ben's phonetic spelling

Everyone knows that English is riddled with horribly inconsistent spelling. Most other languages have a phonetic spelling system, or regularly maintained rules of spelling and pronunciation. English was allowed to fluidly saturate with bizarre and arbitrary spelling before the middle of the 18th century. Around that time, dictionaries were devised to preserve a snapshot of this hideous agglomeration to the present day. As pronunciations shifted, old spellings were maintained. The result is that even with 10 years of schooling, many if not most people have only a loose grasp of basic literacy. The specter of English becoming the most common international language only makes this problem more dramatic.

Simplified Spelling SocietyThere have been many attempts at spelling reform throughout history. They have been met with mostly shock and derision. As a result, support for spelling reform today is relegated to a humble minority. Some ongoing work is kept alive by the Simplified Spelling Society.

The problems with spelling English phonetically are:

  1. People don't read phonetically. As soon as they know a word, they identify it by its shape. Spelling phonetically makes English much easier to learn, but freaks out existing readers.
  2. Phonetic spelling removes some links between words that are otherwise obvious -- f'rinstance, "sign" and "signature" are spelled similarly to identify the two words as being based on the same root, but in phonetic spelling there's no indication they're remotely related.
  3. It makes understanding writing from other parts of the English-speaking world equally difficult with understanding speech from those parts of the world, so it'd be as hard to read a Scottish accent as to listen to one.
  4. English has a lot more sounds than letters. For example, there are at least 10 vowels sounds, but only 5 vowels.

I think the last problem is the most serious.  There are many ways to deal with the more sounds than letters problem:

  1. Mapping more than one sound to each letter in a consistent way. You can then spell any word by knowing how to pronounce it, but there is a lot of ambiguity in pronouncing a word you see written. This strongly increases the number of homophones.
  2. Using accents, as many European languages do in a number of different ways.
  3. Mapping each sound to a distinct combination of letters, typically using double vowels.
  4. Using upper/lower case for different sounds.

I'm not a linguist, i don't play one on TV, and i've never even taken a lousy community college class on it. However, I've studied the issue a bit, read the arguments pro and con on alt.usage.english, and have devised my own proposal for a cleaner spelling system, which i humbly offer for your perusal. It's a form of plan A above. I started with the most common international vowels spellings, used by Latin-based languages like Spanish, French, and Italian - the same vowel characters used in the westernized forms of languages such as Japanese and Hawaiian. Accents were rejected as being too unpopular with typists.

The vowels sounds are as follows:

Sound method A method C
"ah" as in hot, bar, fought a aa
"E" as in tree, Lisa, eat i ee
"oo" as in crude, food u oo
"A" as in hey, weigh, chaos ei ei
"O" as in no, grow, Honda o o
"I" as in bike, psycho ai ai
short "a" as in cat, manner a a
short "ih" as in grin, simple, it i i
short "uh" as in what, cut, from u u
short "eh" as in end, get e e
back-of-throat "u" as in book, pull u uu
am i forgetting any?    

Consonants: g as in goat, j as in jet, s is soft, z is a buzz.
Consonant groups like "sh" and "ch" are preserved because they identify unique sounds, while "wh" becomes "w" since it does not. "y" is preserved when used as a consonant.

"th" is bit more tricky since it can represent two sounds, as in 'thick' (no buzz) and 'this' (buzzed).  However, i'm comfortable treating these two sounds with the same 'th', since it doesn't introduce ambiguity in meaning or comprehension to do so.

It's not clear what to do with "c" and "k". Some people would stop using c entirely and just use k; others disagree strongly. I favor using k after vowel sounds, and c before them, except for e/ei, o, and short i, which would confuse too many people if used with a "c"

All silent letters, including unvoiced double letters, are removed. Spelling of proper nouns and foreign words is preserved.

Examples with Californian pronunciation:

  method A method C
caught cat caat
actual akchuul akchooul
stage steij steij
realize rialaiz reealaiz
because bicuz beecuz
enough inuf eenuf
bike baik baik
brittle britul britul
america umericu umericu
luck luk luk
book buk buuk
chaos keias keiaas
virtual reality virchual rialiti virchooul reealitee

I converted an early version of my entire website into this (method A) phonetic spelling.


Sing the alphabet: ei bi si di i ef ji, eich ai je ke elemenopi, kyu ar es, ti yu vi, dubuyu eks, wai and zi!