En1glix

If traffic rules were like language rules, we’d all be stuck in an enormous, eternal traffic jam.

According to Professor John McWhorter, this complexity (and at times, ambiguity) seems to be an innate tendency of all languages.

In his course ‘The story of human language’, he likens language to his cat that likes to climb into boxes and occupy nooks.

In English, the complexity also arises because of the huge amount of foreign influences it has had. Paraphrasing a quote by James Nicoll , English doesn’t just borrow from other languages. It pursues them down dark alleyways, knocks them unconscious, and rummages through their pockets for vocabulary, spelling and loose grammar.

Just looking at basic vocabulary, you have words that are spelled differently, but sound the same (homophones like their and there); words that are spelled the same, but sound different (heteronyms like does {female deer} and does {form of the verb do} ); and words that the spelled the same, sound the same, but mean different things (homonyms like lie (untruth) and lie (recline).

Homograph_homophone_venn_diagram.svg
English’s matrix of confusion

While some of this complexity is unavoidable and even desirable, I think eliminating ambiguity in spelling will go a long way in making English easier, while taking little away from the language itself. Not everyone would agree that it would be not be a loss though. In the course Building a better vocabulary,  Professor Kevin Flanigan states English spellings gives clues to their meaning. Thus, changing photon to foton would remove it’s association from it’s original meaning and it’s etymology. I’d argue that simplicity is more important than etymology.English evolved on a small, wind swept, poorly inhabited island off the European peninsula. But, the vicissitudes of history have caused it to develop into today’s lingua franca. This means that more people learn English as a second language than as their mother tongue. In India, more people speak English than any other ‘Indian’ language save Hindustani ( Hindi + Urdu, which are strictly speaking the same language with different writing systems).  The top 5 English speaking countries in order are USA (250 million), India (125 million), Philippines (90 million), Nigeria (80 million) and UK (80 million). These numbers hide an important detail though. Only 10% of India and about 50% of Nigeria speak English. Contrast this to 80% of USA (I was surprised that this wasn’t 95+) and 94% of UK. With English being seen as aspirational in India and with the focus on literacy here, I daresay we’d see India overtaking USA in our lifetime. These figures were taken from here.

So, it is crucial that at least the basic features of the language are streamlined. I propose that English have a strict phonetic spelling system. In other words what one sees should be what one says. The alphabet and spelling are the first aspects of language that a person encounters in a classroom and there is no benefit of retaining unnecessary ambiguity here. The IPA (international phonetic alphabet) has been developed for precisely this purpose, and serves the need of academia well. However, it utilizes too many unfamiliar symbols for it to be adopted widely. Like it or not, the standard English alphabet has worked itself way into places like programming languages that will be nearly impossible to get out of, so we are stuck with the 26 letters.

The English sound system (phonology) has, by most counts, 38 to 44+ sounds (phonemes). 24 consonant phonemes, and depending on accent, 14 to 20+ vowel phonemes. So, we have a problem – we need to make do with 21 consonant letters and 5 vowel letters.

English phonology also has a problem with inconsistency. The same letter can be used to represent different phonemes. Sometimes, this happens in the same word like circus and gigantic. This problem is easy enough to solve though – we just agree to use the same letter to represent the same phoneme everywhere. So, it’s going to be jigantik and sirkus.

These are the English Consonants:

bilabial
labio-dental
dental
alveolar
post-alveolar
palatal
velar
glottal
nasal
(m)at
(n)ot
si(n)g
plosive
(p)at (b)at
(t)ag (d)og
(k)eg (g)ate
affricate
(ch)at
(j)ug
fricative
(f)at (v)elcro
(th)eme (th)is
(s)at (z)ip
(sh)ow mea(su)re
(h)ello
approximant
(w)et
(l)ong
(r)ap
(y)et
position of articulation
Position of articulation of consonants

The traditional approach to the problem of more consonants than letters has been to use rare combination of letters to refer to a phoneme . This combination of letters is called a digraph. So, sh is used for (sh)ow, since the individual sounds ‘s’ and ‘h’ are rarely used in order. I can’t think of a word where those 2 sounds are part of the same syllable. The sounds do occur in order when they are part of different syllables though. So, asshole is ass-hole and not as-shole. ( I’d love to hear of a more politically correct example of this. I’ve come across ‘hogshead’ being used to elucidate this point, but it’s not common enough a word to use here). One just has to know how to pronounce it. (The breaking up of a word into syllables is an unrelated problem). (ch)air,  (th)is and (th)eme are other examples of digraphs. Notice that (th)is and (th)eme are inconsistent digraphs.

We also have a phoneme like mea(su)re and delu(si)on that are not consistently represented by any one digraph. Again, one just has to know how to pronounce the word.

Out of the 26 letters, we do have two that do not really correspond to a phoneme – x and q. Also, c is used for both ‘k’ and ‘s’ sounds – both of which have other letters that can be used to represent them, so using up ‘c’ for them seems wasteful. This frees up 3 consonant letters to be used to represent consonant sounds that are otherwise represented using digraphs.

c should be used for (ch)air

x should be used for (sh)are

q should be used for mea(su)re

We are left with 3 more consonant phonemes to represent. I propose that we use combinations of alphabets and numerals to represent these phonemes. The numeral will always follow a number, so there will be no doubt as to how the letters and numbers combine to form a phoneme.

d1 should be used for (th)is

t1 should be used for (th)eme

n1 should be used for si(n)g

This does have the disadvantage of making the user think that the phoneme ‘d1’ is modified version of phoneme ‘d’, but I don’t see any way around this without using more symbols. It is also an existing disadvantage – most English speakers think of ‘sh’ or ‘x’ in my system above, as a modified ‘s’.

I gave some though to whether ‘t’ should be used to represent (th)eme or (t)ag. It may come as a surprise to many speakers of Indo-European languages, but (Th)eme seems to be a very rare sound in languages.

This is the modified system:

bilabial
labio-dental
dental
alveolar
post-alveolar
palatal
velar
glottal
nasal
(m)at
(n)ot
si(n1)g
plosive
(p)at (b)at
(t)ag (d)og
(k)eg (g)ate
affricate
(c1)at
(j)ug
fricative
(f)at (v)elcro
(t1)eme (d1)is
(s)at (z)ip
(x)ow
mea(q)ure
(h)ello
approximant
(w)et
(l)ong
(r)ap
(y)et

The advantage of using numerals in combination with letters like this is that a large number of consonants can be represented without causing much change to existing technological systems. We can, in one well coordinated swoop, take the ambiguity out of English spellings. Since, parallel spelling systems do exist (American vs British English), this system can be adopted by the educational systems of one country without waiting for the others to join in. Once there is a one-to-one correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, changes over time and across regions may decrease.

The more observant/jobless of you might have realized that the vowels are inconsistent in the title of this post. In a subsequent post, I will try to use the tool of using letters followed by letters to distinguish English vowels.

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