Vocalized English

English spelling is weird, and that makes it much harder to learn. Adult foreign learners often meet new words in writing and don't know how they're pronounced (and guess wrong). Kids who are native speakers have to learn by memorizing words, instead of spelling out sounds.

This weird spelling is especially a problem with English vowels, since there are so many (about 15, depending on your dialect) and the Roman alphabet has only six vowel letters (a e i o u y). It's also missing many consonant sounds, but we have consistent conventional digraphs for some of them (ng th sh ch) and rules for some others (bag page badge beige vague).

Of course, these problems would just go away if we fixed our weird spelling - for instance by switching to the Musa Alphabet - but that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. What can we do in the meantime? One idea is to annotate text for learners to indicate the pronunciation, so that they learn the correct pronunciation and the correct spelling at the same time. There are several different places to displaying the pronunciation: afterwards (like in dictionaries), above the text (like furigana), or when you click on a word (if you're on a screen).

The problem with all these is that we don't have a standard way to write the correct pronunciations! There are so-called "newspaper" respellings like muh-SHEEN, but how would you write the vowels of took talk toss? The alternative is "phonemic" respellings using the IPA (məˈʃiːn) or a proprietary system (məshē′n), but they require a legend: the reader has to learn a different alphabet to read pronunciations.

If we're going to do that, let's just use the Musa Alphabet! Musa has simple letters for all the English vowels, and they can be written above the Roman vowels to indicate the pronunciation (machıne), throughout a learning text or only as needed. When Musa is used this way, it's called vocalization (even if we sometimes write consonants, too), and the annotations are called vocritics.

We have two fonts that implement this system. The first is called Pygmalion Musa Diacritic. It's a minimal font that includes only the vowel diacritics. The advantage is that it can be used over almost any Roman font you're using; the disadvantage is that the vocritics don't fit well over uppercase, thin, or accented letters (like i).

Of course you can insert a single Musa vocritic anywhere, leaving the rest of the word in any font you want. But it's usually easier to put the entire word or text in Pygmalion font, and the Roman letters will appear in your default Roman font. If you're in an environment - for example a web page - where you control the font cascade, just add Pygmalion to the cascade, as I show here:

Here's Pygmalion over Times New Roman

As you can see, we overwrite the normal lowercase i with one that's wide enough for the diacritic to have enough room, and that doesn't have the dot (the "tittle"). It looks a little funny, but it solves both problems.

The other font is a maximal font called Surshery Musa Diacritic that includes the Roman base letters and the Musa consonants. The vocritics are higher, so they fit over all the letters. If you just want to show the pronunciation of a new word inside a piece of text, you can use Vocritic; but if you want to highlight the word on its own, like in a dictionary, use Surshery.

Here's Surshery

By the way, if you are planning to use Musa Vocritics in a published work, please contact us to request exactly what you need. It's very easy for us to customize these fonts.

Here's an example of vocalization at work: the phrase salmon pasta. It's a tricky example, because al usually spells the "short o" of calm or almond, whether or not the l is silent. But in salmon, it's pronounced with a "short a" as in Sam. Meanwhile, pasta is pronounced with "short o" in American English, as it is in Italian, but with "short a" in British English, as in past. However, learners who know the word paste may be forgiven for thinking that pasta is also pronounced with that "long a". It's confusing! Furthermore, the second vowels in both words are reduced ... but to different sounds. Here's the American pronunciation with Musa vocalization:

salmon pasta

The Musa vowels are clear even when they're so small; the concave sides help distinguish angles from curves. When used for vocalization, we bend the stems of the semivowel offglides, so they fit better. We don't need to use a rhotic semivowel at all, since the r is in the text. We write a dot above silent vowels, like the e in bite. Stressed (high) vowels are written in boldface, so they stand out. Here's the full set of English vowels:

Here's the same chart formatted as a legend, to be used at the bottom of a page. On a screen, these keys can be used to enter the Musa vocritics.

These examples show vocalization above every vowel, but you could also just mark the vowel sound only when it's unexpected. For example, you could mark the sound of "long i" in buy and bight while leaving it unmarked in by and bite.

With Surshery, we can also show the pronunciation of consonants when they're unexpected. We do this by inserting the Musa consonant after the Roman one(s), but raised to remove it from the text. For example, we'd show Musa f and p above the gh's in cough and hiccough:

cough hiccough


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