Phonetic language vs natural languages

The international phonetic alphabet has been designed to cover all of the sounds in all of the languages spoken by humans in the world.  It consists of many symbols, each of which uniquely represents one and only one sound, so there is no ambiguity when reading the symbol in writing; there is only one way to pronounce it.  The word ‘phonetic’ means that the written symbols indicate the correct sound, so writing in phonetic symbols is truly phonetic, ie the symbol and its sound are uniquely related.  These symbols are typically enclosed in two ‘/’ symbols to indicate they are phonetic symbols representing the correct sound, eg /æ/ representing the short ‘a’ sound in /pæt/, the correct pronunciation of the word ‘pat’.

Most natural languages past and present are not phonetic, so spelling with the alphabet used by the particular language does not accurately tell you how to pronounce the letters or the words; conversely pronouncing a word does not accurately tell you how to write it.  For example, in English, the verb ‘write’ and the adjective ‘right’ sound the same but are written completely differently; in another English example the noun ‘minute’ (meaning 60 seconds of time) and the adjective ‘minute’ (meaning very small) are written exactly the same but are pronounced differently.

Each language uses only a sub-set of the symbols and many dictionaries for each language use them after the word in normal spelling to assist in its pronunciation.  This can be especially helpful if the dictionary is a translation dictionary between two different languages, because it assists the learner in how to pronounce the word in the language that he or she is not familiar with.

Numerical values of phonetic symbols

There are hundreds and perhaps thousands of phonetic symbols.  In the computer and printing industries they are all defined as having a unique Unicode value in the range 0000 to FFFF, when written in hexadecimal or base 16 characters.

Hexadecimal numbers use powers of 16 instead of powers of 10 in our normal decimal numerical system.  Whereas decimal numbers contain digits from 0 to 9 in the units, tens and hundreds positions, so 123 means (1×100 or 1×102) + (2×10 or 2×101) + (3×1 or 3×100), hexadecimal numbers contain digits from 0 to 9 plus letters A to F (to represent 10 to 15) in the units, 16’s and 162 positions, so 123 means (1×256 or 1×162) + (2×16 or 1×161) + (3×1 or 3×160).  So FFFF is a very big number!

Unicode values exist for all the normal upper and lower case letters, numerals and punctuation marks in the various languages, including Latin, Greek, French, German and Arabic.

English and phonetic symbols

In English, most of the consonant sounds and some vowel sounds are represented by the normal English alphabetical letters, but the rest of the sounds are represented by letters from other language alphabets.  The following 14 non-English (mainly Latin or Greek) symbols are used for some sounds in English:  æ, ɑ, ɛ, ə, ɜ, ɪ, ʒ, ŋ, ɒ, ɔ,ɵ, ᵹ, ʊ and ʌ, and when coupled in pairs, they cover even more English sounds.

Although the English alphabet has only 26 letters, there are 44 sounds in English, so obviously many of the letters in English have to have more than one sound, which is why spelling in English does not always accurately and uniquely link the written word to the sound in spoken English; in other words, English is not a phonetic language.

One way to make English truly phonetic would be to use the international phonetic alphabet, but people are not trained in using the non-English symbols, so that would be extremely difficult to achieve.

In my book ‘Nu-English’ I offer ways to make English truly phonetic by just using the normal English alphabet letters as singles or as pairs, eg ‘a’ can substitute for  the short a sound /æ/, in the word ‘pat’, and ‘aa’ can substitute for the long a sound /ɑ/ in ‘past’.  I also offer many suggestions for easier, simpler and unambiguous word formation and simpler, more robust grammar rules with abolition of all exceptions to the rules, all of which suggestions would make the language easier and quicker to learn and increase its global use.

Bill Dommett

Bill’s Books


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