing my niece Elke (previously blogged about here), which merits another blog post — but meanwhile here are two pictures with Elke and Death from the Skies in the same shot.


Maybe some day she’ll read it.

Links: Early August 2013

Here are some links for you to enjoy.


  • The science of military helicopters with halos.
  • Long video of astronomer talking passionately about exoplanets.
  • Fascinating article on island home of isolated tribe.
  • Alien explains shape of universe (wouldn’t recommend as primer, but entertaining if you’re already fairly well informed).
  • Documentary on deception, featuring Richard Wiseman (more episodes to come).
  • Long article on parasites of plants, including biological, historical and social perspectives. Main case study from Ghana.
  • Insights into how Roald Dahl’s The Witches came to be, from his editor.
  • Good, comprehensive article on milk tolerance and its historical implications.
  • How relativity explains mercury. (No, the other mercury: the liquid metal.)
  • Dark matter as mapped by Planck.
  • Wonder and the history of science.



One more link, which merits a few paragraphs…

The Royal Institution of Australia is running a haiku competition, for which entries close on August 18. To quote from the submissions page:

Inspired by the Japanese haiku, sci-ku is a short three-line poem about sciences. Sci-ku is a small, modest and humble poem that depicts the everyday world around us, aiming to give a flash of insight into that world — like a scientific ‘Eureka!’ moment expressed briefly in words.

This year we’re looking for Sci-ku poems with a statistics or mathematics theme, in recognition of 2013 being the International Year of Statistics and the International Year of Mathematics of Planet Earth.

I mulled over my entry for some time. I don’t know whether there are any experienced poets on the judging committee, but I wanted my entry to be as true as possible to the haiku spirit. Any haiku-writing guide will tell you that the poems describe an experience of the senses and do not intellectualise. This is not an easy guideline to follow when writing about mathematics, but I eventually hit on the idea of describing a mathematical thought experiment. That way it’s a visual experience of sorts (albeit an imaginary one), and the only intellectualising occurs in the reader’s mind.

The thought experiment I settled on was this. Cut the earth in half (so that the mass of each half is the same), throw away one piece, and keep the other. The next day, cut the remaining piece in half, throw away one piece, and keep the other. Repeat daily. How long does it take before only a single proton remains? (You can’t cut a proton in half and get something that weighs half a proton, so this is as far as you can go.)

The answer — which clearly has everything to do with the Mathematics of Planet Earth — is 171 days, or nearly half a year. So if you started on January 1st, you’d finish on June 20, and if you started on July 7, you’d finish on Christmas.

This, then, is my sci-ku:

The planet’s mass, halved
daily from December’s end:
leaves mid-year proton.

If this inspires you to write your own, submit it here.

You may now call me El Kazunkel

On Sunday 26 May at 11:00pm, my sister gave birth to her first child — a 52cm long, 4kg baby girl, who a couple of days later was named Elke Adele Smith. (It can be fun to guess what a newborn baby will be called; my guess was Leisel Olivia Smith. That Rebecca would go for a German name was easy to predict, given her strong ties to our German friends.)

My choice of zeroth birthday gift was a copy of Dreamland by Putumayo, a collection of lullabies from around the world, in various languages (you can hear a clip of each track at the website). If I have one criticism, it’s that the songs should be associated with the country they are native to instead of the country the artist happens to come from, but such quibbles mean nothing to a newborn baby.

Below is a Youtube version of one of the tracks — Cradle Spell of Dunvegan by Lynn Morrison — which is in English, although parts are rich in Scottish dialect words that I don’t understand.

I made my own card to go with the gift, featuring this photo of an elk for Elke. The front of the card is very personalised, but the inside is generic and could be used for any baby girl (which you may do, if you wish). Here are images:

Elke1 Elke2

The message inside reads:

On the birth of your daughter
I give you wishes for a lifetime.
As you grow older
– And she has her turn to grow older –
May you find in her
A friend and daughter who enriches your world,
A fellow traveller on the adventure of life.
And may she find in you
The security of knowing she is loved and respected
In troubled as well as joyous times.
Grow with her! Have fun with her!
And remember fondly how it all began.

