What if English were phonetically consistent?

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/08/15/what-if-english-were-phonetica.html




Yes, I was thinking too that it sounds like someone reading middle English.


I was explaining this to my SO, who is a native speaker of Bisaya.

“Does it seem like because of all the weird rules and exceptions that English is a crazy mishmash of a bunch of different languages? Because it is.”

I gather modern English has its roots in every wave of settlers to the British Isles:


And of course modern English has a lot of loan words from French, Yiddish, who knows what else.


It also sounds a bit like the backwards talking from Twin Peaks.


No nod to Twain? Ah well, let’s fix that here…


by Mark Twain

For example, in Year 1 that useless letter “c” would be dropped to be replased either by “k” or “s”, and likewise “x” would no longer be part of the alphabet.

The only kase in which “c” would be retained would be the “ch” formation, which will be dealt with later.

Year 2 might reform “w” spelling, so that “which” and “one” would take the same konsonant, wile Year 3 might well abolish “y” replasing it with “i” and iear 4 might fiks the “g/j” anomali wonse and for all.

Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and iears 6-12 or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez “c”, “y” and “x” – bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez – tu riplais “ch”, “sh”, and “th” rispektivli.

Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.


I enjoy such exercises in hypothetical Englishes. Another good example of an alternate English is “Uncleftish Beholding”


Teaching some English to my Chinese colleagues, it occurred to me* that while we fret that so many native English speakers are mono-linguistic, in reality, we aren’t. We speak several intertwined languages. Not multilingual in a practical sense, but still multilingual. We commonly mix Greek, Latin, German, French, and old English. Heavily laced with Dutch, Italian, and Nordic. Spiced with Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic.

I’m a fan of the weird. It seems shameful to spit on such a diverse heritage by forcing consistency.

  • Yeah, I’m not the first. But it was a personal epiphany to go from the common knowledge that “our words have a diverse background” to “I can speak words from many languages! Cool!”

I forgot where I first saw this, but I still love it:

If GH can stand for P as in ‘hiccough’,
If OUGH can stand for O as in ‘dough’,
if PHTH can stand for T as in ‘phthisis’,
if EIGH can stand for A as in ‘neighbour’,
if TTE can stand for T as in ‘gazette’,
if EAU can stand for O as in ‘plateau’,

…then the correct way to spell potato would be:


The differences betw Germanic languages and English extend to grammar, too. There’s a Frisian dialect that’s supposed to be closest to English, and my guess is that its got all that additional onerous grammar that English dumped. I read somewhere that maybe the Celts bumped it out, in which case, slainte! to them.


Quite a few languages are set up to be phonetic. Spanish for one. It doesn’t matter what country you’re from and what accent you might have, when you speak the way words sound is pretty consistent and i can work out the spelling for something i’ve never heard with ease. You can’t really do what in Englsh… if confronted with a new word good luck figuring out how to spell it.

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That’s usually the point where spelling reforms come in, and most languages that are considered “clean” or “consistent” are usually a result of those, though I reckon that was a lot easier to do when most of the population couldn’t read and thus didn’t care what the boffins did with their language.

But given how well the change to the metric system went I’d say a comprehensive reform is off the cards at this point. Which kinda sucks if you consider that English is shaping up to becoming the world language. Not that I mind English per se (not a native speaker myself), but… at some point in the maybe distant future we’re gonna have to explain that mess to the broader galactic community, and I’m afraid we might come off as a bit silly.


an unavoidable example of the phenomenon that power often chooses standards, rather than best fit.


I’d also advocate thoughtfuller consistency in comparative and superlative. ‘More’ and ‘most’ are so dull and clunky and I urge the generousest consideration be given to their retirement.


Not to mention Chinese and Japanese (which may be why we kowtow to tycoons?).


But that’s our entire way of life! Why have things if you can have more things or, better yet, most things instead?

Because more comparatives isn’t the same thing as comparativer?

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I work with a lot of FAEs, which is to say, engineers whose job is largely “being fluent in both engineering English and also engineering Japanese/Chinese/Korean”, so occasionally questions about general English come up. One time, I had to rather unhelpfully offer, “I don’t know the word, but I would pronounce it this way because it is French… you can tell it is French because it uses very French vowels. This other word I would pronounced this other way, because the ph doesn’t appear outside of Greek. This other word is a common English word. You could tell because it’s short, and vowels uncomplicated. You’d pronounce that as a child – admittedly, and English child – would.” You pretty much subconsciously identify the origin before you pronounce an unusual word.


The world is shaping English to their own needs, too. (Just like every other culture to touch English, the tramp.) Everyone community that learns English as a second language and make best-guesses about how they should _probably say some new, interesting thing creates their own micro-dialect. I hope somebody is keeping track of them.


I will be the pedant who says this is about English spelling more than it’s about English. Spelling is a weird cultural/historical artifact, and tons of people have presented their own schemes for neatening it up. (It’s true that it’s a fucking mess.)

But learning a language is not the same thing as learning to read and write that language.