So, a lot of people know that I’m into orthographies, and conlangs in general. And that I have a lot of ideas for how English could be spelled more phonetically. I’ve already proposed here several possible ways this could be done. All of those were systems that I came up with from scratch given what I know about English’s orthography, with attention paid to the current system only for the most arbitrary of aspects of said systems, such as the specific graphemes to use for certain phonemes.
What a lot of people, myself included, often fail to realise or at least ignore when talking about phonetic English reform is that English has orthographical rules. A great many of the words people complain about—”xylophone”, “knight”, “conscience”, “what”—actually have valid reasons for being the way they are and logical rules to explain how they should be pronounced. The problem with English spellings is not so much that it has no rules, but that it has too many rules, and none of them are followed consistently enough. These rules compounded from the initial set of conventions inherited from the Romans, the vast phonological shifts that English has undergone since the orthography was invented, and the large number of loanwords in English that each follow their own completely separate set of rules.
Now consider the possibility of reforming this system. It has been tried many times, and sometimes found success, at least partially. As lofty an idea as it is, it’s clear that the only way spelling reform could even succeed completely would be for it to be as minor as possible. The greatest challenge it faces is the substantial amount of work the change would require of everyone who already knows how to spell, and would have to effectively re-learn how to read. The less a new system diverges from current spellings, the weaker this effect would be.
A related challenge is the inherent silliness of phonetic spellings. Despite the legitimate pragmatic value in reforming spelling, writing /z/ with a “z” just looks unprofessional, and therefore undesirable. Compare “shatoez” with “chateaus”. Ooh, look how refined and French I am; I can spell /ʃ/ with a “ch”! Look how uneducated and barbaric you must be; a “z” for /z/? No phonetic spelling can avoid this problem entirely, but one that minimises it by avoiding constructions with such negative connotations would be greatly advantaged toward success.
With all this in mind, I propose a new system for writing English phonetically that takes advantage of English’s existing rules, but in a simplified form. This system retains all distinctions that are still made by any Anglophones today, including “fir”/”fur” and “wine”/”whine”, but removes all truly archaic ones, such as “meet”/”meat”. This system removes language of origin from the spellings of words; there is only one set of rules to be learned, based on words of English origin. Rather than a simple table of graphemes, this system takes the form of a list of rules that one can follow, in order, to deterministically deduce the spelling of any word given its pronunciation and part of speech. These rules are based on a truncated inversion of the phonological shifts our alphabet has experienced since being invented by the Romans to today. Before we start, though, some notation conventions:
The most notable choices here are the large number of distinctions, the pre-rhotic vowel transcriptions, the presence of the “whine”/”wine” merger, and the absence of the “pin”/”pen” merger. All of these were made in order to keep spellings as similar as possible to their present forms while retaining some degree of modernity.
Next, some tables:
Finally, the rules! The process is simple. To spell a word, execute each of the following steps in order.
- If the word is compound and its components have the same pronunciation as when separate, break it up into its morphemes and spell each morpheme individually before putting them together.
- Remove and discard the final suffix from any word inflected with “-s”, “-es”, “-ed”, “-en”, “-er”, “-est”, or “-ing”, but leave any changes it may have made (such as voicing the /f/ in “leaves”).
- Remove and discard the final “s” from any possessive that ends in “s” (including “hers”, “his”, “theirs”, and “its”).
- Other affixes such as “pre-“, “a-“, “-ment”, and “-ary” do count as morphemes to be separated and saved, so long as the thing they modify is a word on its own.
- Transcribe the morpheme into IPA using the conventions outlined above. When a word has several comparably popular pronunciations, choose the one that results in the spelling most similar to the current one.
- Change any non-word-initial /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /t͡ʃ/ or /d͡ʒ/ immediately followed by a vowel that is not /ɪ/, /iː/, or /i/ to /sj/, /zj/, /tj/, or /dj/, respectively.
- Change any remaining /ʒ/ to /d͡ʒ/.
- Drop any /j/ immediately before /ɪʊ̯/.
- Drop any /ə/ between a vowel and a rhotic coda.
- Change any /ər/ to /ɛr/.
- Change any word-final /ð/ to /θɛ/
- Spell the word phonetically, using the symbol mapping outlined above in the “DS” column.
- Append an “e” to any word that ends in “j” or “v”, or ends in “-” plus a single consonant (digraphs don’t count as single consonants for our purposes), or ends in a voiced consonant or vowel digraph plus “s” or “z”.
- Change any “⋅” immediately before an intervocalic (“y” counts as a vowel for our purposes) consonant to “d” if that following consonant is “j”, “” if that following consonant is “h” or “v”, or that following consonant otherwise.
- Remove any remaining “⋅”.
- Change any “s” immediately following a vowel and immediately followed by a voiced consonant, the end of the word, or vowel that is not “e”, “i”, or “y” to “ss”.
