Saturday, November 14, 2009

Alternative Orthography and Alphabet Reform

When I was younger, I took up learning Japanese. The first step in learning a language is usually to learn correct pronunciation, and when learning languages with a non-Roman alphabet, it is common practice to spell words using your own familiar alphabet. Japanese written as such is called romanji (lit., Roman letters). I quickly discovered that while reading Japanese romanji, there were very few questions about how to pronounce the words I was learning. The only discrepancies between different transliterators of Japanese text seem to be dropping a silent 'u' when it follows an 'o' (similar to words like colour and favour the Queen's English), and spelling the hiragana (Japanese phonetic alphabet) character ち as 'ti' or 'chi.' Learning Japanese this way struck me as remarkably easy, especially when compared to the difficulties of learning English spelling. Suddenly I started questioning. Why IS English one of the hardest languages to learn? Why do we have so many rules with so many exceptions? Why do we have silent letters? And above all, why does our alphabet have letters with two to three or more sounds as well as redundant letters?

Allow me to explain the last question from a student's prospective. When learning words that include an 'a,' how, as a five-year-old, am I supposed to know whether to pronounce it as in add, ale, or all? How can the same letter even make three different sounds? And when I'm trying to spell a word that has a particular sound, how am I supposed to know if that sound is a 'cuh,' as in 'cat,' or 'kuh,' as in 'kat'? And when I'm in the middle of the room, am I in the 'center' or the 'senter'?

I am not even close to the first person to wonder these things. From the beginning of written language, alphabets have changed so frequently, it's difficult to read texts from more than 300 years ago in almost any culture. But in our modern society, changing something as much of a foundation as our alphabet is unheard of and often deemed ridiculous. And yet, even in modern times, there have been some radicals that have aimed to do just that. With minimal research, here are my findings on alphabet reform.

Our first radical is none other than lovable Mr. Benjamin Franklin. Along with being a founding father of our nation, appearing on our money, inventing every day objects such as bifocals, and doing innovative work in electricity, politics, civics, and so on, Mr. Franklin was interested in orthography. In 1768, he wrote A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling, which included a phonetic alphabet, removing the redundant letters c, j, q, w, x, and y and adding six new letters he felt were sounds that needed to be represented. These new letters included Ŋ (eng, pronounced ng), as well as a letter for the 'au' in 'caught,' the 'sh' in 'she,' the 'u' in 'umbrella,' the 'th' in 'thought,' and the 'th' in 'this.' (And before I go on, let me explain that the difference I see between the last two characters is the placement of the tongue. That one sure had me confused for a while.) The letters are mostly modified lower case h's, and the resulting text looks a little jumbled and confusing. Franklin's alphabet wasn't very popular, obviously, and it doesn't look as simple as I think the ideal alphabet should, but I definitely think his effort is noteworthy. The removal of the redundant letters is the most important part of this system, but I don't think every vowel sound was represented. Franklin doubled some vowels to make different sounds in his reform, spelling 'dear' as 'diir,' etc. This is one approach, but I don't think it is effective enough. I also think the letters should be more distinct and different from one another than his modified h's.

Next comes an alternative alphabet that as actually been used in schools. Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) was invented in 1961 by Sir James Pitman, whose grandfather also invented a shorthand alphabet. It has 44 letters, which includes Latin letters as well as letters for sound blends, etc. It is meant to be taught to little ones just learning to read in the hopes that it will be less confusing than traditional orthography. The hope is that they will learn the basics of reading with ITA and then have enough interest to make the switch to traditional reading and writing themselves. There are also rumors that it helps with reading disorders such as dyslexia and dysgraphia. In practice, it does seem to help with spelling, and even comprehension somehow, but only temporarily. The problem comes when it's time to switch to the “adult” alphabet, which confuses almost all of the students who had just gotten the hang of one system of writing and are now thrown into another that is very different. Not to mention the students who were on their way to reading normally with help from their parents at home but were completely left behind in the classroom. ITA also lends itself to spelling errors later in life to those students that relied too heavily on spelling words exactly as they sounded.

ITA seems to have started off with a good basic idea, considering how difficult reading and writing is to very young children. The trouble lies in the tradition, which doesn't seem to be very well thought out. It was originally mildly popular throughout England and parts of Australia and the United States, but is only rarely used today, probably because, apart from confusing students, it is an expensive program to fund, as the class requires all new textbooks. I haven't seen many instances of ITA text, so I can't speak on the appearance, but the letter system, despite all of the hype about it, still isn't perfect. K and C both appear in the alphabet, still making the same sound, and some sources list a backwards Z (as in 'daisy,' they claim) which seems to make the same sound as a regular Z.

Finally, I have saved the best for last. A system called Unifon was created by Dr. John R. Malone in the 1950's to, you guessed it, have one character for “one sound.” It lends itself to reading so precisely, it has been compared to a pronunciation guide in a dictionary. The letters are familiar, using 23 letters of the traditional alphabet and creating 17 more that are very similar to their traditional counterparts. There are three ways to say the letter A, as I have mentioned before, and in Unifon, all three look enough like capital A's that you can tell that they are going to make an A sound, but are different enough that once you learn the difference between the three, they can be easily distinguished. With minimal practice, you can read any Unifon text, and once you can read it, the transition to writing is simple because every word is spelled exactly as it sounds.

Like ITA, Unifon was created to be used as training wheels for young children just learning to read and write, but unlike ITA, Unifon has an easy transition plan into traditional English. Because the letters look so similar to the “adult” alphabet, the only things a student needs to adjust to is the weird spelling rules and lower case characters. Proponents of Uniform claim that it's just as useful to ESL and illiterate adults as it is to children, and that children can master the system in three months, while English-speaking adults can become fluent in less than one week.

I truly see this as the best form of alternative orthography because of its simplicity and familiarity. There are no redundant letters for once, and 40 does seem to be the magical number, at least in today's American English. For some reason, since it's creation, Unifon has been used in few schools with even fewer professional writings about it, most likely because it has been outshone by ITA. Most of its proponents seem to be non-activists on the internet that don't put their love of the system into effect in the real world. Therefore, I don't see it, as someone on the Unifon website declared, overcoming traditional orthography any time soon.

Notice: As a teacher in a public school, it is not my agenda to teach alternative orthography. However, as an educated instructor, I wish to be informed of different methods of teaching.

Unifon Homepage