The Petersonian English Alphabet

A wise man once said, "I am the lizard king. I can do anything." Today I continue this proud tradition of doing anything by introducing my own proposal for overhauling the English spelling system. One might ask, "Why now? Why not 250 years ago when it might actually have made a difference?" The answer is quite simple: I wasn't alive then.

Seriously, though, let me give you my thoughts on this matter. [Those who looked at this page in the past are probably shocked to see that it's changed. Yes, it's true. After a year of this page having absolutely no information on it whatsoever, I've decided to finally put information on it. Remember this day.] The issue is really simple, and can be understood simply by googling "English spelling reform". I will summarize it this way. I'm appalled at the existence of spelling bees. Why? Think about it: It's a contest for English speakers to spell words in their own language! We should be humiliated! I know I certainly am. Spanish speakers must be laughing at us behind our backs (for yet another reason). You never find someone writing in Spanish saying, "Hey, do you spell 'recommend' with two ems, or one?" Why? Because the spelling system used to write Spanish is, more or less (depending on dialect), phonemic. This means that everything is spelled exactly as it sounds. No "night" vs. "knight", no "gate" vs. "gait", no "through" vs. "threw". If you hear a word of Spanish and know the spelling system, it immediately follows (with few exceptions) how it should be spelled.

Since we're on the topic of Spanish, though, and since I brought up the exceptions, why not examine them? Here's one. In Spanish, if you have a word that begins with a vowel sound, the word will either begin with the vowel sound in question, or an h plus the vowel sound in question. There are even a few minimal pairs. A simple one is the verb ha, which means "has", and the preposition a, which means "to". Both are pronounced exactly the same, but they're spelled differently. "If Spanish has a phonemic spelling system," one might wonder, "why do they have two different words that are pronounced the same but spelled differently?" The answer is rather simple. Though these words are pronounced the same, at one time they were pronounced differently. That silent h, in fact, was once not so silent, so that ha was pronounced not unlike English "ha" (a laugh). Now, though, the [h] sound has completely disappeared from Spanish (as has happened with French and certain dialects of English). The spelling system hasn't changed to reflect this, though, so you have orthographic ha vs. a.

What I just demonstrated with Spanish is what's known as historical sound change. Inconsistency in a spelling system occurs when an orthography doesn't keep up with the pronunciation of a language. So, even though Spanish no longer has the [h] sound, the orthography retains the h character. This is a relatively minor sticking point, as far as languages go, so that's probably why Spanish hasn't done anything about it. And, besides, this is only one sound change. Now imagine that instead of one sound change, there were closer to fifty: sounds being lost here, added there, changed here, elided there. If you retained the initial orthography, you'd be pretty hard-pressed to figure out how to pronounce a word based on the spelling.

Welcome to English.

To cite one canonical example, take the English word "knight". Way back when, all the letters in that word were pronounced. Thus, rather than something that sounds like [najt], you got [knixt]: the "k" was used to spell the sound [k]; the "n" was used to spell the sound [n]; the "i" was used to spell the sound [i]; the "gh" was used to spell the sound [x] (a common digraph for this sound); and the "t" was used to spell the sound [t]. Pretty good! But, of course, soon English lost its [kn] onset clusters (they're tough to pronounce!), and it lost the sound [x] altogether. And the loss of the sound [x] caused the vowel to lengthen, and the Great Vowel Shift caused that vowel to become the diphthong [aj]. So now we have a totally different-sounding "knight": A Modern English word in Old English clothes.

The upshot of this is that children have to learn to spell the words of their own language. It's not enough to teach them the alphabet and the sounds each letter makes, because English is so unsettlingly inconsistent. And so children have to memorize the spellings of words and waste time taking spelling tests. And, of course, they should. You have to know how to spell properly in English. Sure, everyone makes mistakes everywhere (just google for "consistant". As of the typing of this sentence, I get 883,000 hits [and as of the typing of this sentence, I've found (and corrected) no fewer than five spelling errors on this very page]), but if you consistently spell everything wrong, you look foolish, and no one will take you seriously. It doesn't matter how brilliant you are, or how good your ideas are, iff yu finde yerself speling liek thiss ol tha timme, know won wul higher yuu ta doo eneething!

In other words, spelling in English is much like learning to put your napkin in your lap. Unlike putting your napkin in your lap, though, spelling a word in a way that's not reminiscent of the way the word sounds has no inherent value whatsoever. So why waste time with it? Kids could be spending more time in school on math and art—something actually worthwhile—as opposed to wasting valuable time being the victims of a conservative orthography.

With that said, I'd like to introduce my own attempt to reform the English spelling system, which I call the Petersonian English Alphabet. Why the name? No, it's not because I'm a megalomaniac. It's mainly because I know that the English spelling system will never be reformed, and because I'm not actually going to push this system. This system is up here just for entertainment—for novelty purposes, as it were. Keep that in mind as you read. Also, at the end (so as not to spoil the mood), I detail my reasons as to why I think the English spelling system will never—and, indeed, should never—be reformed. If you'd like to skip to that section, click here.


