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:
a … STRUT
á … TRAP
ā … PALM/BATH/START
ǎ … NURSE [was ü in earlier drafts]
e … DRESS
ē … SQUARE
i … KIT
í … FLEECE
o … LOT/CLOTH
ō … THOUGHT/NORTH/FORCE
u … FOOT
ú … GOOSE
ai … PRICE
ao … MOUTH
ei … FACE
ia … NEAR
oi … CHOICE
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 a, o, 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.