Aura's Den

English Writing Reform

Posted 19 August 2020

This is a subject on which I have thoughts. Shall we go over them?

Warning: This post contains characters outside the normal ASCII set. If you don't have a font with decent Unicode coverage, or if you're using a screen reader, parts of this post may not appear correctly for you.

If you are using a screen reader, I've tried to make this as screen reader-friendly as possible. I've implemented some stuff in certain places to make sure you know what things are. Unfortunately, I don't quite know how well I've done. Like, you should be able to hear this just fine. I've used it in a couple of places along with an aria hidden attribute so you don't hear gibberish for what it replaces. I've also tried using the aria label attribute in the section where I talk about runes so you know what runes I'm talking about, since I can't imagine many (if any) screen readers have runic support, but I don't know if aria label actually does what I think it does. Finally, there's one paragraph after I go over the new English alphabet where I replace all instances of T H with the letter thorn. I don't know how screen readers handle that. You might hear everything just fine, you might hear thorns replaced with the letter p, where words like thing are replaced with ping, you might hear them omitted, where thing becomes ing, or it might just skip those words altogether. At any rate, if you do use a screen reader, I would really appreciate it if you could let me know how some of these things worked and how I could change this to be more friendly to those who need a screen reader. With that out of the way, on to the article.

Surface Reform

So, right off the bat, there are the obvious changes that we could make. For instance, having pulled a lot of English vocabulary from other languages, we could standardize a few things. Take Greek borrowings, for example. Normally, when we romanize Greek borrowings, or rewrite those loanwords with Latin script, we write the letter phi (φ) using the digraph ph. However, normally, in English, to represent the sound /f/, we use the letter f. So, to standardize, we start writing the ph in Greek borrowing as f. So, the word "photograph" would become "fotograf".

This sort of replacement actually is used in some places. For instance, all medications have something known as the International Nonproprietary Name (INN). In a drug's INN, ph is replaced with f. So, "amphetamine" is written as "amfetamine".

There are, of course, other changes that could be made. Take the letter c. It gets used for both /k/ and /s/. However, those sounds are made using the letters k and s as well. So, a lot of c's could be replaced with those letters. Double consonants could be removed in many places, in theory. There are some instances where there's a difference in the single and double consonant variants of a word (furry v. fury, for example), but there are words that do lend themselves to dropping a consonant. Letter, for instance, could be rewritten as leter.

Phonetic Rewriting

There are also cases where we could rewrite things phonetically, as they're said. For instance, the sound we associate with I is represented in IPA as /aɪ/. Thus, there's a case to be made for rewriting that sound as ai, especially when it comes from a silent e, such as in write (leading to write being rewritten as wrait). Similarly, the ay sound is actually written in IPA as /eɪ/, and could be written in English as ei.

This would, of course, need time to internalize, as most spelling reforms would. After all, chances are that you internally pronounced "wrait" above as /ɹeɪt/ instead of /ɹaɪt/. (/ɹ/, is approximately how our r is written in IPA.) But, this is the case for most spelling reforms. Chances are, for quite a while after reform, you'd still need to pause when seeing a rewritten word or still write words the old way.

Of course, a larger problem with this category of reforms is in dialectal differences. For instance, consider word-final /ɹ/. In American English, vowels get rhoticized, leading to that characteristic sound at the end of words like letter. However, in British English, the "r" sound tends to be elided, leading to a sound more like "lettuh". As it stands, the two are written the same way. But if you wanted to go the route of phonetic reforms, spellings between dialects would start to become different, leading to a situation where, say, a British English and American English speaker could understand each other's speech (vocabulary differences like loo v. restroom notwithstanding), but would find it difficult to understand each other's writing. So, phonetic reforms aren't a perfect solution to many issues.

New Characters

Another source of potential reform is in adding to the standard alphabet. For a start, we would be able to replace many existing digraphs. For instance, the letters ð (eth) and þ (thorn) were previously part of the English language, representing voiced and unvoiced th respectively. (If you don't know the difference in voiced and unvoiced, consider the words then and thin. Put your fingers on your voicebox and say then. You should notice a distinct vibration with then that isn't there with thin. Then is voiced, while thin isn't.) These two letter could absolutely be brought back for the th sound.

Of course, it's unlikely you'd want to have to pay attention to every single word you use that has a th sound to decide whether it's voiced or unvoiced, so perhaps we just bring back one or the other. I personally propose þ, but ð isn't bad either. (Fun fact: both actually still exist in Icelandic!)

There are other letters we could bring in. ʃ (esh), for example, to replace sh. The letter ŋ (eng) could be used to replace ng. ȝ (yogh) could be brought back for gh. We could also in theory bring back ƿ (wynn), though that's less orthographical reform as it is something nifty as the modern w is fairly unambiguous.