Soon after the name was announced, I told Rebecca by text message that I was changing my name to El Kazunkel, which I used again when I signed the card. Rebecca got the joke straight away (it’s pronounced “Elke’s Uncle“), but most people need a hint. They do tend to like it once they get it, though, and it was later featured on my own birthday cake (of which, more later).

I went home to spend a week with my parents on the evening of June 5th, and met Elke for the first time on June 6th. Rebecca told me my card was lovely. Here are some photos of Elke — mostly from that first encounter, but a few from later in the week.

With her mother:



With her father, Ellis:


With her grandfather:




With her grandmother:


With me:




In her cradle:



I gave Elke a little speech I’d prepared, referencing the famous bridge scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. It went something like this. “Your name … is Elke. Your quest … is to make life as challenging as possible for your parents (and if you ever need any help with that, just let me know; that’s what uncles are all about). As for your favourite colour, well, you get to decide that when you’ve had a good look at them all. And I promise that no-one is going to throw you off any bridges until you’ve made up your mind.

The week wasn’t entirely about Elke. Here are some new photos from my parents’ home, featuring the extensions that were built but not furnished last time I was home.




And outside:


(Compare with the photos here and here, taken last August.)

I brought with me a bottle of the coconut, orange, honey & spice cocktail that I created. I gave the recipe in a previous blog post, but to repeat: it’s 1 part Island Sting, 1 part orange juice, and 2 parts coconut water (alcohol content is 5% per volume). Dad said the flavour was interesting and very drinkable, adding that he detected a hint of ginger. I’ve left the bottle with him to share with guests, whose feedback I look forward to hearing about.

My cousin Robert, his wife Katrina, and their three children Kate, Leah and Joshua, now live on the same peninsula as my parents, and I saw quite a bit of them over the week. Saturday June 8th was a particularly busy day. We had lunch at the annual craft fair in Maitland, and spent the afternoon lighting small bonfires on the farm.

In the evening, I read Joshua a story that I had bought him as a gift: Ankylosaur Attack by Daniel Loxton. Circumstances weren’t ideal — I had a headache, Dad was making noise washing dishes in the background, and Josh insisted on sitting in a chair that meant I had to contort my body awkwardly in order to read — so it felt like something of an anticlimax. But later (on Monday evening), Robert told me that Josh had asked for the book again the following night, so it was evidently a success.

Here are some fire photos:



And a video:

On Sunday 9th June, we gathered at Rebecca’s place for a barbecue lunch and a walk on the beach. It was then that I received the birthday cake I mentioned earlier (my actual birthday is June 12th).

Here is a video of Kate throwing a ball for Rebecca and Ellis’s dog, Molly:

And here are some photos of Molly that I took earlier in the week:


I saw the wider family one last time at a Monday evening restaurant meal, and on Tuesday I returned home to Adelaide.

I bought a new modem while I was away, which I’m planning to install the day after I publish this. The main advantage of the new modem is that it has a wireless option, so once it’s set up I’ll be able to connect from my laptop and participate in Skype video chats, etc, from my own home (my desktop does not have a webcam).

A lizard, a wedding and a painting

A least three things have happened in the last week that are worth sharing. The most important is my second cousin’s wedding, which we’ll get to in a moment. But first, here’s a photo of a gecko I saw on my kitchen window last Thursday evening:


I’ve never seen a gecko at this address before, and — although I’ve read about it often enough — I’ve never seen a gecko climbing glass before. Amazing.

On Saturday, my second cousin Simon married Jemima, who I hadn’t met before. The wedding took place in the Lutheran Church at Strathalbyn, a largish town about 50km southeast of Adelaide. Here are my photos from the service:


And from outside the church:


Everybody taking photographs at the same time:


Between the service and the reception, my parents and I explored the town of Strathalbyn, which features a very nice park in the middle. Here’s my best photograph:


The reception was held back in the church hall. On display was the official wedding cake, which is almost certainly the best-decorated cake at any wedding I’ve been to. Simon is a tractor fanatic, hence the farm-themed decorations as seen in the first photo below.

