International English: a proposed phonetic spelling convention

Introduction

English has long held the status of the world's "lingua franca". While Chinese is spoken by more people as a first language, English is by far the most common second language (in addition to its first language status in the UK, North America and Australasia and its official language status in many Commonwealth countries). It is regarded as the language of commerce and trade.

While there have been attempts to create an "International English" these have focused things like limiting vocabulary and simplifying grammar. However I think it is self-evident that most people who speak English as a second language find its spelling the most confronting feature; vocabulary and grammar take a back seat (and take care of themselves well enough anyway).

Accordingly, the purpose of this paper is to propose a new "international" spelling convention. This is not intended to replace standard English (UK or US) spelling but rather to exist in conjunction with it as a simple phonetic alternative that is more immediately accessible to those who speak English as a second language.

The spelling convention

The proposed spelling convention follows the simple guideline of the qwerty keyboard, using the standard letters as consistently as possible with standard English.

It uses a number of characters that are not letters (@, &, 1, 2, 4 and 8) as shortcuts, and the characters 0, \ to deal with vowel sounds that have no dedicated letter and which are dealt with inconsistently in standard English. Furthermore, the letter q has been co-opted as a vowel to differentiate the "ae" sound in "bat" from the "ah" sound in "barter" (see under "q" below).

Capitals are not used in the grammatical sense. Instead they are used for the sounds of the standard names of the letters (ie. as per the children's song "ABCDEFG"). In any event, correct capitalisation is already often dispensed with on the net or elsewhere by the "SMS generation". Furthermore, some capitalisations are already considered standard (eg. "OK" is generally used instead of "okay" and constructs like "C U l8r" are increasingly commonplace).

The standard font is Consolas which is sans serif but differentiates the "I" from "l" and "O" from "0". A future web-compliant font that has these features but replaces "q" with an unitalicized "a" (to differentiate it from an "a") can easily be developed (see my notes under "q" below).

The alphabet

As it is keyboard based, the alphabet order follows the keyboard layout generally going from top to bottom and left to right, but starting with the last number (0) which is the only number used to represent a single sound (rather than a combination of sounds). (Note that other numbers and characters are used as shortcuts to combinations of sounds; these are grouped at the end.)

Pronunciation is North American, given that US pronunciation accounts for 2/3 of native English speakers and a majority of international speakers as well.

Standard characters

0 as in "port" ("p0rt")

[Note 1: In UK English, this sound is identical to "au" and "aw", however in North American English it is a quite different, shorter, sound. To preserve this distinction, I have used the zero character to refer to the shorter sound as in "port" or "board". For the longer "au" and "aw" sound, see "\" below.]

[Note 2: as an alternative, simpler, convention, the "0" character as a letter (and hence the distinction between "o" as in "pot" and "or", "au" and "aw") might be dispensed with altogether. How one chose to pronounce an "o" might then depend entirely on the context.]

q is used for the "a" as in "bad" and "hat" (ie. the "ae" sound) - but not "car", "atone" or just "a" (the standard "a" is used in the latter cases). Accordingly "bad" becomes" "bqd" and "hat" becomes "hqt", while "a man" becomes "a mqn".

[Note 1: the sound "q" as it occurs in standard English spelling is effected with "kw", eg."kwiz". It is unnecessary to have a standard letter for what is an uncommon combination of sounds.]

[Note 2: I have chosen "q" to represent one of the most common uses of the letter "a" as there are no "spare" vowels left. Furthermore, in certain fonts "q" arguably resembles "a" with an "elongated tail". A web-compliant variant of the Consolas font could easily be developed so that the key for "q" produces "a" (but without italics) where the key for "a" produces just that.]

[Note 3: as an alternative, simpler, convention, the "q" character (and hence the distinction between "ae" and "ah") might be dispensed with altogether. How one chose to pronounce an "a" might then depend entirely on the context.]

Q is used for the words "cue" and "queue".

[Note: The character can also be assigned as a shortcut to the word "question", depending on the context. "Queue" could be spelled "kU".]

w as in "wind".

W is not used.

e as in "bet".

[Note: The sound of "e" in words like "berth" or "the" is referred to in linguistics as a "schwa" which comprises the utterance necessary to go from one consonant to the other, and no more. Accordingly, a character for this sound is simply omitted (so that "berth" becomes "brth" and "the" becomes "th"). This enables the alphabet to save on the (already scarce) vowel symbols.]