An Introduction to the Petersonian English Alphabet

First of all, I should explain that there is no "the". That is, I have several ideas about how such an alphabet could work, so there are variations on my alphabet. Nevertheless, what I call the Petersonian English Alphabet (hereafter, the PEA [one of my favorite vegetables!]) is guided by some very basic principles which I'll outline below:

  1. No diacritics.
  2. No new characters.
  3. Recognizability.
  4. Regularity.
  5. Destandardization.

Let me explain each of these points further below:

  1. No diacritics: Many English spelling reforms employ diacritics (e.g., ë for schwa). For those who have ever learned a language like Spanish, Italian, German, French, Finnish, Dutch, Danish, Turkish, Swedish, Hungarian, Catalan, Portuguese—actually, pretty much any language other than English that uses the roman alphabet—have you ever noticed how annoying it is to have to go back over what you've written and write an accent mark or a diaresis? I find it annoying. And lord help you if you forget to go back. Plus, when typing, unless one plans to remap the keyboard, you have to go through this whole rigamarole to put an accent on a character. For the letter ë, for example, I on my keyboard have to hit and hold the alt button, then hit the u key, then hit the e key. That's too many steps to be tolerated. I type a lot, and I type fast, and if I'm going to use an alphabet, I don't want to have to be fooling around with the alt button. That's why I abhor any English spelling reform that uses diacritics. We've done fine without them so far—let's keep it that way!

  2. No new characters: Along the same lines as "no diacritics", new characters will require a new keyboard, almost certainly. For example, a lot of spelling reforms use the character æ for the sound [æ] (the "a" in "cat"). If one wanted to type this character with a normal font right now, one has to hit alt plus the apostrophe key. That's too much work. Additionally, some reforms have proposed the reintroduction of the letter thorn, which looks like: þ. To them I say: Good luck with that! Good luck trying to get someone to: (a) learn a new letter, and (b) learn a new letter that looks a hell of a lot like p, but which sounds nothing like p. No, the letters of the English alphabet as it stands are plenty fine for representing the sounds of modern English as she's spoke today.

  3. Recognizability: Every spelling reform has to make some sacrifices. That is, no matter what changes you make, there are always going to be some funky looking words that look nothing like the way they used to, and which will appear foreign and bizarre. That comes with the territory. But, in my opinion, one should make a concerted effort to minimize the number of words that have to change, and should use characters to represent sounds that make sense to an English speaker. So using the letter "z" to make the "th" sound in "the" is just never a good idea.

  4. Regularity: If one is going to change the way English is spelled, the least one can do is make it consistent. We already have the problem that the [i] sound is spelled "ee", "ea", "ie", "ei", etc.—don't duplicate that problem.

  5. Destandardization: This is an important point. If the English spelling system is reformed so that it's phonemic (or closer to being phonemic), then the spelling system should be destandardized. That is, let everyone learn the sounds of the alphabet, and then spell words how they sound. That means if someone from New York says "car" with no "r" sound on the end, don't force them to write it with an "r". That just makes no sense, and is a problem we're already suffering from, as it is.

Those are the guiding principles behind the PEA. There are a few exceptions I'd like to note, though:

  1. Names are names, and are meant to be unique. Thus, a name should be spelled however the parents (or the bearer of the name) wishes to spell it, period.

  2. The names of foreign cities and countries can be spelled the way they're spelled usually in the language of the country or city (the same goes for existing English speaking cities).

  3. Foreign words should be spelled as they're spelled in the language of origin, unless they've become so heavily entrenched in the English language that they're now English words (e.g., "tamale" has made that leap [which is why its singular form is incorrect—it should be "tamal"], but "torta", in my opinion, has not).

Well, that's it for the ideas behind the system. Now let me introduce you to the system.


The Petersonian English Alphabet

I'm going to try to do this in table form. I think it will be easier this way, and more efficient. We'll see, though. In the table below, the leftmost column is dedicated to the letter that will be used in the PEA, followed immediately by its name as spelled in the PEA (note: for ease, most letter names are the same as their current names). To the right of that is an IPA transcription of the sound (or sounds) that letter stands for, followed by an example from current English orthography that shows that sound. To the right of that will be a description of how the sound is used, why I chose it, etc. I'll have more to say about some than others. After the table, I'll discuss some important issues regarding the use of the PEA.

