Fixing the English Alphabet

Many of you may agree that our spelling is crazy, but ask yourselves why we don't just fix our current spelling, instead of changing to a new alphabet. This page will explore that option in more detail, so you can see for yourself whether you like the results. We'll use only the familiar 26-letter English alphabet, and I'm not even going to use the letters q or x at all!

Like we do now, we're going to write at the level of phonemes, not phones. For example, we usually pronounce the t in till as aspirated, with a little puff of air after the release. But t is not aspirated after s, as in still, nor at the end of a syllable, as in sit. It's not even aspirated at the beginning of an unstressed syllable unless it's the first. In words like metal and water, it's pronounced as a flap. But we're going to ignore all that and write a simple t in all those cases, and the same for p k ch.

Likewise, the l after a vowel is dark - oil doesn't sound like oily - but we're not going to write that differently, either. If there's no confusion between sounds - no minimal pairs - then we're going to use the same letter. We're not trying to develop a phonetic script here, since this spelling is only for English.

Let's start with the consonants, since they're easier. The English alphabet is only missing six English consonants, the ones at the beginnings of shin chin thin this and at the ends of beige sing. The first three and the last already have very well-known digraphs, so we'll just use those:

shin chin thin sing

The sound in this is the voiced version of the th, so let's write it with the voiced version of t:

dhis dhat dhe ladhe whedher

We'll use the same trick with the sound in beige, which is the voiced version of sh:

cazhual pleazhure Azha vizhon azhure seizhure beizhe garazhe

We'll always use the letter j to write the sound of judge. The letter g will only be used for the sound in gag (and in ng).

juj jentle jin Jorge

When the ng sound is followed by a g sound, you'll have to double the g:

fingger singer

We'll always use the letter z to write the sound of zoos. The letter s will only be used for the sound in sauce (and in sh).

zooz rozez dheze sayz

We'll always use the letter k to write the sound of kick. The letter c will only be used in ch.

kik klam bak

The digraph ph will always be respelled as f.


The digraph qu will always be respelled as kw.

kwik kween

We can use the digraphs kh gh and the letter q for the foreign sounds in Khartoum Baghdad Qatar.

The English vowels are much harder! English has six short vowels:

bit book
bet but
bat boss

And seven long vowels:

beat bert boot
bait boat
balm bought

In American English, we pronounce the boss vowel like the long vowel in bought. Commonwealth speakers pronounce bath like balm, while Americans pronounce it like bat.

Commonwealth English dialects are non-rhotic: they're missing the Bert vowel, so that pairs like father-farther pawn-porn caught-court are pronounced alike. The English r is, in any case, a vowel, not a consonant. When it's used as a consonant, as in rail, it's a semi-vowel just like y in Yale and w in wail. These three semivowels are also used to form diphthongs: a short vowel followed by a semivowel offglide. There are eight of them in English.

There are four more diphthongs in English. Two of them are have a preceding semivowel: the vowels in pure and beauty, which are the same as the vowels in poor and booty with a y in front. The other two have a second following semivowel: the vowels in hire and flour, which are the same as the vowels in buy and sow with an r afterwards. In some dialects, hire and flour are pronounced as two syllables, like higher and flower.

There are also three reduced vowels that only appear in unstressed syllables. You can hear them in the second syllables of Rosa's grocer's roses. But we won't give them separate letters. Here are all 24 stressed vowels:

Short Long With -Y With -R With -W
bit beet beard
bet bait (bait) bared
bat balm bite barred bout
boss boat boys bored (boat)
but bought
book boot (buoy) boor
Bert byre bower
butte pure

We have only five vowel letters and three semivowel letters to write all 27 vowels with, so we'll have to write some of them as two letters: a digraph.

Our traditional spelling tries to get around this problem using rules. For example, one clever idea took advantage of the fact that short vowels can never end a syllable, so go must be long. But what if the long vowel has a following consonant? The rule is to mark the short vowel by doubling the following consonant: latter is short, while later is long. But what if there are two consonant letters afterwards, like bath and bathe? Then we have to insert a silent e to show that the consonant isn't really double. What about pals and pales? There, we need to insert the silent e before the second consonant. What about pant and paint (not panet)? Finally, we have to give up and spell the long vowel a different way.

In the end, the idea of marking vowel length anywhere but on the vowel turned out to be a mess, although we still use it. But I think the principle is clear: keep each sound in one place, even if it's written with two letters. There's even a broader principle in evidence, too: don't use rules! Let's just spell each sound in a consistent way.

