Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The 17/13 Alphabet - A Trial

I thought it was about time that I trialled my stripped back alphabet, so I've rendered some generic text in it. To keep things simple I'll continue using the vowels as they are used in standard English, except for [y] which will forever more be a consonant and nothing else in my new phonetic alphabet. Each passage of text I'll render first with the 13 consonant alphabet, then with the less daunting 17 consonant version, and then finally in standard English.

To refresh our memories this was the consonant list I'd established. With the letter Þ (thorn) signifying the [th] consonant.

The first piece of text. Can you read it?

Was andhiendh Adhlandhis a mivh or was idh a real aghdhual bhlase?
Bhladho ghlaimed þadh Adhlandhis had been submerged nine vhousand years ago.
He sdhadhed þadh Adhlandhis lai beyond þe Bhillars ovh Herghyules and þadh idh was þe sise ovh Asia and Libia ghombined.

The 17 consonant version may be a little easier.

Was antient Atlantis a mif or was it a real aktual plase?
Plato klaimed þat Atlantis had been submerged nine fousand years ago.
He stated þat Atlantis lai beyond þe Pillars of Herkyules and þat it was þe sise of Asia and Libia kombined.

And finally, in plain English.

Was ancient Atlantis a myth or was it a real actual place?
Plato claimed that Atlantis had been submerged nine thousand years ago.
He stated that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules and that it was the size of Asia and Libya combined.


The first version looks suitably foreign. I quite like the way it looks on the page, though I think that may just be the novelty factor. The obvious problem concerns the rendering of the "push" consonants. You may recall that I'd decided that P, F, K and T were simply B, V, G, and D accompanied by a "push" of air. So I toyed with the idea that I could remove those consonants from my phonetic alphabet and just use each letter in the second group combined with the letter H - which effectively just represents the sound of a breath of air.

So for example, the letter [P] could be written as a [B] plus a [H]  - [BH]. This is a very hard sell, and it looks completely bizarre at first. I'm starting to get a little used to it now though, however I think I'm just remembering what the substitutions stand for, rather than actually reading out the letters phonetically, which was the aim. I think it's worth pursuing further though.

The second version, rendered with the 17 consonants, is much more readable. In fact, I would imagine most people would easily be able to decipher it, providing they remember that [Þ] stands for the [th] sound. The only other thing worth noting is that in both translations I had to remove the [y] from the word lay and replace it with an [i]. Obviously people would have to guess what vowel sound this new rendering was attempting to represent, and therefore would have to essentially guess the word itself too. This is more a problem concerning the vowels though, so isn't in need of addressing at the moment in this article.

Now text no. 2. Will this one be any easier with just the 13 consonants?

William Shaghesbheare was an English bhoedh and bhlaridhe.
He rodhe sudhy worghs as Romeo and Dyuliet, Hamledh and Maghbevh.
He was born and died on Saindh Dyeodye's Dai.
He was aghdhive durin þe Elisabevhan bheriod and also durin þe rein ovh Dyames þe Vhirsdh.

Text no.2. The 17 consonant version.

William Shakespeare was an English poet and plarite.
He rote suty works as Romeo and Dyuliet, Hamlet and Makbef.
He was born and died on Saint Dyeodye's Dai.
He was aktive durin þe Elisabefan period and also durin þe rein of Dyames þe First.

And once again, the plain English.

William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright.
He wrote such works as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Macbeth.
He was born and died on Saint George's Day.
He was active during the Elizabethan period and also during the reign of James the First.


As with the first example the 13 consonant version is very difficult to follow, but the 17 consonant version much, much easier.

One thing worth mentioning is the rendering of the word such. I came to the conclusion that the [ch] sound can be produced by the combination of the consonants [t] and [y]. This may look strange at first, especially as we're so used to seeing the [y] symbol signifying a vowel when following a [t]. However, if you mouth these consonants out yourself you'll see what I mean. In a similar way the [j] sound can be created by a combination of a [d] and a [y]. The [j] and [ch] sounds are very similar sounds, though this isn't obviously apparent from the way we write these sounds in standard English. After all, does [ch] really sound like a [c] plus a [h]?

Another thing worth mentioning regarding this passage is how I've rendered the word first. Phonetically I don't really need the [r] consonant in there. However, I've left it in as without it first would look identical to the word fist. Again, this is a problem concerning the vowel sounds so not of huge concern in this particular article. However, it's worth making note of as in the case of words such as first the [r] seems to symbolise a sustained vowel, rather than a "curled-tongue" [r] consonant.