PEA Name IPA Example Explanation
A, a ey [æ] cat Generally, when one asks what sound "a" makes, this sound is the answer you'll get.
Aa, aa laang ey [ɑ] father This was inevitable. There is no glide associated with "a" in English, so a double character couldn't be prevented. Nevertheless, we do see it in words like "aardvark".
Au, au* au [ɔ] caught For dialects that have this vowel phonemically (e.g., those that distinguish "cot" and "caught"), this is the spelling I've come up with. It doesn't fit well with the rest of the PEA, but so it goes. I don't have the vowel, so it doesn't affect my usage. ;)
B, b biy [b] bit This one's kind of a no-brainer. There are a couple like this. Do note, however, that there are no more silent "b"'s, as there are currently in "lamb", "bomb", "comb", etc.
C, c siy [k] [kʰ] cat This is, admittedly, a controversial pick. I've elected to go with the letter "c", and to do away with the letter "k" completely. Thus, the letter "c" in the PEA only makes the [k] sound as in "cat", never the [s] sound as in "receive". I just happen to like "c" better than "k", recognizability be damned. Besides, it allows a lot of simple monosyllabic words to be spelled the same as they are currently.
Ch, ch chey [tʃ] [tʃʰ] chit This spelling will no longer make the [k] sound as it does currently in "chorus".
D, d diy [d] [ɾ] dot, rider "D" is fairly simple, save for the flapping issue. In the PEA, flapping is dealt with as follows: If a word ends in a phonemic "d" (as does the word "ride"), then the spelling will remain as "d" when a suffix is added and the "d" turns into a flap.
Dh, dh edh [ð] this This is another controversial issue. Most English speakers don't even know that there are two different "th" sounds. So why distinguish them? The fact of the matter is that there are minimal pairs. For example, there's "thy" (antiquated pronoun) and "thigh" (part of the leg). There's also "either" (one pronunciation, at least) and "ether" (a drug). If a system that distinguished all voicing contrasts regularly did not distinguish this particular voicing contrast, I argue that that voicing contrast would die out. I don't want that to ever happen (I like [ð]!), so I'm spelling the two "th"'s differently in the PEA.
E, e iy [ɛ] get A single "e" will now only make the sound of the "e" in "get" or "let" or "pet".
Ey, ey laang iy [e] [ej] they What are now called "long" vowels are now formed by placing a glide character after a short vowel. So the tense version of lax [ɛ] is [ej]—thus, the spelling.
F, f ef [f] fit The French "ph" is no more: Welcome to the world of telofownz and fowtografs.
G, g jiy [g] gut The letter "g" now only makes the "hard g" sound as in "gut", never the "soft g" sound as in "gym".
H, h eych [h] [ɦ] lay For those keeping track, English does technically have a voiced [ɦ] in a word like "ahead". The main point is that there is no longer a silent "h", as in "hour", though it is still used for digraphs like "sh", "ch" and "th". And, yes, this means the "hothouse" problem will still exist. But it does lead to an amusing joke on The Simpsons every so often (a question for the ages: What exactly is a po-thead?).
I, i ay [ɪ] [ɨ] it Everyone's favorite letter "i" is up to his old tricks again. Now he'll be restricted to the "short i" sound, as in "kid". However, "i" also now shares the rare privelege of being an official reduced vowel of English along with schwa. For more info on what this means, see below.
Iy, iy laang ay [i] [ij] machine The new "long i" sound will now be the "ee" sound in "meet". It should be rather familiar. Take any adjective that ends in "y", put an "i" before the "y", and you've got it.
J, j jey [dʒ] jig This one should be easy. The new "j" pretty much just makes the same sound as the old "j".
L, l el [l] lit The new "l" only makes the "l" sound. Thus, the "l"'s in "talk", "chalk", "walk", "folk" all disappear (finally!). Additionally, those who pronounce their coda els as "w" should spell them with "w" (so not "milk" but "miwk").
M, m em [m] machine This just makes the "m" sound.
N, n en [n] [ŋ] [ɱ] nit, invite, sink The new "n" does a lot. If you ever have a nasal sound in a cluster, and the consonant the nasal's next to is not bilablial, you use "n". Also, no more silent "n"'s, as in "damn".
Ng, ng engma [ŋ] sing This has to be its own letter, I'm afraid. First, this letter is never used in [ŋk] clusters. It's only used when the sound [ŋ] is on its own, as in "sing", or in cases where you actually pronounce the "g", as in "finger". In the latter case, the cluster will have to be spelled "ngg". I'm afraid there's just no way to avoid it.
O, o ow [ə] [ʌ] son, controversial One distinctive feature of the PEA is its use of the letter "o" for schwa. As the two examples to the left show, though, this shouldn't be all that odd to an English speaker.
Oa, oa* oa [ɒ] pot This is yet another vowel I don't have and disapprove of. Nevertheless, I've created a letter for it, that it may live on. It doesn't look anything like one would expect it to. If I come up with a better idea one day, I'll change it.
Ow, ow laang ow [əw] [o] [ow] [ɤɰ] show There's some controversy about how this vowel should be transcribed, but whatever sound it is, it's now represented by "ow".
P, p piy [p] [pʰ] pit This one should be intuitive. Again, though, no more "ph" for "f".
R, r ar [ɹ] rip Easy enough. For those that don't have a phonetic "r" of any kind, though, it shouldn't be used.
S, s es [s] son "S" used to do a lot of things. No longer. Now it's just plain old "s" as in "sip". And no more double "s"'s, as in "miss".
Sh, sh esh [ʃ] ship This should be an easy one. Note that nothing else makes the "sh" sound, any longer (e.g., "machine", "nation", etc.).
T, t tiy [t] [tʰ] [ɾ] tip, writer "T" is fairly simple, save for the flapping issue. In the PEA, flapping is dealt with as follows: If a word ends in a phonemic "t" (as does the word "write"), then the spelling will remain as "t" when a suffix is added and the "t" turns into a flap.
Th, th thorn [θ] thin This makes the "th" sound in "thin", but not the "th" sound in "this". That sound is made by "dh" in the PEA. See that entry for more information.
U, u yuw [ʊ] put This sound is becoming increasingly centralized in my English, but for now it remains a stable phoneme.
Uw, uw laang yuw [uw] [ɯɰ] food The "long u" sound is now a digraph, along with all the other tense vowels of English. Note that it only makes the "oo" sound, not the "yoo" sound, as in "cute". For that, you need an extra "y".
V, v viy [v] vim This simply makes the "v" sound.
W, w dobul yuw [w] wit This makes the "w" sound, and is also used in several diphthongs.
Wh, wh* who [ʍ] which This is a rare phoneme that still exists in some dialects of English. This is for those people that pronounce "which" and "witch" differently.
Y, y way [j] yet This makes the "y" sound, and is also used in several diphthongs.
Z, z ziy [z] zip That dirty letter "x" may be gone, but his cousin "z" is still here to party. In the PEA, "z" is much more common than it is currently. This is because "s" is now only making the [s] sound. So, for example, the word "is" is spelled "iz" in the PEA. That's a lot of "z"!
Zh, zh zhey [ʒ] azure There's a new last letter in town, and it's my favorite sound: [ʒ]. This rare but important phoneme will now get the props he so rightly deserves by having his very own letter. No more "s" filling in for him in words like "leisure"; no sir. Now it's "liyzhur". Let the good times roll!