We'd also like to keep the sound of each letter and digraph as close as possible to the current spelling. After all, if we're keeping this Roman alphabet despite all its flaws, it makes no sense to change the values of the letters, for example using x for sh and q for ch like they do in Chinese pinyin.

But here we're confronted with a problem: the Great Vowel Shift. A few hundred years ago, long i changed its pronunciation from beet to bite, long e changed its pronunciation from bait to beet, and long a changed its pronunciation from balm to bait. Likewise, long u changed its pronunciation from boot to bout, long o changed its pronunciation from boat to boot, and long ou changed its pronunciation from bought to boat. But the spelling didn't change, so we pronounce words like bee and boo as if they were spelled biy and buw.

But if we spell bay with an a, then we lose the ability to decompose the diphthong into its elements, e and y. So in the scheme below, I'm going to "undo" the Great Vowel Shift, and write the diphthongs correctly. Here's my version of the 27 vowels, shown using the excellent Color Vowel System:

In this scheme, I use the letter u as the second letter of two short vowels that have to be written with digraphs, since we don't have enough letters. Their spellings are familiar from words like could and taut.

The third short digraph, ae, is how we used to spell it in English, and how it's still spelled in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese, our close relatives. It can also be written as a ligature: æ.

So now let's look at the results. Here's the opening paragraph of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, first in traditional orthography, then in the spelling from the Fixing the Latin Alphabet page, and finally in our New English orthography:

Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Fòr skòr and sèvin yírz egów, áwr fáðirz bròt fòrþ an ðìs kántinent e núw néjsjin, kensíjvd in lìbirtij and dèdikejtid te ðe prapezìsjin ðat òl mèn ár krijéjtid íjkwel.

For skor aend sevin yirz ugow, awr fadhrrz braut forth an dhis kantinent u nuw neyshin, kunsiyvd in liburtiy aend dedikeytid tu dhu prapuzishin dhaet ol men ar kriyeytid iykwul.

What do you think?

The history of spelling reform in English is long and sad - sad, because despite more than a century of work, almost nothing has been accomplished. The only success has been Noah Webster's reforms of 1828: center color check defense. But Islanders (and some Canadians!) still write centre colour cheque defence. US President Theodore Roosevelt mandated some spelling simplifications in 1906, but the Congress reversed him 4 months later. Playwright George Bernard Shaw sponsored the development of an excellent new alphabet for English in 1960, but it never gained support. An Australian linguist, Harry Lindgren called for a gradual step-by-step reform, and his first stage - SR1 - was briefly used after 1975, but it never went any further.

One difficulty that spelling reform proposals have always come up against is division within the ranks of the reformers. The basic split is between conservatives that want to change as little as possible, and radicals who are willing to change everything if it fixes the problem. I'll remind you all that the problem is not reading and writing - as Chinese shows, that can be done with a completely arbitrary collection of symbols. The problem is learning - and English spelling is hard to learn!

Obviously, a reform that makes worthless the years of study that current readers have put into mastering English spelling won't be popular with them, while the future readers who have yet to waste those years are not represented in the meetings, even though they are a much larger group (and everybody who didn't want to throw away their years of study when Webster was proposing his reforms is long dead).

As you can tell, I'm a radical. I think we should be writing English in the best possible alphabet, even if that makes it harder for current readers. After all, many languages - Turkish, Albanian, Malaysian, Vietnamese and all the Central Asia languages - have all changed alphabets, some more than once. Even English changed to the Roman alphabet from its original Runic alphabet, long ago! In a surprisingly short time, the old is forgotten and the new seems natural.

As this page shows, even the best efforts to reform spelling using the current alphabet will result in a less-than-ideal solution, using digraphs for missing letters as well as for diphthongs. A reform along the lines described above would elicit just as much resistance as using a new alphabet, while accomplishing much less. And as Shaw noted, using a new alphabet means that people don't see the reforms as simply misspellings.

A solution based on Musa (or a similar new alphabet) has several other advantages that no less radical solution will ever have. Most important, the same alphabet is used for other languages with the same sound values, which makes learning a foreign language much easier, and makes it much easier for foreigners to learn English. In addition, the Musa letters are featural; their shape is not arbitrary. The Musa keyboard is much smaller than a Roman keyboard. And Musa letters don't have different upper- and lower-case forms, nor different handwritten and printed forms.

We've been trying conservative measures for more than a century, in the faith that asking for less makes the proposals more likely to be accepted. But that hasn't worked, so far. Let's try asking for more!

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