Backers of a universal alphabet say it will make pronunciation easy and foster international understanding. But can phonetic spelling systems really smooth the path to world peace?
You are in Vietnam and want a bowl of soup. You ask a local where you can get “pho”. After momentary confusion you are handed a book.
It’s the curse of phonetics. Pho was correct. But you failed to emphasise the vowel and so articulated in Vietnamese “copy” (of a book).
English has more pitfalls than most other languages. “Don’t desert me here in the desert” is a classic example of the heteronym, words spelt the same but pronounced differently. Bill Bryson remarked in his book Mother Tongue that there were nine separate pronunciations of hegemony.
What is SaypU?
Phonetic alphabet for writing all languages – name stands for spell as you pronounce universally
Uses 24 letters from Latin alphabet
Adds a reverse e – e or 3 – for the soft “a” in “ago”
Leaves out c (replaced with either k or s), q (k) and x (ks or gz)
More about SaypU
The argument over regulating spelling has been raging for more than a century. Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw were advocates – the latter leaving much of his will to setting up a new phonetic alphabet.
Today the cause has been taken up by Jaber George Jabbour, a Syrian banker living in the UK. He has set up SaypU, an alphabet with none of the indecipherable squiggles of traditional phonetic alphabets.
It contains 23 letters from the Roman alphabet as well as a back to front e. There is no place for “c”, “q”, or “x”, which merely repeat sounds achievable by using other letters. The “e” represents the soft “a” of “ago” or “about”, a sound known as “schwa”.
Jabbour was a frustrated traveller. He would see words on billboards, menus and street signs. But he didn’t have a clue how to pronounce them. When he first got to London he said Leicester Square as it is written – Le-ses-ter Square -receiving funny looks. Only later did he realise that it is pronounced “Lester”.
These kind of misunderstandings create a barrier, he argues. In countries like India and China where the entire script is different it can be a wall between local and outsider.
A simplified universal alphabet would end not only misunderstanding. It would help foster peace around the world, he believes.
Language misunderstandings can inflame conflicts. During the Cold War Nikita Khrushchev was reportedly thought to have said “we will bury you” of the United States. What he actually meant was something more subtle but tensions had been needlessly stoked.
But as translation programmes become more and more accurate, it is the sound of language rather than the meaning of words that is keeping people apart, Jabbour argues.
“I come from Syria, a place torn apart by war now. The war is not to do with languages but the groups fighting each other do use different pronunciations.”
A new alphabet could bridge divides, he argues.
“Old English is a much simpler and more reliable language with every letter distinctly and invariably related to a single sound”
Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue
“If people pronounce and speak in the same way it makes people feel closer to one another. I do think the world with a single alphabet would be a more peaceful place.”
His idea carries the quixotic whiff of Esperanto, the international language that failed to become mainstream. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, also believed it would unite humanity.
Phonetic learning in the form of “synthetic phonics” is now a major part of education. But Masha Bell, author of Understanding English Spelling, says reform of spelling needs to go further and alter the way words are written.
Bell grew up speaking Lithuanian and Russian. When she took up English at 14 she thought “how do they put up with this?” The illogicality of English spelling holds children back in Anglophone countries and makes life tough for visitors, she argues. “The reason why Finland shines in education is because their children have to spend very little time learning to read and write. It is completely phonetic.”
The mechanics of introducing a new alphabet like SaypU are far from simple. The website currently has 10,000 words that can be translated into the new alphabet. Like Wikipedia it is for users to suggest tweaks and add new words.
It isn’t always obvious what the correct answer is. The SaypU spelling of “top” and “run” have had to be tweaked to take into account the different vowel sounds of American and
Read the entire story at the BBC News Website.