So, there you have it. Subtracting the letters that aren't used in many American dialects of English, that brings the total number of letters to 34. Not a bad amount. In addition to these letters, there are also some clusters which might not be apparent just from looking at the letters. This is a list of those clusters.

PEA IPA Example Explanation
Aang, aang [ɑŋ] song In attempt to prevent confusion (or perhaps to cause more...?), the spelling "ang" will not be used at all.
Aangg, aangg [ɑŋg] monger Just a reminder that an extra "g" will be needed to convey a velar nasal followed by a [g].
Ar, ar [ɑɹ] car All words that end in an "r" diphthong will be spelled using a short vowel. This will have to be changed for those who distinguish "marry", "merry" and "mar".
Aw, aw [aw] owl This is the diphthong in a word like "house".
Ay, ay [aj] kite This is what formerly used to be called the "long I" sound. Now its spelling is closer to its phonetic realization.
Cs, cs [ks] hex Remember that salacious letter "x"? It is officially no more. Now "pox" and "pocks" will be spelled the same.
Cw, cw [kw] aqua Remember that salacious letter "q"? It is officially no more. Now "quick" will be spelled "cwic".
Eng, eng [eŋ] sang To save space, the PEA uses a short vowel before engma (in the case of the front vowels), even though such vowels are phonetically and phonologically tense.
Engg, engg [eŋg] anger Just a reminder that an extra "g" will be needed to convey a velar nasal followed by a [g].
Er, er [ɛɹ] there Under this system, the words "marry" and "merry" will be spelled the same. This will work for most, but not all dialects of English.
Gz, gz [gz] exit This is how to deal with "x"'s alter-ego, [gz].
Inc, inc [iŋc] zinc This is how the "ink" sound will be spelled. I note it here to remind the reader that there is no "k" any longer.
Ing, ing [iŋ] sing To save space, the PEA uses a short vowel before engma (in the case of the front vowels), even though such vowels are phonetically and phonologically tense.
Ingg, ingg [iŋg] finger Just a reminder that an extra "g" will be needed to convey a velar nasal followed by a [g].
Ir, ir [iɹ] steer This means that "steer" will now look like "stir". This should please Bob Marley fans. Note that there will still be a distinction between "sear" and "seer". The former will be "sir" and the latter will be "siyur".
Ong, ong [ʌŋ] among This should be self-explanatory.
Ongg, ongg [ʌŋg] hunger Just a reminder that an extra "g" will be needed to convey a velar nasal followed by a [g].
Or, or [ɔɹ] for All words that end in an "r" diphthong will be spelled using a short vowel. Just to show how it would work, the distinction between "more" and "mower" will be as follows: "mor" = "more"; "mowur" = "mower".
Ul, ul [ɫ] bull This one should be rather intuitive.
Ur, ur [ɚ] burn This is actually a phoneme of English, but it doesn't get its own letter. Poor little guy. Nevertheless, this is how he'll be represented.
Yuw, yuw [juw] cute This is the so-called "long U" sound. It's now spelled just as it's pronounced.
Yur, yur [jɚ] pure Just a note on how words like "pure" and "cure" would be written.