Beside it is a photograph of the balcony where the married couple and selected company sat during the reception.


Below are two more photos. The first is a close-up from our table, starring Mum, and the second shows the view toward the balcony. The light levels in the room were too low for my camera to focus properly, but I’m sure you’ll forgive that.


During the proceedings, the microphone coordinator gave us half an hour to compose messages to be read aloud. My parents remember this was a common thing at weddings a generation ago, but almost unknown these days — perhaps it’s coming back into fashion, but more likely Simon and Jemima heard about it from old folk and thought it was a good idea.

Anyway, with assistance from family — because I couldn’t figure out the last line on my own — I composed the following limerick:

When Simon did marry Jemima
He couldn’t find anyone finer.
She doesn’t have wheels
Yet somehow appeals
And we hope that he’ll often remind her.

To my mind, the reception was a lot more enjoyable than the service. However it did run late (so many speeches), and we didn’t stay till the very end. I never did find out if the cake tasted as good as it looked, but the rest of the food was beyond criticism.

It was great to catch up with Simon and meet Jemima, but of course it wasn’t the place for an extended chat. I look forward to having that opportunity another time.

The third event worth sharing from the last week is the delivery — yesterday evening — of the painting I bought last month on Kangaroo Island. The painting is called Southern Swell, and the artist is Suzanne Trethewey. Here is a picture of it hanging above my living room table, followed by two complementary close-ups:


Kán yu andastánd wot aim seiing?

Whatever you think of the complexities and ambiguities of English spelling, reforming it is not a realistic prospect this side of an independently-governed moon colony.

Or, to put it another way: Woteva yu think ov dhi kompleksitíz ánd ámbigyúitíz ov Inglish speling, rifōming it iz not a rialistik prospekt dhis said ov an indipendentli-gavand mún koloni.

Because however unattainable reform might be in the real world, everything is possible in the imagination. Only very boring people permit their actions to be governed by the question, “Is it practical” when they could be asking, “Is it fun?”. So here’s my question: Suppose you were the governor of that moon colony. How would you propose a more-or-less phonemic English could be spelt?

Bikoz haoeva anateinabul rifōm mait bi in dhi rial wǎld, evríthing iz posibul in dhi imájineishon. Ounli veri bōring pípul pǎmit dhe ákshonz tu bi gavand bai dhi kweschon, “Iz it práktikul” wen dhei kud bi āsking, “Iz it fan?”. Sou hiaz mai kweschon: Sapouz yu wǎ dhi gavana ov dhát mún koloni. Hao wud yu propouz a mo-o-les fonemik Inglish kud bi spelt?

In this blog post I’ll present a system of my own, and for comparison also refer to a quite different system I designed a number of years ago.

In dhis blog poust ail prizent a sistem ov mai oun, ánd fo kompárison ōlsou rifǎ tu a kwait difrent sistem ai dizaind a namba ov yiaz agou.

— Where to Start —

To begin, you need to make a number of decisions. These include:

Tu bigin, yu níd tu meik a namba ov disizhonz. Dhíz inklúd:

