[Spelling Progress Bulletin, Fall 1983 pp13-17]

A Universal Phonetic Alphabet,

by Vladimir Michels, M.E., F.ASCE.*

*Melbourne, Vic., Australia.

Human Aspirations.

All humans - regardless of their race or nationality - want to be free from fear, hunger and oppression; neither on a major (war) scale nor a minor (mother-in-law) scale! All seek peace and goodwill, fredom of speech and religion.

Unfortunately, distrust or suspicion between different nations is difficult to eliminate. But if we had a true communication between the peoples themselves, mutual understanding - a real 'meeting of the minds' - might be achieved. And I don't mean a billygoat-style frontal butting, but-butting and rebuttal - argument!

Around the turn of the century, many international languages were devised: Volapuk (Schleger, 1880), Esperanto (Zamenhof, 1887), Ido (Beaufort & Conturat, 1907), Interlingen (Rosenberger & Peane, 1908), et al. All have proved unpopular among the nations because they are artificial - and thus unacceptable to the conservationists of culture, traditions, heritage, etc., and to the lazy people who 'can't be bothered' to learn an additional language, anyway! And if the original language is to be retained for these reasons, why invent an unpopular new version for limited use only? Why not devise a new alphabet instead - a universal set of letters, preferably phonetically based, consisting of existing letters where possible, and other-wise combining the main features of letters (in the various languages) having the same basic speech sound?

The world's snowballing population, spoliation of the environment, and rapid exhaustion of irreplaceable natural resources - all make improved communication an urgent problem - a problem hampered today not only by the many languages spoken but also the numerous alphabets in existence.

Mutation of languages.

All 'live' languages continually undergo mutation - only the dead languages are static, viz. Latin, classical Greek, Slavonic (church) Russian, etc. In the ancient past, indigenous lexicons ingested foreign words from traders, invaders, explorers and missionaries. Ever since, they have been modified by cultural, technological, or other innovations. With the rapid development of international communications and air travel, technology and trade, etc. in recent decades, mutation has been markedly accelerated: Words like blitzkrieg, sputnik, nuclear, transvestite, and literally thousands of acronyms like radar, coined during one's lifetime no longer surprise us. The incessant invasion of slang, computerese, and 'pop' terminology has colored our vocabulary - sometimes increasing its "putrability" (how's that for my contribution?).

The evolution of an international language would - in my humble opinion - be best left to natural mutation; the proposed universal alphabet would hasten this coalescing-of-all-languages into a single worldwide "homolingua" (here I go again - another word coined!). Coincidentally, it would simplify and standardize the letters on typewriters, teleprinters, computers, etc In this way, a truly common non-artificial worldwide language for everyday use could still evolve naturally over a lesser period of time. (Maybe in one or two millenia instead of ten - if the human race doesn't vanish from this Earth in the meantime, through its own 'self-destruct' nuclear weaponry.)

Language and alphabet mutation can be traced through the ages by historians and archeologists studying a particular nation's records. But sometimes, the change has been deliberately and suddenly forced: For example, Kemel Ataturk in 1928 decreed that Turkey adopt the Latin alphabet - much to the consternation of the adult population - but the edict nevertheless was achieved in two years (if alphabets can be changed unilaterally 'overnight', what are we waiting for?)

Indo-European Alphabets.

In the Indo-European family of languages only the Indian and Iranian branches have alphabets differing substantially from the remainder (Table 1): The Germanic, Italics and Celtic have what is commonly called the Latin alphabet; some Balto-Slavic countries have adopted it wholly or partially (e.g. Polish, Czech, Jugoslav); Russia and Bulgaria use Cyrillic, partially modified by the Greek alphabet in IX century; Turkish switched to the Latin this century (see above).

Also, English (Latin alphabet) is used by India, and many 'emerging' nations in Africa, diplomatic, trade and technological communications. Recent statistics show that over the last two decades, use of English has grown by 40% to a total of 700 million; it now has the dubious distinction of being used most... in 'pop' culture!

Therefore, these figures represent an over-all majority (in this family) uses the Latin alphabet; thus making it the logical choice for modifying into the universal alphabet, particularly as it contains several letters which are common also to the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

The Alphabet Comes Last.

Every baby starts talking from nothing - excepting tremendous potential. It cannot talk, but can convey its hunger or discomfort by crying, whimpering, grimacing, etc. (And when the parents want to sleep, just yelling its head off!) It then starts to' identify and recognize sounds corresponding to certain activities directed towards it. Later, memorizes the key words associated with these activities: Mother's voice, most probably (Mum's the word, eh?). Much later, now a child, it learns to articulate the sounds parrotwise (and lip-reading) i.e. to identify particular words with their meanings.

Years later, when attending school, the child first becomes aware of any alphabet - i.e. that speech sounds can be represented by written 'things' called letters! This adds a visual concept to what was formerly a purely oral/ auditory function, plus the ability to memorize and write the letters.