That's basically how the system works. Now I'm going to discuss some special issues regarding the system, and I'll follow it up with a transliteration of the Babel Text.


Issue 1: Long Vowels

One strange issue with the English orthography has been how long vowels (and diphthongs) work together in words. So, for example, a long vowel can be followed by another long vowel, or a short vowel, whereas a short vowel cannot be followed by any vowel. Plus, two short vowels can never come together (try it: it's hard). However, there is no standard way of dealing with when some sort of vowel follows a long vowel. Here are some examples:

  • "happy" + "-er" > "happier"
  • "canoe" + "-er" > "canoer"
  • "pay" + "-er" > "payer"
  • "coexistence"
  • "noël"
  • "choir" (?)

In the PEA, this is taken care of, because now every long vowel and diphthong ends in a consonant. Thus, adding a vowel afterwards is no problem:

  • "happiy" + "-ur" > "happiyur"
  • "conuw" + "-ur" > "conuwur"
  • "pey" + "-ur" > "peyur"
  • "cowegzistints"
  • "nowel"
  • "cwayur"

So that's a good thing. However, there's a lingering problem. One of the rarer combinations of English is when, for example, an "-er" suffix is added to a word like "saw". So, if you have a "saw", then one who saws is a..."sawer". Kind of difficult to pronounce. Anyway, in the standard orthography, this works fine:

  • "Saw" + "-er" > "sawer"

This is because most (if not all) words that end in [ɑ] in English end orthographically with a dummy glide (usually "w" or "h"). In the PEA, this vowel is spelled "aa", though, without a dummy glide. There is a glide commonly associated with the sound [ɑ], but English doesn't have it (unless you consider the sound Homer Simpson makes when he's entranced by food to be a part of English), and also doesn't have a letter for it. Sure, I could do something devious like use "x" or "q" or "k" for this dummy glide (the first one would work pretty well, actually), but I can't do that. I toyed around with using "h", like German, but you can actually have an "h" intervocalically in English, like in "ahead". Thus, I resolved not to resolve the issue:

  • "Saa" + "-ur" > "saaur"

Admittedly, that looks pretty hideous. I thought about just attaching the "r" directly to the long vowel, but that would cause problems for those who distinguish "marry" and "merry" and "mar". Thus, this is a stopgap solution until a better one comes along.


Issue 2: Engma

This is a large, kind of all-encompassing issue, because engma causes a lot of problems. First, I decided to make it an official letter, in order to emphasize that the digraph "ng" is a single sound. This goes hand in hand with needing a double "g" to spell words like "finger". A quick list of comparisons below:

  • slingur, "slinger" vs. finggur, "finger".
  • hengur, "hanger" vs. enggur, "anger".
  • laangur, "longer" vs. maanggur, "monger".
  • yongur, "younger" vs. honggur, "hunger".

The double "g" change is always a hard one to swallow, since it inevitably leads to confusion, but I didn't see a good way around it without adding a letter form to the alphabet (a real engma).

Additionally, the decision to only use short vowels before engma was a tough one, since I personally have done work showing that there are really long vowels before engma (for the front vowels, anyway). Nevertheless, there's no question that a word like "sing" is monosyllabic, and the short vowels lend themselves most easily to monosyllabic situations, so it seemed easiest just to go that route. Plus, a lot of "-ing" words didn't have to change spellings. Using the "aa" vowel for a word like "song", though, was necessary, to prevent a spelling like "sang" which should be "seng".


Issue 3: Long Vowels and Liquids

That sounds like the title to a Jim Croce song... Anyway, there's been a lingering issue in the minds of many speakers about how many syllables are in a word like "feel". Phoneticians often say there's one. For the purposes of this orthography, though, I say it can be either. Here are some examples:

  • "feel": fiyl or fiyul
  • "pale": peyl or peyul
  • "cool": cuwl or cuwul
  • "oil": oyl or oyul
  • "owl": awl or awul (Note: For some dialects this is just "al".)
  • "aisle": ayl or ayul

The following words, though, do seem to be monosyllabic:

  • "whole": howl not howul
  • "hall": haal not haaul

There doesn't seem to be any principled reason why "whole" should be consistently monosyllabic and "cool" shouldn't be, but that does seem to be the case.

There's also an issue that, for some, the distinction between tense and lax vowels before "l" is being neutralized. This is what allows the Arco "fill smart" ad campaign to work. This seems bizarre to me, but I'm sure it's not to a large segment of the population. Anyway, this won't be a problem, because people can spell a word however they pronounce it. It also might make things easier, since words with lax vowels and lateral codas are always monosyllabic:

  • "fill" = fil
  • "fell" = fel
  • "Cal" = Cal
  • "full" = ful

The distinction between lax and tense vowels before "r", though, has indeed been neutralized. In my dialect, at least, you can only get tense vowels before "r". However, these words are monosyllabic. Thus, as with engma, I decided to put only short vowels before "r", giving us the following:

  • sir, "sear" vs. siyur, "seer".
  • mer, "mare" vs. meyur, "mayor".
  • mor, "more" vs. mowur, "mower".
  • car, "car" vs. caaur, "cawer".
  • stur, "stir" vs. sturur, "stirrer".