- If a word ends in “-” and contains only a single vowel and is an article, preposition, conjunction, pronoun, copula, interjection, prefix, or letter name, remove that “-“.
- Remove any “-” between “a” and “ng” or “nk”.
- Change any “a-“, “e-“, “i-“, “o-“, or “u-” immediately followed by “h” or “v” or not immediately followed by a vowel or intervocalic consonant to “ay”, “ee”, “ie”, “oa”, or “ew”, respectively.
- Change any word-final “oa” to “oe”.
- Remove any remaining “-“.
- Change any word-final “c”, “f”, “l”, or “ch” immediately following a vowel monograph to “cc”, “ff”, “ll”, or “tch”, respectively.
- Change any “ng” immediately followed by “g”, or “c” to “n”.
- Change any “cw” to “qu”.
- Change any “c” immediately followed by “e”, “i”, “y”, or the end of the word to “k”.
- Change any “s” immediately following a vowel or “c” and immediately followed by “e”, “i”, or “y” to “c”.
- Change any word-final “ge” or “je” to “gue” or “ge”, respectively.
- Change any “cs” not followed by “e”, “i”, or “y” or intervocalic “gz” to “x”.
- Change any “z” immediately following a vowel or voiced consonant and immediately followed by a vowel or the end of the word to “s”.
- Change any “y” adjacent to a consonant and not adjacent to “i” to “i”.
- Change any word-final “i” or “u” to “y” or “w”, respectively.
- Recombine any separated morphemes.
- Reinflect any words that were deinflected.
- If the word ends in a silent “e”, including ones from long vowel dipthongs, remove it.
- If the word ends in a vowel monograph followed by a consonant, double that consonant.
- Append “es”, “ed”, “en”, “er”, “est”, or “ing” appropriately (note that plurals are now always spelled with “-es”).
- Change any “ii” or “uu” to “yi” or “wu”, respectively.
- Append “‘s” if a possessive “s” was removed earlier.
- Capitalise the first letter in the first word in a sentence, as well as in words in titles and proper names that are not articles, conjunctions, or prepositions. Insert apostrophes wherever letters were elided in a contraction.
And that’s it! What, did you think that was a lot? It was the bare minimum necessary to capture all of the aspects of English spelling that are practically always true. In summary, it can be stated as such:
- Short vowels are followed by word-final consonants or consonant clusters, even if that means doubling the letter after it. Single “h” and “v” act like consonant clusters.
- Long vowels are followed by other vowels or intervocalic consonants, even if that means adding a silent “e” to the end. When this is not possible, they are spelled with digraphs instead.
- Monosyllabic grammar tokens that end in a long vowel spell that vowel as a monograph. Otherwise, word-final long vowels are spelled in digraph form.
- “a” sounds long before “ng” or “nk”, for some reason.
- “k” is only used before “e”, “i”, or “y” or word-finally.
- Soft “g” is only used at the ends of words.
- “x” is used for /ks/ wherever possible, unless “cc” can be used instead.
- Intervocalic “s” is voiced. Soft “c” is used to counteract this effect.
- Post-alveolar fricatives are spelled as alveolar fricatives plus a palatal approximant.
- Word-final /ð/ is spelled “the”. Elsewhere, it is indistinguishable from /θ/.
- Words cannot end in “i”, “u”, “j”, or “v”. Instead, they end with “y”, “w”, “ge”, or “ve”.
- “i” and “u” are never doubled. Instead, the first is changed to “y” or “w”.
- Word-final “c”, “f”, “l”, and “ch” are doubled unless they follow a digraph (“ch” is doubled as “tch”).
These were the rules I deemed necessary to avoid my system looking extremely weird. I tried to avoid spelling rules that are inconsistent, like how “w” before a consonant is sometimes changed to “u” but not always (“cloud” vs. “crowd”), illogical, like how /ɪnd/ is spelled identically to /ɑɪ̯nd/ (“windy” vs. “winding”), or ambiguous, like how “u” adjacent to “v” is traditionally changed to “o”, colliding with actual “ov”s (“dove” vs. “dove”).
Do you want to see an example? Let’s have at it!
Consider the phrase, “Queen Antoinette’s revolutionary execution”. First, we break it up into its uninflected morphemic components as mandated by rules 1 and 2, yielding “Queen”, “Antoinette”, “revolutionary”, and “execution”. Rule 2 transcribes it into /kwiːn/, /æntwənɛt/, /rɛvəlɪʊ̯ʃəneɪ̯əri/, and /ɛksɪkjɪʊ̯ʃən/, which rule 3 makes /rɛvəlɪʊ̯sjəneɪ̯əri ɛksɪkjɪʊ̯sjən/. 5 and 6 reduce that to /-kɪʊ̯s-/ and /-eɪ̯ri/. At 9, we spell it out: “kwe-n”, “a⋅ntwa⋅ne⋅t”, “re⋅va⋅lu-syo⋅n”, “a-ri”, and “e⋅csi⋅cu-sya⋅n”. 10 puts the silent “e” on “kwe-ne”. 11 geminates our intervocalic consonants, and then 12 and 17 clear out the remaining dots and dashes: “antwannet revallusyan ari ecsiccusyan”. 20 turns the first word into “quene”. 22 turns “usyan” into “ucyan” and “ecsi” into “ecci”. At 26, “ucyan” goes to “ucian”. Next, we put it all back together in accordance with 28 and 29, taking a moment to apply 27 to “ari”: “quene antwannet’s revallucianary ecciccucian”. This is the final spelling, to which we apply capitalisation and apostrophes as we normally would. “Quene Antwannet’s revallucianary ecciccucian”.
