Phonetic Alphabet for English with letters: a Suggestion

by Ken Wear, Nov. '00

A phonetic alphabet -- a distinct symbol for each sound -- that embraces most of the sounds articulated and/or aspirated by the human speaking apparatus would allow rendering in written form any language used on our planet, using only the one and universal alphabet. And this with only trivial, if any, changes in the spoken tongue. Word meanings, grammatical construction, and such would not, of course, be affected at all. Nor would punctuation. Although accents in speaking could for a time present varying spellings.

Since my background is with the English language as spoken in the United States, my suggestions arise from that language. Doubtless more extensive reading (or someone with a pronounced accent) would produce some changes, but in tabulating the sounds needed to pronounce words used in several magazine and newspaper articles, I have come to the following relative frequencies

The essence

Sounds in the English (U.S.A.) language with relative frequencies:

Vowels
-Sound--As in-Per M---|----Sound- -As in-Per M---|----Sound--As in- Per M
a (long)mate32o (long) more22Vowel diphthongs:
a (short)mat32o (short) not25oiCount o+i**
aall13u (long)loot 18au (ou)Count o+u**
e (long)me43u (short) up76y sound, short i+__*'*
e (short)met36ulook 2w sound, long u+__*'*
i (long)mine4Unsounded vowel***44
i (short)pin89
Consonants
Sound--Usage--In M----|----Sound --Usage--In M----|----Sound--Usage-- In M
bboy19mme 38Diphthongs:
chard(cat)44n nose75chchurch7
ddog50ppipe 20ngsong11
ffife26rrare 70nkink*
gsoft(gay)7ssis 74shshhhh13
haspirated8ttat 73tstsunami*
jhard g10vvine 15zhazure1
kguttural*z zinc26ththin5
llily53 ththat34
* Not recognized at time of count
** Counted as two letters rather than as a single diphthong
*** Unsounded vowels: See footnote (click here)
*'* Not counted in keeping with the suggestions in this essay; this reflects on the frequency of short 'i' and long 'u'.

In those cases where the short 'i' should be sounded for itself (as in Columbia), an unsounded vowel should be used between vowels.

I have had some difficulty assigning a phonetic value to the 'a' in 'car' but note the difficulty arises from the combination with the letter 'r' and suspect its phonetic value may be simulated by that in 'father' -- short 'o.'

With these 38 sounds -- and perhaps other basic sounds added because of their use in other languages -- it would be difficult to expand the keyboard to embrace both upper and lower case for each of the 38. (Consonant diphthongs other than aspirated and voiced 'th' may be used as at present, reducing the number of sounds to 32.) Of course, for those sounds used relatively infrequently, additional keys could be added to the keyboard without creating serious problems of operator speed. But an easier adaptation would be to denote a capital letter by preceding it with a vertical line, perhaps bolder than the letters. This would greatly reduce the number of needed keys.

At least in English, there are rules for determining which syllable of a word to accent although there are very many exceptions; a phonetic alphabet that does not allow for a distinct marking to denote accent suffers the same disadvantage in pronunciations. The discussion following presents various implementations; only the last-mentioned allows incorporation of accent marks. It is my hope that, in the longer run, new symbols will come into use whose pronunciations, once learned, will be obvious in their own right (without diacritical marks). There will always be rules to determine accent, and there will always be exceptions; primary and secondary accent marks may be inserted above a vowel by arresting cursor (or carriage) movement for one finger stroke. A possible set of phonetic symbols is presented later in this essay.

The remainder of this essay deals with implementation of a phonetic alphabet and with a newly-designed set of symbols to represent that alphabet. Three levels of implementation are discussed: a traditional typewriter (rapidly becoming antique), a computer keyboard derived from the traditional typewriter (today's equipment), and a newly-designed keyboard taking advantage of the newly-designed alphabet.

The most flexible means of rendering the written word is, of course, the pen, which knows no limits in the symbols available. And, of course, whatever alphabet settles into use must allow both mechanical type and hand script as well as hand printing.