With diphthongs, though, I doubt I could be convinced that words ending in a diphthong plus "r" are monosyllabic. They are very much disyllabic, and have to be phonetically altered to fit into a monosyllabic frame (for poetry or song lyrics, for example). Here's how the diphthongs with "r" would look:

  • "higher": hayur not hayr
  • "hour": awur not awr

In order to get a monosyllabic reading, you should spell them as "hay'r" and "aw'r" in the PEA.


Issue 4: The Dreaded Apostrophe

In the PEA, the apostrophe is restored to its true purpose: To indicate when a sound ordinarily present has been elided. What does this mean? This means NO MORE GENITIVAL APOSTROPHES!!! Here are some examples of how the language will be liberated from the bondage of pointless apostrophes:

  • "kid's" (meaning "of the kid") > cidz
  • "kids'" (meaning "of the kids") > cidz
  • "its" (meaning "of it") > its
  • "it's" (meaning "it is") > its
  • "Bess's" (meaning "of Bess") > Besiz
  • "Jones" (meaning "of the family Jones") > Jownz
  • "Joneses" (meaning "more than one Jones") > Jownziz
  • "Joneses'" (meaning "of all the Joneses") > Jownziz

FREEDOM!!!

Now, of course, those appostrophes are there for a reason. If you look at the list above, the forms on the left are more varied than the forms on the right. The upshot of this is that if you see the word "its" you'll have to decide whether it means "it is" or "of it". So, in a sentence like "It's me", no longer will the apostrophe help you out. A show of hands for how many this will be a problem for. <waiting> None? That's what I thought. After all, many are doing this now, anyway, in IM's and e-mails. In fact, since there are so many errors, it's not uncommon to see a sentence like, "That's what it's number should be". The extra apostrophe doesn't cause an English speaker to ever think, "Hey, wait a minute. Is he trying to say, 'That is what it is number should be'?". Why? Because that wouldn't make any sense. "Its" and "it's" don't occur in the same distribution, so there's no reason why they should have to be differentiated. If German can do it, English can too. We're big boys and girls (or, at least, most of us are).

Another issue related to apostrophes is that apostrophes mark clitics. So, for example:

  • "that is" > "that's"
  • "it is" > "it's"
  • "we are" > "we're"
  • "I have" > "I've"
  • "he will" > "he'll"
  • "did not" > "didn't"
  • "the shop around the corner is" > "the shop around the corner's"
  • "the city of both my parents' houses is" > "the city of both my parents' houses's"

I think this is actually a good use of the apostrophe. But look at what happens to English if you do away with it and spell everything like it sounds! It's utterly fascinating! Here are some pronoun charts to consider:

Present Tense Pronouns of English
Person Singular Plural
First aym wur
Second yur yur/yaalur
Third Masc. hiyz dher
Third Fem. shiyz dher
Third Neut. its dher

That's for the present tense. Now here's the future:

Future Tense Pronouns of English
Person Singular Plural
First aal wul
Second yul yul/yaalul
Third Masc. hil dhel
Third Fem. shil dhel
Third Neut. itul dhel

Look at that! Now English encodes tense not on the verb, but on the pronouns! And the verb has to agree with the tense of the pronoun! Isn't that neat?!

Now, of course, this doesn't always work (try to conjugate the verb "love" in the present vs. the verb "hug" in the present, and you'll see the difference), but I think it's neat, and I'm glad that the PEA encodes it.

So what does the apostrophe do, then? It simply marks when something's been left out that usually isn't. As soon as the leaving out becomes usual, you don't use an apostrophe anymore (this would go for words like "don't"). So, using my examples above, if you wanted to fit "higher" (hayur) into a single syllable, you'd write it hay'r, and it would be pronounced differently.


Issue 5: Dh and Th

This issue is very simple. As I said, the average speaker of English doesn't know that there are two "th" sounds. If a spelling reform were to continue to spell them both as "th", no one would notice. But there are two different sounds, and they do make a difference, even if it's only slight (compare "thy" to "thigh"). Since I wanted to try to create an alphabet that focused on the sounds, rather than forms or phonemes, I decided to create two different letters, so that the "th" in "this" is spelled dh, and the "th" in "thin" is spelled th. This is a controversial choice, but I'll live with it, for the time being.


