Date: Mon, 18 Jan 1999 20:19:29 -0800
From: Timothy Poston <>

Your Korean correspondent missed the point about his alphabet that it is not in the least a phonetic system (accurate or not): it is a _phonemic_ system. That is why there is one letter for R and L; they are aspects of one phoneme, which may sound like R or L according to what surrounds it. Similarly there are letters which sound like B and G when among voiced sounds, P and K in an unvoiced environment; the spoken language does that (listen to Koreans and you'll hear "I went to Busan" and "Take that, Pusan!" for the same city name). There are stranger transitions, like against an M the G/K sound becomes "ng" -- listen for "Bungminuhstuh Fuller". This particular clustering of phonetically distinct sounds into phonemes is unique to Korean, so Han-Gul, which represents them accurately, is disastrous for languages with other phoneme structures.

My big doubt about phonetic English schemes is illustrated by your example




In my British English speech the "os" is nowhere near an aa sound -- indeed, your definition "ah" as in hot, bar, fought does not translate into British (or Australian, or Singapore English), where the three words have very different vowels. Phoneticizing my English, I'd use the same spelling for "site" and "sight" -- but in Glasgow they pronounce the "gh", so my spelling would be hard for Glasgow kids.

If we took your speech and mine and transcribed them by the International Phonetic Alphabet, they would read so differently that we would have trouble reading each others' transcriptions. London kids would have to learn phonetic American either by knowing how Americans talk (which Americans? New Englanders? Californians? they need different schemes -- and would you spell out all three syllables of Alabama "shit"?), or by memorizing a set of spellings that would be for them as arbitrary and un-phonetic as the present lot.

Speakers of different Chineses can understand each other in writing, more or less, because they use a common script. If you wrote Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, etc, phonetically they'd be a lot less inter-intelligible than the Latin languages (Italian, Romanian, Spanish...). Phonetic englishes would put a sharp end to the status of English as a world wide business language: you could only read a business letter from a place where you've learned the local dialect.

Fortunately, I don't think phonetic englishes will happen, any time soon.