Typewriter keyboard

A traditional typewriter keyboard must use the set of symbols built into it. Since capitals are not used at all in this alphabet, long vowels may be denoted by use of capitals so that lower case vowels will be understood to be short vowels; for the third a and third u some artifact must be introduced. And a slash -- or perhaps an upper case letter such as cap X -- must be used in place of a vertical bar. I introduced this scheme in a newsletter I was publishing at the time, and those who tried it reported exceeding discomfort in its use -- precluding, I think, sustained effort to permit the learning curve needed to reach a comfortable plateau.

Computer keyboard

The situation is little improved using a computer keyboard with its traditional key assignments. It does have a vertical line to denote capitalization although it is not emphasized or heavy.

A computer keyboard may be used by reassigning values to keys not used in this scheme, either unused consonants or capital consonants. Diacritical marks are available in some of the computer alphabets so reassignment is a one-for-one matter. Accents cannot be accommodated.

I have examined several alphabets available in Windows-98 and found one -- Book Antiqua -- that could be used as a phonetic alphabet, using a vowel without diacritical marks for the short sound and with a horizontal line over the vowel for the long sound; the third 'a' and third 'u' must use some artifact (not yet suggested) or a different diacritical mark. Some keys would simply not be used. The only lack is a symbol for the unsounded vowel; for this a dash -- or an asterisk -- would serve well. I have not begun to write a program making key assignments; surely someone will step forward to prepare such a program.

An expanded (phonetic) alphabet

In looking to a new set of symbols, I suggest the vertical space on the sheet be divided, for each line of type, into groupings of four spaces, two above the line and two below. The lower space below the line should be used to separate lines of text and the other three should be used to present the symbols.

I note that each symbol (letters of the alphabet -- lower case) consists of some combination of a small circle, a cup facing up down forward or reverse, vertical lines, and short horizontal lines. A possible scheme appears below, both a print version and a script version of each letter. (Note I have elected to avoid special symbols for consonant diphthongs except the two 'th's.) Punctuation marks have not been altered and use of symbols that may be confused with punctuation marks has been avoided. Rather than capitalize any letters, a bold vertical line preceding the letter shows its strength; thus capitalization is supplanted. In all cases the script versions start on the line and end on the line.

Suggested print and script symbols are:

Table of symbols to use as letters

The primary accent mark is a short sloping line (similar to a forward slant) above the vowel to be accented; for a secondary accent a dot will suffice; should a tertiary accent be needed (not anticipated in my 2009 effort), two small dots side by side will suffice.2 To view footnote, click here

An accent mark will be used only when needed to avoid confusion in applying the general rule:
1) Long vowels will receive the primary accent.
2) A plural word ending in 's' or 'z' will be accented without regard for the letter used to make of it a plural.
3) Lacking a more complete analysis of accents, I suggest the general rule (excepting #1, above) that the next-to-last syllable be accented; in the case of two long vowels the last one will be accented.
4) A compound word (such as a compass heading) should bear accents to show equality of emphasis.

There should be no confusion in using the vertical bar to denote capitalization; in print it is bolder and hence emphasized, while in script it is a separate mark so the pen must be lifted.

A keyboard to implement this alphabet

A newly-designed computer keyboard has merit in its own right since the rationale for placing the letters on a slant is no longer viable. We may use restyled symbols so each sound has its own distinct symbol. Moreover, the most-used letters may be placed under the pointing fingers and other positions may be assigned in keeping with frequency of use and ease of striking the key. There is also the possibility of accent marks (as punctuation keys) but with the cursor not advancing when an accent key is struck. I also would use the thumbs more, both right and left, each with a downward movement and a movement toward the palm, giving four keys where there is presently only one.

I foresee off in the distance a keyboard in a matrix of vertical columns and horizontal rows where vertical supplants the slant of present keyboards. I feel that would contribute to ease of acquiring the skill as well as ease in entering data. Moreover, the thumbs would be used much more than at present.

A possible newly-designed keyboard would have 3 rows and 11 columns for a total of 32 symbols. Home keys would be 's' and 'n' as newly assigned (F and J on the present keyboard). It would have shift keys as with present keyboards so each key may be used for two symbols. It would allow use of right and left thumbs moving both downward and toward the palms.2 For footnote, click here Other function keys would also be retained, but the digits 0-9 would be available only on a key pad to the right. (Of course, the flexibility of the computer makes it possible to use additional shift keys so each finger position could be used for three or four -- or even more -- symbols. But that is not proposed.)

