Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Trouble with English sounds and letters

English is a funny language. According to the American Heritage Book of English Usage,
“English adopted its alphabet, except for the letters j, u, and w, from the one used by the Romans to represent the sounds of Latin, and the fit was not an exact one. English is a Germanic language that has borrowed many words from French, Dutch, and other languages, and the result is a phonological mishmash in which certain letters are pronounced differently depending on the origin of the words they appear in.”
That basically means that our alphabet doesn’t exactly match our spoken sounds. We have 26 letters, but over 40 sounds. Depending on the region, distinctions between vowel sounds may push the number of English sounds over 50. Anyone wanna learn an alphabet with 50 letters? No? Well, it might be easier to spell in English if we did, but then again, it might not.

There’s really no way to fully identify all the vowel sounds and have those recognized worldwide, especially where those sounds are combined with the r. One vowel sound that is completely without a letter though is oo (boot {long sound}, took {short sound}).

The consonant sounds are more predictable. Currently, commonly accepted consonant sounds that do not have their own letters are ch (chat), ng (long), sh (shin), th (thin), th (this), and zh (vision). The hard and soft th sounds can be given to one letter. The ng sound is really two sounds blended closely together, so it doesn’t really need its own letter. Adding these sounds as letters would give the English language a 30 letter alphabet. Adding the oo vowel puts it at 31.

But, there are sounds that aren’t commonly recognized. For example, the sound tt, as in little, is often reduced to a flick of the tongue in a way that sounds just like the Spanish r. Not many people notice they even pronounce the tt in this way. Once recognized, this will add yet another sound to the English language, putting the total alphabet at 32 (so far).

All this put together would produce an alphabet something like this:
Aa Bb Cc CHch Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss SHsh Tt THth TTtt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz ZHzh OOoo

Of course, for easier identification, it might be a good idea to give the new letters their own forms, such as joining line or even custom new shapes.  We could bring back some older letters that fell into disuse for various reasons about the 14th Century.  The letter thorn  (Þ) would be very useful in modern writing.

Additionally, there are consonant and vowel sounds that this new alphabet does not cover. For example, there is a soft and hard y sound (yes {hard}, you {soft}). But this alphabet would at least represent all of the major sounds. Of course, if this would be ever accepted, a respelling of many English words would follow. Experience with English might suggest this would actually worsen the link between English spoken and English written language. Oh well.

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