Could a new phonetic alphabet promote world peace?

  • 20 February 2013
  • From the section Magazine
Clockwise from left: Cryllic sign in Russia, Typewriter with "made in Leicester", Ginza station in Tokyo, Greek bread and a sign in India about shoe-removal

Backers of a universal alphabet say it will make pronunciation easy and foster international understanding. But can phonetic spelling systems really smooth the path to world peace?

You are in Vietnam and want a bowl of soup. You ask a local where you can get "pho". After momentary confusion you are handed a book.

It's the curse of phonetics. Pho was correct. But you failed to emphasise the vowel and so articulated in Vietnamese "copy" (of a book).

English has more pitfalls than most other languages. "Don't desert me here in the desert" is a classic example of the heteronym, words spelt the same but pronounced differently. Bill Bryson remarked in his book Mother Tongue that there were nine separate pronunciations of hegemony.

The argument over regulating spelling has been raging for more than a century. Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw were advocates - the latter leaving much of his will to setting up a new phonetic alphabet.

Today the cause has been taken up by Jaber George Jabbour, a Syrian banker living in the UK. He has set up SaypU, an alphabet with none of the indecipherable squiggles of traditional phonetic alphabets.

It contains 23 letters from the Roman alphabet as well as a back to front e. There is no place for "c", "q", or "x", which merely repeat sounds achievable by using other letters. The "ɘ" represents the soft "a" of "ago" or "about", a sound known as "schwa".

Jabbour was a frustrated traveller. He would see words on billboards, menus and street signs. But he didn't have a clue how to pronounce them.

When he first got to London he said Leicester Square as it is written - Le-ses-ter Square - receiving funny looks. Only later did he realise that it is pronounced "Lester".

These kind of misunderstandings create a barrier, he argues. In countries like India and China where the entire script is different it can be a wall between local and outsider.

A simplified universal alphabet would end not only misunderstanding. It would help foster peace around the world, he believes.

Language misunderstandings can inflame conflicts. During the Cold War Nikita Khrushchev was reportedly thought to have said "we will bury you" of the United States. What he actually meant was something more subtle but tensions had been needlessly stoked.

But as translation programmes become more and more accurate, it is the sound of language rather than the meaning of words that is keeping people apart, Jabbour argues.

"I come from Syria, a place torn apart by war now. The war is not to do with languages but the groups fighting each other do use different pronunciations."

A new alphabet could bridge divides, he argues.

"If people pronounce and speak in the same way it makes people feel closer to one another. I do think the world with a single alphabet would be a more peaceful place."

His idea carries the quixotic whiff of Esperanto, the international language that failed to become mainstream. Ludwik Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, also believed it would unite humanity.

Phonetic learning in the form of "synthetic phonics" is now a major part of education. But Masha Bell, author of Understanding English Spelling, says reform of spelling needs to go further and alter the way words are written.

Bell grew up speaking Lithuanian and Russian. When she took up English at 14 she thought "how do they put up with this?" The illogicality of English spelling holds children back in Anglophone countries and makes life tough for visitors, she argues. "The reason why Finland shines in education is because their children have to spend very little time learning to read and write. It is completely phonetic."

The mechanics of introducing a new alphabet like SaypU are far from simple. The website currently has 10,000 words that can be translated into the new alphabet. Like Wikipedia it is for users to suggest tweaks and add new words.

It isn't always obvious what the correct answer is. The SaypU spelling of "top" and "run" have had to be tweaked to take into account the different vowel sounds of American and British English. And "very" - originally written in SaypU as verii - is now veri.

And how does it cope with British, North American and Antipodean English? In Britain people pronounce "borough" with a short second syllable. But for many Americans and Australians it is long, rhyming with burrow.

Accents can't just be standardised, says Nicholas Ostler, chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages.

Ostler is sceptical about any new undertaking. Others have attempted the same thing, such as Navlipi, devised by Indian banker Prasanna Chandrasekhar.

SaypU champions simplicity. But because of that it will struggle with languages in the Caucasus which have five or six ways of pronouncing the "k" sound, and South African languages like Xhosa where clicks play an important role, Ostler says.

Jabbour's initial aim is for SaypU to complement the native language rather like subtitles. One day - perhaps in two or three centuries - he hopes it will become the default international alphabet.

Technology means that unlike in Shaw's day, there is now the means of making it work, he argues. "We have the internet and social media. It distinguishes this attempt from any previous ones."

Sceptics highlight the practical difficulties.

"How are people going to be incentivised to adopt this spelling system side by side with whatever system they use at present?" asks Henry Hitchings, author of the Language Wars.

Bell says it would be better to concentrate on reforming English. "The notion of starting something completely new and every language being written in that seems a bit far fetched to me," she says.

There are top-down attempts to control or reform the language. The Academie Francaise tries to standardise the French language and keep out Anglo-Saxon terms, with varying degrees of success. And opponents of language regulation would highlight the Nazis' 1944 plan to reform German spelling.

Experts often liken language to a river which flows onwards regardless of efforts to control it. Jabbour says he's not trying to stop the river but to "redirect" it.

It's a futile aim, says Hitchings.

"Utopian language projects, in which an artificial system is put forward as an alternative to what's developed naturally, tend to fail. People are strongly attached to the distinctiveness and idiosyncrasies of whatever language they use."

And world peace? "Shared language can dupe us into thinking we share other things - values, beliefs, goals - when in many cases we don't. Does it minimize differences, or merely mask them?"

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