Restating the alphabetic sounds in order of frequency: short i (90), short u, n (75), s, t, r (70), l (54), d, unsounded vowel (44), hard c, long e (42), m, short e, enunciated th (34), long a, short a, f (26), z, short o, long o (22), p, b, long u (18), v, sh, a (as in ball)(12), ng, j, h (8), ch, g, aspirated th, long i (6), u (as in look), zh. The frequency of use dictates the choice of position of each sound on a newly-designed keyboard. (Punctuation marks defy ranking in frequency, but the following have been incorporated into computer keyboards and thus should be available on any new keyboard: . , ; : ~ ` ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) - _ = + [ ] { } \ | / ? > < ' " (32 in all.)

We are now in a position to make tentative finger (and thus key) assignments. Since I am right-handed, I will favor that hand in all choices. The result is presented below. Punctuation marks all require using the shift key.

(3-21-09) I first presented this phonetic alphabet in 2000; no one has stepped forward during the intervening years to suggest other symbols or to volunteer to assist in bringing a phonetic alphabet to fruition. I am now undertaking steps to further a phonetic alphabet with printed symbols only -- no script since users can readily print their messages. Presently the greatest prevailing need in this country is to assist Spanish-speaking peoples emigrating here to learn pronunciation using English vowel sounds. My renewed effort starts with that consideration. I recognize the need for persons to hear the English sounding of vowels so they can correlate sound with symbol, and that requires either personnel or recordings. Continuing the original:

Based on QWERTY keyboard, key assignments are:

Present key---Q----W----E----R--- -T----Y----U------I----O--- -P----**--
Soundjath ecmsilenteaa i
short(at)shorthard vowellonglong(ll)long
Shift\[{!<> ?}]/|

Present key---A----S----D--- -F----G----H----J------K----L--- -;----**---
Soundzrus dlnitfth
short short(in)
Shift_(,:" ';.)-~

Present key---Z----X----C--- -V----B----N----M------,--- -.----**---
Soundugvo biophu
(look)(soft)longlong shortlong
Shift`=#+$ &%@*^
**Manufacturer sensitive
Home keys should be "s" and "n", positioned as "F" and "J" at present.

Shift keys, on both right and left, approximately as at present. Present space bar broken into two lengths, above which, on the left, is a leftward moving key, and on the right is a rightward moving key. Of these the left space bar prints the vertical bar to denote capitalization while the right space bar prints, as now, a space. The leftward moving key prints a secondary accent (stationary cursor) and the rightward moving key prints a primary accent (stationary cursor).

This yields a phonetic alphabet, using 32 keys. All punctuation marks are included by using the shift key. All function keys may be essentially as at present. Should it be wished, another row of keys may be included above QWERTY to provide numerals without moving the right hand from the keyboard to the keypad, which should be to the right. (Alternatively, since Caps Lock will not be used in this scheme, the digits 0-9 may be assigned to the ASDFG row by using a key where Caps Lock is now positioned.) All function keys may be as at present (year 2000).

It may prove advantageous to rethink the ASCII alphabetic scheme. But that has been done to accommodate the various languages of our world and should be no more problematic -- just one more rewrite.


An invitation

Postscript: As personal resources permit I will pursue the various aspects of switching to this phonetic alphabet and progress will be indicated here. In the meantime, if you wish to practice reading and writing using this alphabet I will be glad to provide my physical mailing address for your use; just ask. With some practice you may wish to enlist friends and correspondents to try their hand. There can be no question that, over time, this is the way to go.

Of course, should you wish to accelerate progress toward adoption and use of a phonetic alphabet, your contribution would be welcome, either money donation or programming time or comment that would make the new alphabet or its implementation more efficient.

You may send an e-mail that will pass my spam filter if you use as Subject -- I read your post about a phonetic alphabet -- exactly as you see it here. Click here for the e-mail form.


Should you have an interest in language reforms, several suggestions are offered; they may be seen by clicking here.
To view Contents of Ken's Web Site click here.