For example, the vowel sound in first sounds like an [e] to me - as in the word egg. Ferst. However, the inclusion of a single [e] without the [r] would just give us the word fest. Whereas what we actually want is something more along the lines of "err" -

f -- errr -- st

 - i.e. a long vocalised [e] sound. So it would seem from this that we often use the [r] symbol to express sustained, or held, vowels, and not just for the actual consonant sound itself. In fact, we even use the written term err to express the "err" sound we often make when we pause or stutter during speech. This extra use of the [r] symbol is something that hadn't previously occurred to me, and it may present something of a problem if we decide to use [r] exclusively as a consonant, which was my intention.

It may perhaps be time to rethink the vowels once again. However, before that I may continue with a few more trial examples of the consonants as I enjoyed doing the first two :)

I'm now starting to think I may end up with a few different alphabets. Some more pure and accurate, others more for practical use.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Nasal "Back of the Mouth" N Sound

A quick update on the cataloguing of the consonants. I was recently thinking about the ing sound as in Eng-land. Perhaps quite fitting given that the World Cup is just a few weeks away.

When I listed the consonants last time and described how each sound was made in the mouth I mentioned that the [n] sound is made by pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth, beneath the nose. However, when mouthing out the ing sound it occurred to me that with this particular sound the [n] isn't produced in this way. It also sounds a little different too.

When we pronounce words like England we tend to short cut the normal way of producing the [n] sound and make it with the tongue at the back of the mouth instead.

So, to break it up a little; if we take the word ink. Normally an [n] sound would be produced by pressing the end of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, as in the word in. Likewise a [k] sound is made by putting the tongue to the roof of the back of the mouth. However, often when we pronounce words like ink, we seem to squeeze the [n] and the [k] together so we only have to push the tongue to the roof of the mouth once. Just the back. Not the front, then the back.

When we make this back of the mouth [n] sound on its own it sounds very nasal. Almost like a nasal grunt. Fittingly we have the word oink. We also have phrases like bunged up. This nasal [n] seems to always be made in combination with the [g/k] sound. Though I'll be on the look out for any exceptions to this.

I'm not sure this different [n] necessitates a separate consonant symbol, but I think it might be worth making note of in the future when I list the various consonant sounds again.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Ten Vowel Sounds in the English Alphabet: Update

This is just a quick post hopefully. In the last few days I've noticed something that I'm surprised I didn't notice earlier. When I tried to map all the different vowel sounds in the English language I counted ten distinct ones. This gave me a problem as it meant I had ten sounds to represent, but only five vowel symbols in the English language to use. The vowel sounds I identified were the following;

I then added three new symbols (keeping the double [ee] and [oo] for simplicity), which gave me the following list of vowel symbols, corresponding to the ten sounds above;

Interestingly, what hadn't occurred to me was the difference in the sound of the five standard English vowels depending on whether we pronounce them as a capital or a lower case letter.

  • [a] is pronounced [a] as in angle, but [A] is pronounced [a] as in angel.
  • [e] is pronounced [e] as in egg, but [E] is pronounced [ee] as in speed.
  • [i] is pronounced [i] as in igloo, but [I] is pronounced [i] as in eye.
  • [o] is pronounced [o] as in for, but [O] is pronounced [o] as in go.
  • [u] is pronounced [u] as in snug, but [U] is pronounced [y-ou] as in zoom.
So if you combine both the capital and lower case pronunciations the five vowels seem to embody all ten vowel sounds. The only one that is a little iffy is the capital [U] which is pronounced with an added [Y]. Of course, you can't use capital letters willy-nilly, only in certain places. So you would still have the problem of knowing whether the middle [a] in the word parade was pronounced as an "a" or an "ay" if you weren't already familiar with how the word sounded, and had just seen it written down on paper. It couldn't be written down as parAde for example.

It's very curious though, unless there's some obvious reason explaining it that evades me at present. It adds a certain neatness to the five vowels that wasn't previously there too. The way we use vowels in English has always seemed incredibly higgledy-piggledy to me (I'm using some quite fluffy language today xD). For example, taking the [oo] or [U] sound we have; zoo, you, new, blue, lieu, etc - all using different vowel symbols, but essentially conveying the same sound.

(The list rejigged to include the capitals.)

Friday, May 4, 2018

Cataloguing the Mechanics of the Consonants

Recent conversations with people on this topic have accelerated my thoughts a little. So I've decided to write an article cataloguing the consonants not just by their sound, but also by the mechanics of how we make them with our mouth. I think this may be a more practical approach.