  • Which dialects is your system intended for? Perhaps all of them (good luck with that), perhaps only your specific accent, or perhaps something in between. The system herein aspires to work for most non-rhotic dialects of English.
  • Wich daialekts iz yo sistem intended fo? Paháps ōl ov dhem (gud lak widh dhat), paháps ounli yo spesifik aksent, o paháps samthing in bitwín. Dhi sistem hiarin aspaiaz tu wǎk fo moust non-rotik daialekts ov Inglish.
  • Do you wish to exploit familiar spellings to keep your system easy to learn, or do you want to give English spelling a clean start by building a consistent, sensible system from the ground up? Herein, I’ve gone for the familiarity approach, up to a point.
  • Du yu wish tu eksploit familya spelingz tu kíp yo sistem ízi tu lǎn, o du yu wont to giv Inglish speling a klín stāt bai bilding a konsistent, sensibul sistem from dhi graond ap? Hiarin, aiv goon fo dhi familíáriti aprouch, ap tu a point.
  • Will there be a symbol reserved for schwa, and if so, which? You could re-use an existing letter to ensure it flows easily under the pen, but at the cost of making the remaining letters work that much harder to fill the gap. If not, people will go on misspelling separate as they always have. In this case I’ve chosen not to represent schwa.
  • Wil dhe bi a simbol rizǎvd fo shwā, ánd if sou, wich? Yu kud ríyúz an egzisting leta tu ensho it flouz ízili anda dhi pen, bat át dhi kost ov meiking dhi rimeining letaz wǎk dhat much hāda tu fil dhi gáp. If not, pípul wil gou on misspeling separeit az dhei ōlweiz háv. In dhis keis aiv chousen not tu reprizent shwā.
  • Will you have exactly one spelling per pronunciation, or will you build in some redundancy? Also, perhaps you’d like to use spelling to indicate which syllable is stressed. Here I’ll keep things simple for the most part, but discuss possible extensions at the end.
  • Wil yu háv egzáktli wan speling pǎ pronansíeishon, o wil yu bild in sam ridandansi? Ōlsou, paháps yúd laik tu yúz speling tu indikeit wich silabul iz strest. Hia ail kíp thingz simpul fo dhi moust pāt, bat diskas posibul ekstenshonz át dhi end.

My previous system was tailor-made for my specific dialect, was considerably more radical at the expense of being hard to remember, reserved the letter i for schwa, and included a rather convoluted system for marking stressed syllables.

Mai prívios sistem woz teila-meid fo mai spesifik daialekt, woz konsidarabli mo rádikul át dhi ekspens ov bíing hād tu rimemba, rizǎvd dhi leta i for shwā, ánd inklúded a rādha konvolúted sistem fo māking strest silabulz.

[The self-translations will cease at this point. They've been proofread a few times, but errors may remain.]

— Consonants —

In English, n becomes a velar nasal when followed by g or k (as in anger, angle, ankle, anchor, etc), and in those cases it makes sense to spell the combination ng or nk as we normally do (since the velar nasal can be regarded as an allophone of n). But we also use the spelling ng to represent a velar nasal on its own, leading to the ambiguity whereby the g in anger is pronounced but that in hanger is not.

In my old system, I decided that a velar nasal not followed by g or k would be spelt yn, resolving the ambiguity and taking advantage of the fact that the letter y (always a consonant) cannot occur immediately before another consonant. This time, however, I’ve decided that the anger/hanger ambiguity is a tolerable one, and to simply spell the velar nasal ng as English speakers are used to.

Similarly, in English the spelling th sometimes denotes the unvoiced fricative of thieves, sometimes the voiced fricative of these, and sometimes simply the sequence of sounds represented by the letters t and h (the famous-to-the-point-of-being-a-cliche example being pothole).

In my old system I used the spellings hs and hz for unvoiced and voiced th respectively, taking advantage of the fact that the h sound never occurs immediately before another consonant, and having the second half of the digraph be something that normally represents a sound of the some phonological category (unvoiced and voiced fricatives respectively). This time I’ve decided to spell the unvoiced th simply as such, and (borrowing from some other languages) to use the spelling dh for its voiced equivalent.

In this system, the letter j has the pronunciation that English speakers would expect, and the same goes for the digraphs ch, sh and zh. The letter c never occurs on its own (as its two main pronunciations are spelt s and k), but only as part of the digraph ch. One can envisage a later reform of the reform in which the surplus h is dispensed with, but for the sake of familiarity I’ve decided to leave ch alone. The letters q and x do not exist in my alphabet at all.

— Vowels —

That’s enough about consonants. The real fun is with the vowels, which I’ll describe with reference to John Wells’s lexical sets.