3-24-09 I have re-examined this essay for the first time in several years. I note an error in the suggested keyboard (which I have left as originally presented), but the long 'i' at the right end of the top line should be changed to the heavy vertical line to indicate capitalization. I used only 32 positions on the keyboard (31 sounds plus capitalization) while I recognized 38 sounds and have presented 32 suggested symbols (which does not include primary and secondary accent). Call it confusion or call it latitude in keyboard design. In examining the list of suggested symbols and considering various combinations of circles, cups and lines, I recognize 12 additional combinations, mostly with the cups, that could be available.

If you recite the new alphabet, in order of frequency of use, it is: ih, uh, en, ess, tee, are, el, dee, uns, cah, ee, em, et, thuh, aa, at, ef, zee, ah, oh, ep, bee, hoo, vee, shh, aw, eng, ja, hee, cha, guh, eth, ii, uc, zha -- 35 letters. Of the 38 sounds originally identified, this leaves gutteral 'k,' 'ts' as in tsunami, and 'nk' as in ink omitted from this alphabet. The suggested keyboard omits 'shh,' 'cha,' 'eng,' and 'zha' of this alphabet. If we simply reassign letter positions on a conventional keyboard, the top row allows plenty of room for expansion.

I have asked my children to carry this project forward. If I guess correctly, it should include a program to reassign keys on a conventional computer keyboard and a group of jpg files to represent the new symbols. You may download the program and jpg files and commence to write in this phonetic alphabet. The program is at ___________________ and the jpg files are at rationallink.org/alph.

I suggest, because of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S., first presenting this alphabet to the U.S. State Dept. and the Mexican government. Once immigrants learn the sounds of the peculiar rendition of vowels in English, they will be enabled to read and write handily and without confusion using this phonetic alphabet. A dictionary of Basic English words using this phonetic alphabet would be invaluable to immigrants.

FOOTNOTE The notion of unsounded vowels may seem strange. However, compare pronunciation of the 'bl' in 'black' and in 'able.' Inserting an unsounded vowel between the 'b' and 'l' in 'able' allows clear understanding of the correct pronunciation of 'able.' Also, in a word such as 'usual' an unsounded vowel is needed between the 'u' and 'a' to avoid trying to use the 'w' sound before the 'a.' In 'logarithm' there may be an unsounded vowel between the 'th' and the 'm,' although there would be no confusion in pronunciation were the 'th' and 'm' continue to be written 'thm;' for the sake of uniformity the unsounded vowel should be used. In 'valuable' the 'a' is not pronounced at all so, in writing it with the phonetic alphabet, the second 'a' would be ignored; after the first 'l' would be 'i' for the 'y' sound followed by long 'u.' I have not done a detailed search of the dictionary to find all possible ambiguities, but these examples should make clear the intent in this phonetic alphabet. (Since I don't have available a keyboard with the new letters I must be content to use our existing 26, so this paragraph may seem to contain contradictions.)

FOOTNOTE 2 I am not overly pleased with all of the symbols; for the most part they are OK and the suggested redesigned keyboard is OK. But I now (5-24-09) recognize some weaknesses (other than the error previously pointed out).
1) The two left and right keys above the space bar for use by the thumbs is not practical since the keyboards I have seen are two-dimensional and the palm-ward motion of the thumbs would require a three-dimensional keyboard.
2) Some of the proposed symbols are more awkward than need be and could be better presented with a simpler design. For instance, the long 'u' would be better represented by an inverted cup below the line. I have left the initial suggestions undisturbed; you may easily construct the new suggested symbol.
3) Should the top row of keys be retained to allow for numerals, the punctuation (capitalization keys as at present) could be used to print the symbols for the phonetic keys for which I show no suggested designs, such as sounds that are not part of the English language.
4) Dividing the space bar into two sections sould allow the right thumb to operate the space bar (essentially as at present) and the left thumb could operate the primary accent. The present 'all cap' key would operate a secondary accent. A tertiary accent is not anticipated except in names of chemicals, where even a quartenary accent may be wanted.
5) Circles and cups below the line have not been fully exploited and allow for expansion of this phonetic alphabet.

My printer requires 7 pages or 4 sheets of paper to print this document.