In my last post on the topic I was left with 12 consonants - or 16 including the "push" consonants. Since then I've came to the conclusion that the th sound - as in words such as the, this, these, etc - is a unique consonant sound, which can't be made by any combination of the other basic consonant sounds I've listed. I think I'll bring back the thorn symbol to represent that particular sound - though annoyingly the word thorn would be spelt forn in my stripped back alphabet.

 - - The thorn symbol in its upper and lower case forms; Þ, þ

[For some interesting thinking and theorising regarding the history of the letter thorn, and regarding language in general see the following;

applied-epistemology.com > Linguistics > Alphabet Soup ]

The addition of thorn now gives me the following collection of consonants;

1. M

I talked about the letter [M] a few posts back. It's the sound made by simply closing and opening the mouth. I also mentioned the many words containing [M] that seem to relate to this simple action. Particularly with relation to eating. We have onomatopoeic terms like Mmm and nom. We also have words like mouth, mother, mam, mammary and milk. Possibly suggesting this association is hardwired deep in our very nature.

Interestingly, the iconic mother figure in western Christian culture is also known by names beginning with M - the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Madonna. You also have Martha of Bethany in the New Testament, another female witness to the resurrection of Jesus. The similarity of the words mother and martha is also worth noting.

Muhammad is another name with the recurring M sound. Perhaps the popularity of the name has something to do with its structure. Maybe there is something aurally pleasing about this [M] sound, rooted in our nature. We also have Maid Marian, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Mouse, etc in popular culture.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention the word meme.)

2. N

The [N] sound is made by pushing the tongue against the roof of the mouth beneath the nose. This may be why we have words like nose and nasal beginning with the [N] sound? We also have words like nudge, knead, nestle, etc that may link to this action of pushing or pressing.

3. Y

The [Y] sound seems to be made by pushing the sides of the tongue against the inside of the top row of teeth.

4. R

The [R] sound is made by curling the tongue backwards. Again, it's interesting that we have words such as roll and curl containing this [R] sound.

5. S

The [S] sound is made by closing the teeth together, but keeping the mouth open. When I was looking at [M] a few posts back I also looked at [S]. With [S] what is obvious is the hissing snake association, giving us words like sly, slither, slink, slide, snide. Again, this seems to be deep rooted in nature.

6. L

The [L] sound is made by moving the tongue up and down. Interestingly, many of the words we have for lifting things up or down begin with L - lift, lay, loll, lull, lie, lever, lower.

7. Þ (th)

When we make the th sound we seem to sandwich the tongue between the top and bottom rows of teeth.

8. H

I consider [H] to be a bit of a special case. It seems to be the natural sound of someone breathing in or out. Basically a breath or pant.

9. W

I also consider [W] to be something of a special case too. It seems to be the fast transition between two vowel sounds.

For example, if you're singing an "aaaah" vowel with a wide open mouth, then you quickly transition into an "ooooh" vowel with a small rounded mouth, then the [W] is just the bit in the middle. And the same vice versa.

I find both the [W] and the [H] sounds quite fascinating. They seem to express something very organic. For example, when someone opens their mouth in shock we have the expression "wow". When someone does this there's a gasp of air. If this gasp is accompanied by a vocalised burst of sound we get the [W] sound as the mouth quickly widens.

We also have words like whoa which convey a similar sentiment. In the case of whoa we also have the [H] sound as well. Again, representing perhaps the burst of breath that accompanies the shock which inspired it. This may help explain the difference between where and were too. For many people these two words often get confused as most of us simply ignore the [H] when we speak or read the word "where". However, when we use the word "where" we're generally using it to ask a question, whereas the word "were" is generally used to talk about the past.

When we're asking a question we're usually much more animated than when we're discussing the past, and when we get a shock or bad news the first response is usually a stream of questions - whoa! what happened? when? where? why? how? So the added [H] in where, and in other similar words, probably reflects this burst of breath that accompanies the question.

The difference between whoa and woe is perhaps a similar example. We usually feel "woe" or pity when we're thinking about bad things that have happened in the past, whereas "whoa" is the response we have to something we're instantly experiencing.

10. B (and P)

The [B/P] sound is made by pushing the lips together, then "popping" them apart again.

11. V (and F)

The [V/F] sound is made by biting the bottom lip.

12. G (and K)

The [G/K] sound is made by pressing your tongue to the back of your mouth. Interestingly we have words associated with retching (sorry!) that contain this G/K sound - gag, sick, cough.

13. D (and T)

The [D/T] consonant is made by pressing the tongue behind the front teeth. Interestingly, the words we have for describing the teeth are teeth, with a T, and dentures with a D.