The New Age of Reason
                                        
By John Culkin                              

 
Science Digest, August 1981
"Let's meet for lunch on September 30" 
To produce that sentence I used four media: a typewriter, an alphabet, a number system, and a calendar. The Arabic number system is unambiguous and efficient. Let's keep it. The other three media are a mess. Let's change them.


THE ALPHABET

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 numerals
 do for mathematics?"

   We can!

  
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 spelling 
              is to represent the origin and history of a word instead of its sound
             and meaning. Thus an intelligent child who is bidden to spell debt
            
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 subject:

           "The English alphabet is pure insanity. It can hardly spell any word
            in the language with any large degree of certainty. ...The silliness
            of the English alphabet is quite beyond enumeration. Whereas the
            English orthography needs simplifying, the English alphabet needs
            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.

  ONE-FOR-ONE SYSTEM

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 sounds.
They can be remembered in their UNIFON order through the following mnemonic list
of five names:

Cat Face Hall
Red Peters
Big Mike
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 gap
        between our spoken language and our alphabet.

  • Voice-Activated Machines: UNIFON's one-for-one correspondence would
        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; it 
        could be particularly useful in teaching English to those, such as Spanish
        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 countries, 
        Although relatively easy to speak, English is one of the most difficult languages
        to learn from written materials, A sensible alphabet would greatly facilitate this
        process.

  • 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 skills.

   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 ...

     Go to Culkin's Aug. '82 UNIFON article ...

    go to The Typewriter and The Calendar page

 

John M. 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 his article.

 

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