Thus the alphabet arrives last on the scene, when the child is taught to read and write - to correlate familiar sounds with unfamiliar letters. This happens to be an ideal stage because, not only all children are then ignorant of any alphabet at all, but they have a prodigious learning rate. And if learning to memorize a hitherto unknown system of letters - as they are doing, it makes no difference what arbitrary set of configurations they are confronted with! It follows that this would be an ideal time to introduce children to a universal alphabet, in preference to one it normally would learn. (Of course, it would be preferable to do this on a worldwide, coordinated plan; but it could be tried on a local setting first.)

Naturally, the universal alphabet should be phonetically based so that pronunciation rules would be simplified, and so, easier to master by children and adults alike.

Thought, Speech, Alphabet.

Homo sapiens is the Earth's only animal able to express thought in words and commit them to writing, covering a wide range of ideas, actions, philosophies - in all their abstract, complex and diverse details and nuances. But thought is inaudible - it has to be vocalized (or demonstrated by sign language) to be revealed. (Many times I wish I had remained silent,. and not blabbed!)

Speech is an arbitrary system of words (units of speech) joined together to convey our thoughts intelligibly, each word having a specific meaning. Just as vocalization is absolutely necessary for oral communication, so is the alphabet indispensable for written transmission of thought.

Every language comprises: the lexicon - stock of words; morphology - the forms and structure of speech; syntax - the arrangement of phrases and sentences; and the alphabet - an arbitrary set of letters representing the various speech sounds.

It is important to note that the various alphabets were devised last, when Man (I mean the general term for homo sapiens - I'm not sexist, not a male chauvinist, pig!) got the idea of recording his thoughts in writing, and not merely generating huge quantities of hot air. (Little did he realize that he had unknowingly initiated the setting up of the paper manufacturing industry ... and was creating a need for the future Forest Conservationists!)

Speech Sounds vs, Letters.

It is significant that 'language', 'lingua' (Latin for tongue) and 'tongue' are synonymous, thus defining Man's principal instrument for articulation (apart from being his organ for taste). Also important is the fact that all speech sounds whatever the language - are basically common to all races. This is not surprising because the whole vocalizing apparatus - not only the tongue, but also the lips, teeth, palate, larynx and vocal chords - is identical in all humans! (Well almost. There'th the perthon who lithpth, or who whisssssles ssssrough hisss essss, or mmmmbls nnndstnctly, etc.

But what is inconsistent at present, is that many basic speech sounds, though virtually identical, are not necessarily depicted by the some letters or groups of letters - even if the same alphabet applies: Here is a typical example:

(a) The Italian phonetic equivalent of the English "k" (there being no letter "k" in Italian) or hard "c", is either "c", or "ch" before 'e' or 'i'.

(b) Yet the Italian pronunciation of English "c" before 'e' or 'i' is English "ch" as in "cherry."

(c) The phonetic equivalent of Spanish "j" is English "ch" as in "loch" but not quite so guttural.

(d) Spanish "c" is pronounced as "k" or hard "c" in English, but as "th" in "thirty" when preceding 'e' or 'i'.

(e) French "ch" before 'e' or 'i' is pronounced as English "sh."

What a confusing array of inconsistent use of the Latin alphabet even when confined to the so-called Latin languages!

Compare this inconsistency in the letters of various alphabets and the speech sounds they represent,, with the complete universality of internationally adopted written form of the numerical system!

Also, some languages use phonetic spelling, i.e. the pronunciation rules are simple and consistent, each letter being pronounced according to its sound value, and vice versa (e.g. Russian, Finnish, Italian, Spanish), not according to some arbitrary or traditional convention (e.g. French, English) where combinations or groups of letters sometimes represent different sounds, or the same letters have different sound values depending on adjoining letters (see above examples).

Suggested Universal Alphabet.

First, the alphabets of typical Indo-European languages were compared according to their basic speech sounds (Table II). Second, a phonetically based universal alphabet, was devised, comprising letter configurations either identical with, or resembling, existing forms; so that the results would be recognizable to readers in each of the languages considered. This involved modifying some letters to retain or combine, the main characteristics of the various existing letters having the particular basic speech sounds (Table III). (If still confused, please read the preceding sentence again, carefully, or refer to the tables.

This covers the requirements as far as basic sounds - particularly consonants - are concerned. To retain the phonemes, i.e. the modifying effects of adjoining letters, particularly on vowel sounds (only five in Latin, but 12 in English), use can be made of diacritical (distinguishing) marks in any number required.

The International Phonetic Assoc. alphabet is based on the existing Roman/Latin set, but uses letters symbolizing positions of the articulating organs, and so the same symbol represents the same sound - irrespective of the language or period in the development of a language, in which the sound occurs, it thus uses new letters instead of diacritical marks. This in my humble opinion, is disadvantageous because it imposes a new concept for an alphabet (rather than modifying existing alphabets - and so effecting a transition which is nevertheless recognizable in each of the existing languages considered.)

The outlined proposal aims at providing a practical transition to a phonetically based universal alphabet, yet which could serve people of the world (Indo-European family of languages) permanently in the long term. This would be a positive step for unifying our cosmopolitan and multicultural population by facilitating communication worldwide and hopefully a real 'meeting of the minds.'

Back to the top.
On other pages: Table I, Table II, Table III.