Comments on a Proposal for Reformed English Spelling

by Bob Cunningham
 

[Added note, 28 November 2000: I realize that the author of the subject reformed spelling scheme has probably continued to work on it, so that many of my comments on it may no longer be applicable to the scheme as it now stands.]

Here are some comments on A Reformed Orthography for the English Language. I will use the following abbreviations:

AE -American English
BC -My idiolect
BE -the modern received pronunciation used in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (NSOED)
CO -conventional orthography
RO -the proposed reformed orthography
RP -the traditional received pronunciation that is used in The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Eighth Edition.

Pronunciations shown within vertical bars are in the notation of Evan Kirshenbaum's ASCII IPA. I've used vertical bars instead of square brackets or slashes because I think the distinction between phonetics and phonemics is irrelevant to a discussion of this sort. I've converted pronunciations copied and pasted from NSOED from the NSOED scheme to ASCII IPA.

The fallacy of trying to devise a reformed orthography that will please everyone is at least twofold. One aspect is the greatly different pronunciations that are used in different communities. The great number of such differences is typified by 'geyser' and 'Argentine' (|[email protected]| and |[email protected]:n| in AE, |gi:[email protected]| and |'A:[email protected]| in BE). A great class of contrasting pronunciations arises from the fact that some dialects are rhotic and some are nonrhotic.

A second aspect is the impossibility of finding vowel representations that are likely to please everyone. In the remainder of this posting, I'll dwell mostly on that second aspect.

Following are some specific examples of the failure of RO to devise vowel symbols that consistently show the same pronunciation or that are at all transportable from BE to AE:

  • BE uses entirely different vowels in 'cat' and 'bath', but the examples in RO show them to be the same.

    CO: cat, bath
    RO: cat, bath
    BE: |kat|, |bA:T|
    BC: |k&t|, |b&T|

  • BE uses an unrounded vowel in 'father', a rounded vowel in 'what'. RO shows the two to have the same vowel.

    CO: father, what
    RO: faadher, waat
    BE: |'fA:[email protected]|, |wA.t|
    BC: |'fA:[email protected]|, |wA:t|

  • BE uses |O|, the rounded, back, close-mid vowel in certain words, while AE has either that vowel or |A|, the unrounded, back, open vowel.

    CO: call, walk, broad
    RO: koal, woak, broad
    BE: |kO:l|, |wO:k|, |brO:d|
    BC: |kA:l|, |wA:k|, |brA:d|

  • RO has the same vowel in 'team' and the second vowel in 'happy', while RP has different vowels.

    CO: team, happy
    RO: tym, hapy,
    RP: |ti:m|, |h&pI|

  • In many dialects, the second vowel in 'music' is the same as the vowel in 'pick'. In BC the second vowel in 'music' is the vowel of 'peek'.

    CO: pick, music
    RO: pik, myoozik
    BE: |pIk|, |mjusIk|
    BC: |pIk|, |mjusik|

  • BE uses a vowel, |A.|, in words like 'got', 'hot', and 'rock', while that vowel may not even exist in AE and certainly does not exist in BC.

    CO: got, rock
    RO: got, rok
    BE: |gA.t|, |rA.k|
    BC: |gA:t|, |rA:k|

  • It should strike BE speakers as quite strange to see a symbol suggesting the |o| sound in words like 'go' and 'hoax'. Their diphthong in those words doesn't contain anything similar to an |o| sound. Rather it uses a schwa where AE uses |o|.

    CO: go, hoax
    RO: gow, howks
    BE: |[email protected]|, |[email protected]|
    BC: |goU|, |hoUks|

  • It might sound somewhat ludicrous to a BE speaker to hear 'stupid' pronounced with plain |u| instead of |ju| ('oo' instead of 'yoo'). It might have about the same effect as hearing 'music' pronounced |muzIk| ('moozic') would have on me.

    CO: rude, stupid
    RO: rood, stoopid
    BE: rude |ru:d|, stupid |'stju:pId| ('styoopid')
    BC: rude |ru:d|, stupid |'stu:[email protected]|

  • The diphthong in words like 'fly' and 'style' in BE has a schwa where AE has |a|. Also, I find it strange in BE to see the second vowel of the diphthong represented as |I| (the vowel of 'pit'). I hear myself using |i| (the vowel of 'peat').