Issue 6: D and T

"D" and "t" are different sounds and different phonemes in most contexts except one: intervocalically. Thus, "rider" and "writer" are pronounced identically, in most dialects of English. It would seem, then, like a good idea to spell these words identically. However, I don't think there's any need. This is because the letter "t" and the letter "d" will be treated the same intervocalically. So rather than having to force everyone to remember that a "t" becomes "d" in certain circumstances, or vice versa, I say it's better to keep the original spellings. This way you'll be able to recognize that rayter came from rayt and rayder came from rayd. Additionally, this will benefit those who actually do pronounce rider and writer differently. Even though the "t" and "d" in each word should be flapped in just about every dialect of English, there are some where the vowel in "rider" will be longer than the vowel in "writer". This is for those dialects that add the suffix after the vowel lengthening rule has taken place. To explain, compare the vowels in "write" and "ride". The second should be significantly longer. This is because a voiced "d" coda causes a previous vowel to lengthen. For some dialects, this lengthening occurs, and then the "-er" suffix is added. Thus, you have a difference between "rider" and "writer", even though the middle consonant is still flapped.


Issue 7: The Reduced Vowels of English

What a confusing issue. Here's the deal. In a long word like "antidisestablishmentarianism", only certain vowels retain their ordinary quality. The ones that do are underlined here: antidisestablishmentarianism. The rest of the vowels are reduced. But what do they sound like? Do they all sound like the "a" in "sofa"? Do they all sound like the "i" in "quit"? Is it somewhere in between? I bet if I took a survey of ten English speakers I'd get ten different answers—and I bet if asked the same people a week later they'd then give ten brand new answers. In truth, there's no way to know. Sometimes you can (so, for example, the "a" in "sofa" can never sound like the "i" in "quit"), and sometimes there's a reason to believe that a given vowel should be pronounced a certain way (e.g., the second "i" in "antidisestablishmentarianism" most likely will be pronounced like the "i" in "quit", because it's close to a stressed syllable, and it's spelled with an "i"), but at other times, there's just no way to tell (for example, the first "e" in "antidisestablishmentarianism"). So how does the PEA handle this?

The official stance of the PEA is that there are some vowels that must be written in a certain way (e.g., "kid" and "cud" are two different words, so they can't both be spelled cid or cod, and "sofa" could never be pronounced or spelled sofi). For everything else, the reduced vowel can be written with o or i. However you want. My hope is that some day there will be some consistency to the reduced vowels, but somehow I doubt it. I've tried to find vowel harmony patterns, lexical patterns, phonological influences—anything. There's nothing that governs the reduced vowels, as of now, so anything goes. This means our word of the day can be spelled as follows (remember: there is no standard spelling, so any spelling goes, as long as it makes sense and reflects one's pronunciation):

  • antaydisistablishminteriyinizim
  • antaydisostabloshmonteriyonizom
  • antaydisostablishminteriyinizim
  • antaydisistablishminteriyinizom
  • antaydisistablishmonteriyinizim

Et cetera. Maybe someday a pattern will emerge. That would be neat. Note, though, that e, u and a are not reduced vowels. They are lax (well, a might not be), but they don't count as reduced.


Issue 8: Syllabic Nasals

Syllabic nasals will always be written with a vowel preceding them. Here are some examples:

  • "mitten" > mitin
  • "organism" > orgonizim
  • "madame" > madom

The Babel Text

The Babel Text is commonly translated into a conlang to show it off. However, it'll serve just as well to show off the PEA. The text I'll be using can be found at Langmaker.com, and will reflect my pronunciation. Here it is:

Dho Tawur ov Beybul

  1. Dhiy intayur urth had won lenggwij with yuniform wurdz.

  2. Wen dho piypul maygreytid from dhiy iyst, dhey fawnd o valiy in dho land ov Shinar, end dhey setuld dher.

  3. Dhey sed to won onodhur, "Com, let os mowld brics end fayur dhem." Dhey dhen had brics to yuwz az stown, end asfaalt for mortur.

  4. Dhey sed, "Com, let os bild arselvz o sitiy, end o tawur huwz taap shal riych dho scay. Let os meyc arselvz o neym, sow dhat wiy wul naat biy scaturd aal owvur dho feys ov dhiy urth."

  5. Gaad disendid to siy dho sitiy end dho tawur dhat dho sonz ov man had bilt.

  6. Gaad sed, "Dhey ar o singul piypul, aal haviyn won lenggwij, end dhis iz dho furst thing dhey duw! Naw nothiyn dhey plan to duw wil biy onoteynobul for dhem!

  7. "Com, let os disend end confyuwz dher spiych, sow dhat won purson wil naat ondurstand onodhur's spiych."

  8. From dhat pleys, Gaad scaturd dhem aal owvur dho feys ov dhiy urth, end dhey staapt bildiyn dho sitiy.

  9. Hiy neymd it Beybul, bicoz dhis woz dho pleys wer Gaad confyuwzd dho wurldz lenggwij. It woz from dher dhat Gaad dispurst hyumanitiy owvur aal dho feys ov dhiy urth.