Does it look weird? Absolutely. The new spellings feature far more double letters than English currently does, especially in Romance words. At least it’s not a “revoluushunerii eksukjuushun”, though, right? Here’s a longer sample:
Wotter. Erth. Fire. Are.
Long aggoe, the fore naciannes lived tugether in harmanny. Then evrything chainged when the fire nacian attacked.
Oanly the Avattar, master uve awl fore ellammentes, cud stop them. But when the wurld neded him moast, he vannished.
A hundrid yeres passed, and my bruther and y discuverred the new Avattar, an arebender named Aing. And awlthoe hi’s arebending skilles ar grate, he has a lot too lern before he’se reddy too saive enywun.
But y beleve Ang can saive the wurld.Kattarra uve the Suthern Wotter Tribe
Now that we’ve got a feel for how it works, let’s talk properties. Every word has one unambiguously deduceable spelling, so if you know a word’s pronunciation and part of speech, you theoretically know how to spell it. This lies in stark contrast to the existing system, which retains many archaic and etymological distinctions, making it impossible to deduce for oneself how to spell words like “knight”, “Xian”, and “loch” (Yes, I’m saying that [lɑk] and refusing to acknowledge /x/ as an English phoneme. It’s only used by a handful of anglophones in the codas of loanwords; we can live without it.) without also knowing the history of the word. The only rub here is that depending on your dialect, you may still need additional information about how other people say a word to spell it; as an American, I have difficulty knowing when to spell [ɑ] “o” and when to spell it “a” or “aw”. A shortcoming, to be sure, but an acceptable one when compared to the current system.
In the other direction, there are several systemic ambiguities that make it impossible to know how to pronounce a word from its spelling. However, these are all minor—nothing a few context clues can’t fix:
- Stress is not encoded in this spelling, since there’s really no anglic way to do that. There are words where this is an issue, but they invariably face the same issue in traditional spellings as well.
- “j” and final “ge” can mean either /d͡ʒ/ or /ʒ/. All of the situations where this might matter are French loanwords where /ʒ/ is effectively equivalent to /d͡ʒ/, with a smattering of hyperforeignisms like “Beijing” where it matters even less.
- Short “a” can mean either /æ/, /ɑ/, or /ə/. Differences between these are primarily allaphonic, though, so they practically never contrast.
- Short “u” can mean either /ʌ/ or /ʊ/. Again, there are only a few cases where this matters.
- /j/ after a consonant is spelled the same as /ɑɪ̯/. While this can cause some confusion, I don’t think there are any specific cases where it causes conflicts.
- “x” can mean either /ks/ or /ɡz/ when it does not precede “e”, “i”, or “y” (when it does, it is unambiguously /ɡz/, since /ks/ would be spelled “cc”). I can’t think of a single case where voiced “x” contrasts with voiceless, though, so it’s not really a problem.
- There is no mechanism in place to distinguish adjacent monographs from digraphs. This is most apparent in the case of words like “nieve”, which kind of looks like /nɑɪ̯v/.
- When a single vowel precedes the end of a word or another vowel, it can read either long or short. In practice, these are actually almost always long except for the occasional schwa, which only happens at the end of polysyllabic words where a long vowel would have been spelled with a digraph.
- “cia” can be mean either /sjə/ or /ʃə/. The same issue occurs, of course, with “s”, “t”, and “d”. I don’t know of any English words where any of these are actually followed by /j/, though, so it can almost always be assumed to be the latter.
As you can see, none of these are a major issue, and so these gaps will only create a handful of homographs that can be distinguished with context.
In summerry, while thiss sistam is compliccated and imperfect, it is a far crie better than the traddicianall Inglish orthograffy, and yet vizzually quite simmiller. That simmillaritty wud make it far eseer too implamment thiss reform than the uther sutch conseptes y and utherres have prapposed. It awlso lendes itself well too being roled owt in fases. Perhappes first, arcaick digraffes like “ea” and “ei” ar fased owt. Then, the weerder vowalles start getting chainged too thare moddern vallewes. Then, “tion” is replaced with “cian”, leding intoo the full diccianary replacement. The Sudofannettick Inglish Reform cud eeven serve as a stepping stone tuword more extreme reformes like the Seudoe-Abjd. A far fetched dreme, y noe, but y think just plawsibball enuff.