    CO: fly, style
    RO: flai, stail
    BE: |flVI|, |stVIl|
    BC: |flai|, |stail|

Some additional comments, not related to pronunciation:

  • The flags shown at the top of the RO Web page represent the following countries:

    England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand

    In contrast with that selection, which may be taken to be the author's idea of the principal English-speaking communities, the 1995 Britannica Yearbook listed the following countries, in descending order of number of speakers, as the ones that had 100,000 or more mother-tongue speakers of English:

    United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Belize, Malaysia, Spain

    (For the numbers, see Worldwide Distribution of English Speakers)

  • Typo noted in passing:

    CO: the, this, weather
    RO: dhe, dhis, weather


The designer of the reformed-spelling scheme, Brian Nolfi, posted a rebuttal to my comments, and he has given me permission to install his remarks here:

>Bob Cunningham wrote:
>
>> BE uses entirely different vowels in 'cat' and 'bath', but the
>> examples in RO show them to be the same.
>
>    I knew that when I wrote it. "Cat" and "bath" both use short vowels - in
>contrast to "Kate" and "bathe" which use long vowels - that's why I use the
>same letter to represent both, even though they are different.
>
>> BE uses an unrounded vowel in 'father', a rounded vowel in 'what'.  RO
>> shows the two to have the same vowel.
>
>    Again, I was aware of that distinction. However, I feel that those vowel
>sounds are close enough that they can be represented by the same letter. It
>is acceptable for different dialects to spell a word the same way, even if
>they pronounce the word differently.
>
>> BE uses |O|, the rounded, back, close-mid vowel in certain words,
>> while AE has either that vowel or |A|, the unrounded, back, open
>> vowel.
>
>    See above.
>
>> RO has the same vowel in 'team' and the second vowel in 'happy', while
>> RP has different vowels.
>
>    See above.
>
>> In many dialects, the second vowel in 'music' is the same as the vowel
>> in 'pick'.  In BC the second vowel in 'music' is the vowel of 'peek'.
>
>    See above.
>
>> BE uses a vowel, |A.|, in words like 'got', 'hot', and 'rock', while
>> that vowel may not even exist in AE and certainly does not exist in
>> BC.
>
>    See above.
>
>> It should strike UK speakers as quite strange to see a symbol
>> suggesting the |o| sound in words like 'go' and 'hoax'.  Their
>> diphthong in those words doesn't contain anything similar to an |o|
>> sound.  Rather it uses a schwa where AE uses |o|.
>
>    See above.
>
>> It might sound somewhat ludicrous to a BE speaker to hear 'stupid'
>> pronounced with plain |u| instead of |ju| ('oo' instead of 'yoo').  It
>> might have about the same effect as hearing 'music' pronounced |muzIk|
>> ('moozic') would have on me.
>
>    Good point. I missed that one. Maybe I'll default to the U.K.
>pronunciation by changing it to "styoopid", but Americans can continue to
>say "stoopid".
>
>> The diphthong in words like 'fly' and 'style' in BE has a schwa where
>> AE has |a|.  Also, I find it strange in BE to see the second vowel of
>> the diphthong represented as |I| (the vowel of 'pit').  I hear myself
>> using |i| (the vowel of 'peat').
>
>    I was aware of that distinction. However, I feel that those vowel sounds
>are close enough that they can be represented by the same letter. It is
>acceptable for different dialects to spell a word the same way, even if they
>pronounce the word differently.
>
>> The flags shown at the top of the RO Web page represent the following
>> countries:
>>
>> England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Ireland, United States,
>> Canada, Australia, New Zealand
>>
>> In contrast with that selection, which may be taken to be the author's
>> idea of the principal English-speaking communities, the 1995
>> _Britannica Yearbook_ listed the following countries, in descending
>> order of number of speakers, as the ones that had 100,000 or more
>> mother-tongue speakers of English:
>>
>> United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Africa,
>> Ireland, New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago, India, Zimbabwe,
>> Hong Kong, Belize, Malaysia, Spain
>
>    The criterion for which flags are included is that they represent large
>countries in which English is the main language. According to that
>criterion, I excluded countries in which English is not the main language
>(even if there is a large English-speaking community) as well as tiny
>countries (even if English is the main language). My apologies to the
>latter, but there is only so much space. If I've excluded any countries that
>fit the criterion, please let me know.
>
>
>> Typo noted in passing:
>>
>>     CO: the, this, weather
>>     RO: dhe, dhis, weather
>
>    Good eye. I've proof-read the page numerous times, but alas, that one
>eluded me. It should be "wedher".
>
>    As I've said to Peter, I appreciate the feedback because I intend to
>keep improving the system. Your criticisms facilitate that process.
>
>    Thanks.