E is used for "ee" and "ea" (eg. "tree" becomes "trE" and "eagle" becomes "Egl").

[Note: A capital "E" is not used if the sound is encapsulated in another capital (eg. "bee" becomes "B" and not "bE", "detail" becomes "Dtail, not "dEtail").]

r as in "red".

R is used for "ar" (eg. "artist" becomes "Rtist", "arbiter" becomes "Rbiter" and "argonaut" becomes "Rgon\t").

t as in "top".

T is used for "tea" and "tee".

y as in "yet".

Y is used for "why" and "whi" (eg. "while" becomes "Yl").

u as in "uber" and "super", and also used instead of "oo" or even "o" where that sound is more or less the same (so that "pool" becomes "pul", "tool" becomes "tul" and "tomb" becomes "tum").

[Note: A palatized version (ie. where you add a "y" sound before the "u" as in "use" (or "youse"!) is dealt with by a capital U (see below).]

U is used for "you" or in words like "utility" (so that it becomes "Utiliti").

[Note: The "y" sound before "ou" in "you" is known as a palatization. The capital "U" is used wherever such a palatization is required, otherwise a lower case "u" is used.]

i as in "bit".

[Note: The sound of "i" in words like "birth" is referred to in linguistics as a "schwa" which comprises the utterance necessary to go from one consonant to the other, and no more. Accordingly, a character for this sound is simply omitted (so that "birth" becomes "brth"). This enables the alphabet to save on the (already scarce) vowel symbols.]

I is used for "I", eye, "aye", "aye", "igh" or "y" etc. (so that "aye aye" becomes "II", "sigh" becomes "sI", "sty" becomes "stI" and "bite" becomes "bIt").

o as in "pot"

[Note 1: the sound of "oo" (as in "spoon") is effected by using a "u" (so that "spoon" becomes "spun").]

[Note 2: for the sound of "o" in words like "port", see "0".]

O is used for the "o" in "note", "bowl", "coat" and "tow" is effected by using a capital "O" (so that these words become "nOt, "bOl "cOt", and "tO" respectively).

[Note: "Owl" (as in the bird) is spelled "aul".]

p as in "pot".

P is used for words like "pee" and "pea" (eg. "peanut" becomes "Pnut").

\ short for "au" as in "naught" ("n\t"), "aw" as in "thaw" ("th\") or just "a" as in "all" ("\l").

[Note 1: In UK English, the "au" sound as in "naught", "aw" as in "thaw" and "a" in "all" are pronounced identically to the sound of "o" as in "port". However given the difference in pronunciation in North American English, the latter is given a separate character in this spelling convention. (See "o".)]

[Note 2: as an alternative, simpler, convention, the "\" character as a letter (and hence the distinction between "o" as in "pot" and "or", "au" and "aw") might be dispensed with altogether. How one chose to pronounce an "o" might then depend entirely on the context.]

a as in "barn".

[Note 1: For the sound of "a" in words like "and", see "q".]

[Note 2: as an alternative, simpler, convention, the "q" character (and hence the distinction between "ae" and "ah") might be dispensed with altogether. How one chose to pronounce an "a" might then depend entirely on the context.]

A is used for the "a" sound in words like "hay" and "able" (so that they become "hA" and "Abl" respectively).

[Note: A capital "A" is not used if the sound is encapsulated in another capital (eg. "okay" becomes "OK" and not "OkA", "bluejay" becomes "blueJ, not "bluejA").]

s as in "slip".

S is used for "es" (eg. "escape" becomes "SkAp").

d as in "dip".

D is used for "dee", "de" and "di" where the long "ee" sound is pronounced (eg. "detail" becomes "Dtail").

f as in "flip".

F is used for "ef" (so that "effacing" becomes "FAsing").

g as in "grip" (but not "giraffe" for this sound see the entry for "j").

G is used for "gee" ("gee whiz" becomes "G wiz" and "je" ("Jesus" becomes "Gzas").

[Note: The "u" in "Jesus" is actually pronounced by a majority of English speakers as a schwa (see my notes on "e" and "i"). However for ease of reference (and so as not to create too many apparent strings of consonants!) I have defaulted to strict correspondence with the sound "u" as in "umbrella".]

h as in "help".

H is not used.

j as in "jig".

J is used for "jay" (eg. "bluejay" becomes "bluJ").

k as in "kelp".

K is used for "kay" (eg. "okay" remains "OK").

l as in "lost".

