Saturday, May 3, 2014

Rhoticity and the phonemic alphabet

Earlier, I talked a bit about replacing the alphabet with a phonetic writing system because our letters and sounds don't match very well (not the least of the issues being that we represent about 20 vowel sounds with 5 vowel letters (and often 2 consonant letters),  I would like to further explore the issues with this idea in this post by looking at the difference between rhotic and non-rhotic English and the challenges in writing both of these in a standard phonemic system. 
First, what is the difference between rhotic and non-rhotic English?  The answer here is the pronunciation of the /r/ sound at the end of words that we British English speakers tend to drop.  Non-rhotic speakers tend to pronounce the word car as /kə/ where a rhotic speaker would pronounce it /kär/.  Although rhoticity is usually associated with region (US accents tend to be rhotic while UK accents tend to be non-rhotic), there are some US accents which are non-rhotic.
The thing to note is that non-rhotic English does pronounce the /r/ when the next word starts with a vowel.  In the sentence the car is white, the /r/ sound seems to start the next syllable /kə rɪz/.  
What does this imply?  If we were to switch to a phonemic alphabet, we would need to decide on one way of speaking.  If we choose to standardize rhoticity, for example, then all non-rhotic languages would be disadvantaged as they would need to be educated to speak the way the way rhotic speakers do in order for their speech to match the spelling.
So I guess that the solution is to create a "standard English".  If we were to create a superior form of our language which uses a phonemic alphabet and thereby standardizes the way that we speak, we could lead by example.  In the same way that received pronunciation is held as a superior form of British English and is therefore preferred by broadcasters such as the BBC, mediums such as television and the internet could affect this change while regional accents are still maintained.
Of course there is the issue of whether any change is necessary at all.  Perhaps as technology makes international communication more common, we will naturally standardize the way that we speak without the effort and expense of educating anyone at all.  Just as the world is currently going through a process of natural selection with our languages (it has been said that the world loses 1 language every 14 days), so too will happen with accents.  After all, the purpose of accents is to identify with the community in which you live and we now live in a global community.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A world of characters

Did you know that the word alphabet comes from alpha and beta to symbolize that there are both consonants and vowels represented in the alphabet.  A writing system that does not have both consonants and vowels as separate characters is not an alphabet.  Here are some different kinds of writing systems.

An abjad
An abjad contains only consonants.  The vowels are added through diacritics which are little marks added above or below the stream of consonants.
Arabic and Hebrew are examples of this writing system.

An abugida
A character from an abugida typically has both consonant and vowel components combining to make a syllable (though separate vowels are often included to so that a word can start/end with a vowel sound).     Diacritic marks are used to change or mute the vowel sound.
This type of writing system is common in Southeast Asia; examples include Thai, Lao, and Bengali.

A syllabary
A syllabary is a writing system that combines consonant and vowel sounds to make a syllable (again separate vowels are used as well).
Japanese Hiragana and Katakana are examples of this as well as Inuktitut (Eastern Canadian Inuit).

A semanto-phonetic 
These symbols represent both sound and meaning.  They typically have a large number of characters (some estimates of the number of Chinese characters go up to 80 000).  They include both pictograms which derive from pictures of things, ideograms which represent abstract ideas and compound characters which have both a semantic (hints at meaning) and phonetic (hints at pronunciation) element.
A modern example is Chinese (and therefore Japanese Kanji) and a historical example is ancient Greek hieroglyphics.

I find it interesting to think about how different the languages and therefore the starting point of some of my students actually is.  We often notice how students from a language which uses the Latin alphabet pick up some things faster than those who aren't.  Have you ever noticed the difference between those from a similar kind of alphabet and those from an entirely different kind of alphabet?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Improving our alphabet

As discussed in previous posts, the Roman alphabet (ABC's) that we use to represent the English language does a poor job of matching sounds to letters.  That is why spelling is so difficult in English.  When was the last time you had to think about the spelling of a word?  Did you know that problem is not not an issue in languages which have an effective phonetic alphabet (i.e. an alphabet where the letters match the sounds)?

Because we try to represent the 12 vowel sounds with only 5-6 vowel letters, it is clearly that we are using an alphabet that was designed for another purpose.  Here is a list of benefits of swapping up our ABC's for a more appropriate script.
  • Children spend more time on maths and science and less time memorizing strings of letters to learn spelling
  • English would be easier for learners making it a more competitive language
  • Spelling would be easier for everyone
  • Standardise/standardize spelling
So why don't we change it?  Why don't we just start using the phonemic alphabet in place of the Roman one?  Well, it is just not that easy.  It is clear that there are long-term benefits that would seriously benefit our children and help to promote the English language as an international language.  But these are long-term benefits and to get there we have to go through a difficult and costly short term.  And if we fail, then the costly and difficult short term was for naught.

Here are the challenges:
  • The transition period would be difficult (especially for the elderly and children/learners)
  • Change management on such a large scale would be difficult as people tend to resist change
  • People speak differently so the change would not only standardise spelling but pronunciation as well
  • Lost investment if it does not catch on
I guess that the biggest obstacle would be that you would effectively need to get the world to decide on one way to spell and say words and you can imagine the political battles that would create.  Take a word like regular for instance.  How do you say it?


And more importantly, would you mind changing the way that you say it if the world decided that we were going with the alternative pronunciation.  Could you change the way you have been words since you a kid for that matter?  It would probably be a change that would would take a couple of generations to really take hold but possible if we devoted to it.

And what if we couldn't decide on one pronunciation or people couldn't change the habits ingrained in their version of the language?  Do we go with two different spellings and have the dictionary looking a whole lot fuller with thousands of extra polysemes?

My personal opinion on this is that it is doable but only if done well.  It is possible that some change to our language in the future may make this change necessary or popular and that is the ticket;  if you could somehow motivate the majority of the English speakers on the planet to make the change by making the new version of English desirable (e.g. it's spoken in universities or on TV or through any other popular medium), then you could motivate the people to change it.  

Just something to think about :)