In my dialect, the PALM/BATH/START sets are merged, as are the LOT/CLOTH sets, and THOUGHT/NORTH/FORCE sets. If your dialect has slightly different mergers (e.g. BATH merged with TRAP instead of PALM), you might have to modify the system slightly and use alternative spellings for some words, but we’d still be able to understand each other. If you dialect has significantly different mergers, then my system may not be suitable for your dialect. I expect that nearly all non-rhotic dialects of English would — with minor adjustments — find it workable.

Here’s my list of vowel spellings and the corresponding lexical sets:

á … TRAP
ǎ … NURSE [was ü in earlier drafts]
i … KIT
u … FOOT
ai … PRICE
ao … MOUTH
ei … FACE
ia … NEAR
ou … GOAT

In my old system. I chose spellings for vowels and diphthongs that closely mirror their pronunciations in Australian English (e.g. reserving certain symbols for front, central and back vowels respectively). In this new system, I’ve stuck more closely to traditional and familiar values that are not tied to a specific accent. That said, I’ve referred to accents I’m familiar with in order to make sure diacritics change vowel quality in reasonably consistent ways.

There is no symbol for schwa. To represent schwa, one should choose the vowel best suited to the role in the context (taking into account the pronunciation used when the word is overarticulated or sung, the pronunciation used in more conservative accents, the traditional spelling, the etymology, and so on). I do have one rule, though: to keep things simple, vowels that are frequently reduced to schwa should normally be represented with one of the basic five symbols a, e, i, o, u — no diacritics, no digraphs. For example, the re in reform contains the FLEECE vowel (í) when clearly articulated, but because it is often reduced to schwa, we compromise and use the KIT vowel symbol (i) instead.

(The indefinite article a would be spelt ei when there is a reason to emphasise it, but otherwise I favour a rather than e for several reasons. These include familiarity, maintaining the similarity between a & an, and avoiding confusion with the word air. Even the most consistent languages in the world have exceptions for some of their most common words. The word and maintains its diacritic because, although the vowel is often reduced in a sentence, it is always articulated when the word is spoken in isolation.)

Because the DRESS, KIT, LOT, CLOTH and FOOT vowels (also TRAP, but that’s unimportant here) never occur word-finally in English, you may omit the diacritics on ē, í, ō, ú when they occur as the final letter of a word (i.e. spell them e, i, o, u respectively).

A comment on my use of diacritics. Although I’ve tried to keep the spellings of phonemes reasonably familiar, I think this can be taken too far. A system based entirely on the most common correspondences between spelling and sound in English (say, komyoonikayshun for communication) risks being perceived as juvenile. I think diacritics are widely perceived as sophisticated, so may help counteract that effect. However, they do place an extra burden on handwriting and risk being confused with commas from the line above, so it pays not to overdo them. That’s why I’ve outlawed diacritics on reduced vowels, advised omitting most of them from word-final vowels, and made a point not to include them in digraphs.

— Extensions —

As an optional extra, here’s a suggestion for how my system might be extended to include stress marking:

  • Add a h or y between the nucleus and coda of the stressed syllable (aesthetically, I generally favour h after ao, u, and y after e, i). For example, communication without stress marking is komyúnikeishon. With stress marking, it becomes komyúhnikeiyshon.
  • To mark stress on a syllable that lacks a coda, represent the coda with an apostrophe. Without stress marking, ambiguity would be ámbigyúiti. With: ámbigyúh’iti.

This could be used routinely, or only when potential for confusion exists. Redundant stress marking might be used to differentiate between homophones.

(Note: I do not use apostrophes in other contexts, e.g. no apostrophes for common contractions or possession. Apostrophes and diacritics seem a little too fly-specky in conjunction.)

We might use etymological spellings as well as redundant stress marking to differentiate between some homophones. Perhaps dhe for there, dhēy for their, and dheia for they’re, for example. If a system such as this were actually used, the community would soon develop some conventions.

— Postscript —

I’d like to end by reiterating what I said at the beginning: that this is not a serious proposal for an English spelling reform, but is intended as entertainment. Please feel free to use the comments section appropriately as a playground.