L is used for "el" (eg. "Eldorado" becomes "Ldorado").

z as in "zebra".

Z is used for "zee" or "zea" (not the UK "zed") (eg. "New Zealand" becomes "nu Zland" or even "nu Zl&").

x as short for "ks".

[Note: As an alternative to the above (given that "ks", like "kw" is not a common combination of sounds), "x" might be used to indicate a different consonant sound, in particular one that occurs commonly in other languages, eg. the "x" used in Pinyin or perhaps for the "ch" in "loch" (see "gh" below).]

X is used for "ex" (eg. "exercise" becomes "XrsIz").

c used only in conjunction with "h" to create "ch" sounds.

C is used for "see" and "sea".

v as in "vet".

V is used for "vee" and "ve" (eg. "veto" becomes "VtO").

b as in "bet".

B is used for "bee", "bea" and "be" (eg. "beat" becomes "Bt" and "bean" becomes "Bn".

n as in "net".

[Note: The proposed international spelling assumes there is no palatization on words like "new" (ie. "nu york" not "nyu york"). If you want to write reflecting a palatization, you can use a capital U ("nU york"). (See my note under "u".)]

N is used for "en" (eg. "encapsulate" becomes "Nkqpsul8").

m as in "met".

M is used for "em" (eg. "emancipate" becomes "Mqnsip8").

Combined characters

ch as in "chin".

gh for "ch" as in the Scots "loch" (ie. "loch" becomes "logh").

th as in both "then" and "thin".

sh as in "ship".

zh as in "Dr Zhivago" or the French "j".

Optional characters

Use of the characters below is optional. A note below each character illustrates the standard "non-shortcut" spelling.

@ short for "at" (eg. "bat" becomes "b@").

[Note: "Bat" could be spelled "bqt" - see under "q".]

& short for "and" (eg. "sand" becomes "s&").

[Note: "Sand" could be spelled "sqnd" - see under "q".]

1 short for "won", "one" or sometimes "on" (so that "once" becomes "1s").

[Note: "Once" could be spelled "wans".]

2 short for "too" and "to" (eg. "you too" becomes "U 2").

[Note: "You too" could be spelled "U tu" - see under "q".]

4 short for "for" (eg. "what for?" becomes "wot 4?").

[Note: "For" could remain as it is.]

8 short for "ate" (eg. "later" becomes "l8r"), "aight" (eg. "straight" becomes "str8") and "ait" (eg. "straits" becomes "str8s").

[Note: "Later" could be spelled "lqter" - see under "q".]

Sample text

Standard spelling

One of the biggest storms in US history has crossed the American east coast, bringing a massive storm surge and 130kph winds as it smashed ashore in New Jersey.

More than 50 million people across 12 states are potentially in the firing line of former hurricane Sandy, which was downgraded just before making landfall.

At least 1 million people are without power; most of Atlantic City is under water; and there is widespread flooding in lower Manhattan.

intrnqshonal speling: using all characters

wan ov th bigest st0rmz in US histori hqz krost th amerikqn Est kOst, bringing a mqsiv st0rm srj & 130kpa windz az it smqshd ash0r in nu jrzi.

mor thqn 50 milion pEpl akros 12 st8s R potenshali in th fIring lIn ov 4mr harikAyn sqndi, wich woz daungrAded jast B4 mAking lqndf\l.

@ lEst 1 milion pEpl R withaut pauwr; mOst ov @lqntik siti iz ander w\tr; & ther iz wIdspred flading in lOwr mqnhqtqn.

simplifId intrnashonal speling: omitting "0", "q" and "\"

wan ov th bigest stormz in US histori haz krost th amerikan Est kOst, bringing a masiv storm srj & 130kpa windz az it smashd ashor in nu jrzi.

mor than 50 milion pEpl akros 12 st8s R potenshali in th fIring lIn ov 4mr harikAyn sandi, wich woz daungrAded jast B4 mAking landfal.

@ lEst 1 milion pEpl R withaut pauwr; mOst ov @lantik siti iz ander watr; & ther iz wIdspred flading in lOwr manhatan.

Conclusion

As you can see the text in the intrnqshonal (or intrnashonal) speling is fairly easily grasped by native English speakers (where the standard phonetic alphabet would leave everyone other than linguists scratching their heads). Furthermore it uses only the standard characters on a qwerty keyboard to provide a simple, logical phonetic spelling system for those who speak English as a second language.

Copyright © 2012 Dejan Djurdjevic
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