And the worst shall be first. An alphabet by definition, a system for
mapping the sounds of a language is an invention of a high order. Ideally,
one letter stands for each sound and one sound for each letter. The genius
of our phonetic system (as opposed to pictographic systems) is that the
written symbols do not refer directly to the object described but to the
pieces of sound that fallout of our faces.
The current English alphabet, however, is not as easy as ABC. Our 26
letters are at once too few and too many to handle the roughly 40 pieces of
sound (phonemes) that constitute today's spoken English, the variety of
speech used by Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor and scientifically
analyzed by Bell Labs and most dictionaries. The alphabetic principle
suggests that we have 40 letters in order to describe this spoken code
accurately and completely. In fact, we have more than 200 spellings for the
40 basic sounds of spoken English. This is five times the number required;
it produces an efficiency rating of 20 percent for our written code. A piano
with that degree of effectiveness would have 440 keys.
Ask any child or foreigner about the vagaries of
written English. They will chronicle the agonies of "one" and "eight" and
"tough" and "through" and "though." English is a verbal melting pot and we
have never had an Academy, as do the French, to establish linguistic
standards. As a result, we have 15 spellings for the long 0 sound
(owe, beau, though, doe, etc.) and another 15 for the long a sound
(may, maid, gauge, great, weight, etc.). Imagine the efficiency of our
Arabic number system if any digit could randomly take on several other
values: “7 (frequently) times 6 (occasionally) equals 42 (more or less)."
"Why," one asks, "can't we have a code that does for language what Arabic
do for mathematics?"
The question is whether we really want it. Alphabet reform has been
around as long as there has been an alphabet. English alphabet reform dates
back to at least 1568; the movement has included Benjamin Franklin, Mark
Twain and George Bernard Shaw. The "most voluble player" in alphabet reform
has been Shaw, who left part of his estate to establish a competition for
the creation of a new phonetic alphabet. He wrote:
"This alphabet is reduced to absurdity by a foolish orthography
[spelling system] based on the notion that the business of
is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of
and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell
and very properly spells it d-e-t, is caned
for not spelling it with a b
because Julius Caesar spelled it with a b."
Mark Twain also had a few words on the
"The English alphabet is pure insanity. It can hardly spell any
in the language with any large degree of certainty. ...The
of the English alphabet is quite beyond enumeration. Whereas the
English orthography needs simplifying, the English alphabet
it two or three million times more."
Twain wanted a one-for-one alphabet in which
each letter stood for one sound
and vice versa.
To date, more than 300 new alphabets have been
devised for the English language. You may have noticed that none of them
has yet been adopted. The psychological and cultural resistance to such a
change is obviously strong. In the past, formidable technological and
economic barriers halted the move toward a new alphabet. Today, alphabet
reform has a chance to work its logic because of technological and economic
considerations. The presence of 25 million adult functional illiterates in
our population and the increasing role of English as a world language
provide additional impetus.
Have I got an alphabet for you! One hundred percent efficient, it is related
to the existing alphabet and compatible with all computer technologies. It
works as a reading system; it fits most other languages. Called UNIFON, the
alphabet was devised by John R. Malone, a Chicago economist, 20 years ago.
UUNIFON (single sound), a totally consistent
40-character alphabet, maps and matches the 40 sounds of standard spoken
English. It is an isomorphic (one-for-one) system of 24 consonants and 16
vowels. One and only one letter stands for each sound. One and only one
sound corresponds to each letter. Students need learn only one rule for its
use: Spell everything as it sounds, sound everything as it is spelled. No
silent letters and no double letters exist.
Here is how the UNIFON alphabet works:
UNIFON is a "capitalist" tool, based on the uppercase letters of the Roman
alphabet. The new alphabet retains 23 existing letters. The three dropped
letters are unnecessary: the abecedarian duties of C are taken on by either
K or S, Q becomes KW, and X becomes KS.
Seventeen letters are added, all based on existing letters. The 6 new
consonants include a symbol for the ng sound and 5 that contain the h sound
(ch. sh. zh and the two sounds for th). The 11 new vowels include the 5 long
vowels, 5 diphthongs and the e before an r sound.
Much of the complexity of English is in the richness of its vowel system -16
They can be remembered in their UNIFON order through the following mnemonic
of five names:
Cat Face Hall
Otto Cook Cowboy
Mud Mule Blue
If UNIFON or something similar became the alphabet, these
improvements could follow:
Economics: UNIFON takes up 14 percent less
space, with consequent
savings in labor, storage, ink and paper.
Decline in Dyslexia: One author believes that
more than 60 percent of the
world's dyslexia occurs in English-speaking countries and blames the
between our spoken language and our alphabet.
Voice-Activated Machines: UNIFON's one-for-one
simplify the programming of voice-activated computers and typewriters,
Foreign Languages: Already the official
alphabet of several American Indian
tribes, UNIFON also fits the major European languages with minor
adjustments, The new alphabet can ease the acquisition of languages;
could be particularly useful in teaching English to those, such as
speakers, who already have a consistent alphabet.
English as World Language: English has become
the de facto world
language, taught in the elementary schools of more than 100
Although relatively easy to speak, English is one of the most
to learn from written materials, A sensible alphabet would greatly
Spelling Bees: No more. Our current alphabet
and the reading thereof
involve a "sort of" phonetic base, but school children must learn some
words, like one and eight, as if they were Chinese symbols.
At present, UNIFON is being used as an initial
reading system in the public schools of Indianapolis. First-graders spend
six months with UNIFON, then transfer to traditional orthography, because
their first experience with print has been logical and consistent, the
children score high in reading and writing skills. First-graders exposed to
UNIFON before any traditional language scored high in reading and writing
Two books currently in preparation will make the system available to
teachers and parents: Reading for the TV Child and The UNIFON Double-Entry
Dictionary, which will allow readers to look up a word either according to
its traditional spelling (e.g., physics) or according to its pronunciation (FIZIKS).
Click below to continue reading John Culkin's article on the changes needed
Culkin's Aug. '82 UNIFON article ...
The Typewriter and The
Culkin, Executive Director of The Center for Understanding Media wrote
substantially this article for the Science Digest, August 1981.
Kind permission to electronically re-create this material has been given
by his family to continue his kwest for an augmented alfubet for future
generations of English writers. In his memory we dedicate this version of