Going a step further, we could introduce diacritics into the English language. In fact, in some cases, we'd actually be reintroducing diacritics. For instance, consider the macron (as on ē). Old English used these for "long" vowels. (NB: What they considered long and what we consider long are different. For them, "long" would be holding the sound longer, rather than our different sound.) So, for our silent e problem, instead of phonetic notation, we just use a macron (write v. wrait. v. wrīt). In fact, you may remember something similar being used when you were in elementary school, for teaching the difference in, say, e as in eh and ē as in ee. (The former may have also been written as ĕ.)

In other cases, we could borrow from other languages with diacritics. For instance, replacing ch and sh with č and š (as in languages like Czech). We could also bring in ž for the zh sound in words like fusion (rewritten similar to fužon).

The New Alphabet

So, then. Say we incorporation these changes. What does that look like? Well, for a start, here's your new alphabet:

A, A with macron, B, C, C with caron, D, optionally Eth, E, E with macron, F, G, Yogh, H, I, I with macron, J, K, L, M, N, Eng, O, O with macron, P, Q, R, S, S with caron or Esh, T, Thorn, U, U with macron, V, W, X, Y, Z If you can't actually see this text, it would probably come off as confusing. I try writing some text using all the things I've proposed (so, for example, might is spelled M, I with macron, Yogh, T. Confusing is spelled C, O, N, F, Y, U with macron, S, I, Eng.) If you want to know what it says, it says, "As for actually writing it, it might look something like this. I know, I know. Seems confusing. Trust me. Go slowly, take it a step at a time, and you'll get used to it.

I mean, come on! English as it's written now would look confusing to someone who spoke old English, and old English looks confusing to us. (Seriously! Go find an old English copy of Beowulf!) Obviously any sudden change in how we write is gonna look confusing. That's why I said "go slowly". For instance, maybe we just start by replacing th with þ. It's a simple change and doesn't even really require you to get a new keyboard. Just change þe keyboard on your system to US International, and it'll be on Right Alt (AKA AltGr) + T. Þen you can replace all your th's with þ's. It'll look weird at first, but after a while, you'll get used to seeing þ instead of th. Þen we can make some other change. Do that a step at a time, and bada bing bada boom bada bam! New English writing.

(Actually, thinking about it, maybe start with standardizing sounds. Start with replacing ph with f, for instance. Maybe that would be smarter. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

Going Off þe Deep End

Say, though, you hate the Latin script. Reasonable. After all, it was kinda just shoehorned in by Christian missionaries. It wasn't how English was originally written. Originally, it used runes. Maybe we should just go back to those. I like your thinking. So, let's take a look at this, shall we?

So, English was originally written in runes. Specifically, something called the Anglo-Saxon or Futhorc runes. However, Christian missionaries came along, introduced the Latin script and started phasing out runes. By the 11th century, they were gone, replaced with Latin script.

thankfully, we have record of these runes, and could, in theory, go back to using them. But, how? Well, here's my proposal...

So, this system will be part transcription (rewriting by sound) and part transliteration (rewriting by letter). A lot can easily be transliterated. Here's the table for those:

Rune Letter
x (ks)
*Technically, this should be , transliterated c

Now, you may notice a few letters missing up there. Where's c? Well, we can replace c in pretty much any case with either k or s (as discussed in basic reforms), so we can elide c as a rune. But, it's still useful for replacing ch, so, we'll keep its corresponding rune, for č. (Technically, ch could be written as č, so, not exactly inaccurate.) You'll also notice z isn't there. Technically, that's just done using , though you could use variation .

Some sounds won't be transliterated. For instance, some oo sounds, like balloon, could be written with instead. Also, double letters won't come with. For cases where it makes a difference, we'll just respell a word more phonetically (for instance, furry to ᚠᚢᚱᛁ (furi), fury to ᚠᚣᚢᚱᛁ (fyuri).

Other sounds, we'll do a bit weird. For example, sh needs to come with somehow. We could do ᛋᚻ, but there's another rune, , which has no purpose. After all, we write st as ᛋᛏ. So, we can use it for sh (and voiced zh). Qu could either be replaced with ᛣᚹ or with .

Most of everyþing else stays the same. Punctuation and numbers will continue to use the same punctuation and numbers we use now. There are ways we could do runic numbers, but there's not much of a need, now is there? There are also some runic punctuation marks we could use, but for now, we don't need them.

So, yeah. A proposal on re-runicizing English. There you have it, along with proposals for redoing English Latin script. Take 'em or leave 'em.

Got any comments? Let me know! I'll add any I find of worth to the bottom of this post!

Keywords: Language, Proposal


None so far
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