Saturday, July 16, 2005


I was recently contacted by someone from the spelling society. Steve Bett has a website on the alphabet, a fascinating page of related links and is the editor of the journal of the Simpified Spelling Society .

To get an idea of how a simplified spelling might look, visit this page for a paragraph from The Little Red Hen in a dozen forms of simplified spelling. I don't think any of these can be labeled a different script. However, they stimulate thought and discussion. Then I found Steve's pages on Unifon and other alternate transcriptions.

Unifon is indeed a different script. (I do need to mention that unless you have the Unifon font installed it doesn't display as it should.) In actual fact the Unifon font is considered a variation of the alphabet. Since there is no lower case in Unifon, the extra 18 letters of the Unifon system are keyed in by using the lower case English alphabet.

I then flipped through my latest acquisition from the bookstore, The Writing Systems of the World by Florian Coulmas, 1989, and found this image labeled "a transitory alphabet for English."

Unifon was invented in 1959 by a Chicago economist John Malone. You can read more about its history here.

My first reaction to this 40 letter alphabet was that it also has several letters derived form More's Utopian alphabet. It comes from the same tradition of Utopian internationalism and is one of the scripts featured by the World Language Process.

I wonder whether these scripts, Utopia, Elizabethan stenography, Moon code for the blind, Cree and Unifon can be considered part of the same family of scripts by virtue of their visual construction or glyph. Writing systems are usually labeled by the manner in which the symbols represent the phonology of the language. However, these scripts not only have symbols which look the same but they are all connected by the themes of accessibility and universality.

I leave you with a word of caution. Here is Coulmas on the reform of English orthography.

"For instance, if the principles of morphemic invariance, etymology, homograph avoidance or deviant proper name spelling, all of which play an important part in the present English spelling, were discarded for the sake of a rigorously phonemic orthography, the result would be too strange and involve too many changes in the established spelling habits to be accepted by the literate part of the speech community." Coulmas. Writing Systems of the World. 1989. p. 256.

Images are from these sites:


Anonymous Sol said...

This blog is terribly interesting. I've been here for just 15 minutes but it's actually making me rethink my career. Thanks a lot!

11:01 PM  
Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

A word of warning, sol, this blog is my hobby, not my career. However, if it has given you any new insights - great!

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

This blog is very well done. Interesting commentary ...
and a very pleasing layout.

Coulmas says that a phonemic orthography would . . .

-discard morphemic invariances
-cut etymological connections
-respell proper nouns and
-disrupt spelling habits.

As you note, there are hundreds of ways that the traditional writing system could be made more phonemic.

Most of the proposals that I have seen do not respell surnames or any proper noun that has an established symbolic value.

New Spelling (Soundspel) was found to have less morphemic variation than traditional spelling. Coulmas made an assumption that proves to be false in at least one case.

If we respelled the 100 most common irregular words, the public would find many of the new spellings annoying. If we respelled the low frequency spelling patterns, few would even notice.

The problem is that thru constant usage, written words acquire nuances and meanings that are lost when they are spelled in a manner similar to a dictionary key.

*chauffeur spelled "showfur" or "shófr" or "$ÓF3R" doesn't quite cut it.

Kids, of course, would find the shorter more phonemic spellings easier to learn and use.

They could learn a dictionary key spelling in 3 months, transition to traditional children's books and be reading at a 3rd grade level by the end of the first grade.

This was the beauty of a transitory alphabet such as Unifon.

There is a resemblance between Unifon and other scripts but this misses the point.

Unifon is a dictionary key that reshapes 17 letters to extend the alphabet so there is one symbol per sound. The other scripts use unique shapes but Moon and Utopia are not more phonemic than the set of Latin characters.

Here is another script that combines pictographic cues and streamlined letter forms, in a phonemic notation.

I think it is easier to read than Utopian ... but PMF is strange.

12:44 PM  
Blogger Brittanie said...

Just want to say I love your blog and I enjoy all of the scripts on here. I'm a language/writing system maniac and this is like paradise for me.

Also the link to the image of the script you found in the book for English is broken. Can anything be done about it?

I would like to see it.

7:53 PM  
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5:25 AM  

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