Phew! Typing like that will take some getting used to. Anyway, there you have it. To me, it doesn't look that strange. Probably because a lot of monosyllabic words retain their spelling. Also note that I belong to a dialect that pronounces the "-ing" suffix like the "-ein" suffix in "protein". Thus, the only difference between "looting" and "lutein" for me is a flap vs. an aspirated stop. So replace all those "-iyn" suffixes with "-ing", and things should start to look very familiar.


It's Been Fun, but...

...now I'm going to discuss why I think the English spelling system will—and should—never be reformed.

Probably the main motivation behind reforming the English spelling system is to help children learn to read faster. With a totally irregular spelling system, you simply have to memorize how something is spelled; there is no such thing as "sounding it out" (what a farce!). If there were a regular spelling system, then children would see the sound-letter correspondence more easily, and be able to read faster, right? Possibly. But after thinking about it critically, I'm not so sure. Consider Chinese. Chinese has an orthography where words are represented by characters. There are literally thousands of them. And while some characters can kind of give you a clue as to how they're pronounced, most don't. Yet people who speak Chinese can still read, and do so with ease. What's the difference?

When Chinese children are going to school and learning to read, they're introduced to characters, which are, in turn, "spelled out" with a kind of phonetic alphabet that's based on Chinese radicals called Zhuyin Fuhao or 注音符號 (go here for more info). This system of spelling is never used when writing real Chinese, but it's good for children learning to memorize characters. The goal, then, is to learn how the characters are pronounced, so that all you need to do is memorize the characters and the sound will come to you.

The problem with English is that, unlike Chinese, it pretends that its writing system is phonemic. It isn't. Neither is the orthography of Chinese, but they make no bones about it being so. That's why they help children with a regular alphabet when they're learning to read. An English school could benefit from this. A regular alphabet could be used to help children learn to recognize how a given form is pronounced (e.g., "right" would be spelled "rayt" or "rite", or something), and then the children simply memorize the form "right", the way someone learning Chinese would memorize the symbol ⻲.

Along these lines, it would be beneficial to keep the current English spelling system because it makes more distinctions than the actual spoken language. Thus, the difference between "night" and "knight" is useful, because the form of the word immediately clues you in to the meaning the way the sound of it doesn't. That's a useful thing to maintain.

Another argument for changing the spelling system is to make it easier to learn for second language learners of English. If the spelling system were regularized, it would certainly be easier to learn how a word was pronounced based on the spelling. But pronounced by whom? Under my system, you might have someone from Southern Californian spelling "Tuesday" as Tuwzdey, and someone from New England spelling it as Tyuwzdey. Which is right? Depends on where you're from. Now throw in the South, Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, India... And subdivide those based on regional dialects (there have to be hundreds in England alone), give them each a sound-based spelling system, and what do you have? Hundreds of different Englishes, all spelled differently.

Now imagine a second language learner of English. Why are they learning English? For many, it's simply to get by in the country they live in, where English is spoken and not their native language. What about those who want to get into international business? What would happen if America had five or six different spelling systems, England had forty, Australia had however many, and so forth? What would it mean to learn English? It'd mean learning a dialect of English which, all of the sudden, isn't as internationally recognizable, and, thus, isn't as useful. The alternative, of course, would be to force one spelling system on every dialect/region. But which region would it represent? Which would be the priveleged standard dialect?

Like it or not, English is an international language, and will be for quite some time. By creating a spelling system that reflects the pronunciation of native English speakers only, we would actually be doing harm to those who would seek to learn it, and those who use it already as a means of international communication. True, it may be rather unsettling that English is an international auxiliary language, of sorts, but the upshot of that is English is no longer owned by those who speak English natively. Non-native English speakers will probably one day outnumber native English speakers, if they don't already, and they should have just as much a say, if not more so, in forging the destiny of the language.

Finally, think about what would happen to literature if the English spelling system were reformed. Currently, high schoolers can read Shakespeare, with only a little bit of difficulty, and the proper instruction. With a little bit more instruction, we can even get through Chaucer. Why? Has the language not changed much since then? Hardly. Our link to the past, though, is our spelling system. The form "knight" may not sound now like it used to, but it's been spelled that way for ages, so no matter whether it was written in the twenty-first century or the fifteenth, any English speaker can read it and understand what it means. If we reform the spelling system, this link to the past will be lost. First, all books would have to be redone. And while this would pose no problem for John Grisham, Michael Crichton, or other trash fiction, it would certainly damage James Joyce. Dubliners might survive, but Finnegans Wake? Never.

The moral of the story, then, I suppose, is this: In the writing system of English lies an important part of its cultural heritage. Altering it would cause that heritage to be lost, possibly irrevocably. That does not mean, however, that our writing system is just fine. It must be understood that our writing system does not reflect the language we speak today, and that it cannot be presented and taught as if it did. It's like trying to teach a blind child to figure out what color something is by feeling it: It's literally impossible. It's time to stop pretending that "right" reflects some sort of pronunciation and to realize that it's nothing more than a symbol that must be memorized, like the flashing red hand of a crosswalk, or the period at the end of a sentence.

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