Chapter Seventeen: LANGO Orthography

Orthographic reform is especially difficult because it deals with letters, the building blocks of words, as well as with words themselves. Neologisms and grammatical innovations are continually introduced, sometimes successfully, by writers and editors; but a change to the orthography of a language is much too important and fundamental to take place informally. Moreover, an organised orthographic reform of the English language, for the direct benefit of the whole English-speaking world, is unlikely to happen, for reasons which are explored in the next chapter. The most that could now be expected, realistically, is the revision of an offspring of English towards a rational foundation for the coming international auxiliary language.

Although this common tongue might start from a point close to contemporary English, at least in sound, it would necessarily lose all but traces of this origin as it evolved into a medium with the capacity to express or reflect a global culture. Its linguistic and euphonic centre of gravity would likewise move from the English-speaking world to the whole world, even as it has already shifted from the British Isles. The task of entirely constructing a new language would be beyond any individual or group - however well qualified. It would have to be carried out, via a comprehensive process of consultation, by an internationally representative panel of expert linguists. A democratically determined global standard accent, as explained in Chapter 20, would act both as reinforcement and failsafe mechanism. 

Such a reform would bring into focus linguistic problems which T.O. deals with in an essentially negative way; the conventionalised spelling of T.O. avoids giving precedence to any of the accents in the English-speaking world and distinguishes homophones like "peak, peek, pique" on the page by the same means. As an alternative to T.O. we propose an international standard pronunciation and the introduction of many words from other languages. But a third negative argument for T.O. is more difficult to answer. This claims that fundamental spelling reform is practically impossible in English due to the limitations of an alphabet with only 26 letters - which must be retained for practical reasons.

It is a relevant point because the letters of the English alphabet must represent over 40 speech sounds or phonemes. In particular, the 5 vowels and 4 semi-vowels signify 18 or more sounds between them. These are, at a minimum, the 12 monophthongs in "sat bet bit fog the car bee low soon saw fir put", and the 6 diphthongs in "care deer lie day boy how". (It might be claimed that English needs at least 20 vowels: that the [u]s in "sun" and "put" are both categorically different from the schwa in "the": that the vowel in "poor" is a diphthong distinct from the monophthong in "paw", and that the vowel in "low, go" is a diphthong.) The 21 consonants must likewise signify a greater number of sounds; 24 consonant phonemes are normally listed as "English", approximately /b, tsh "chin, church", d, dh "the, that", f, g "go, get", dzh "gem, jar", h, k, l, m, n, ng "young, singer", p, r, s, sh "she", t, th "theatre, thin", v, w, y, z, zh "measure, beige"/. Others like /ts "mezzo, pizza, pretzel", kh "loch, Bach" and ny "Enya, manana, union, canyon"/ are endemic through transliteration.

The result of this imbalance is that three quarters of the vowel sounds must be represented by digraphs like "ie, ea, ou" etc., rather than by single letters, and the consonants are likewise too few for a useful one-to-one correspondence. However, changing the English alphabet (e.g. to introduce extra diacritics and/or characters from the Russian, Greek or Hebrew alphabets) is not such a straightforward step as might be supposed: billions of pounds worth of hardware - not just manual typewriters but also a great deal of computerised equipment - would become redundant overnight: moreover, millions of touch-typists are psychologically imprinted on the QWERTY layout and would find it hard to readjust. More advanced I.T. machinery can easily switch to another alphabet, or to a layout such as Dvorak - which permits over a third less finger travel when typing English. However, the difficulty of mental adjustment probably explains why the ergonomic Dvorak keyboard has not prevailed even after 60 years. New letters and diacritics would no doubt be resisted for the same reason.

Every would-be reformer agrees that the present alphabet contains duplicated and redundant letters: [c] represents different phonemes, as in "cut cell once ocean luscious scene", only one of which, /ts/, as in some pronunciations of "once, dance, wince", is not duplicated by another letter; [g] and [j] are also duplicated, as in "judge", [q] and [x] are more or less redundant, and other letters are often used inappropriately, e.g. [f] for [v], and [s] for [z]. Consonant digraphs in English are even more irregular than individual letters: /sh/, for instance, is spelt no less than 15 different ways, including [ce] "ocean", [ci] "facial", [ti] "nation", [si] "mansion", [s] "sure" and [sci] "conscience". Moreover, the following table of the (approximate) relative frequency of letters in the Cambridge Encyclopaedia, computer-counted, and based on q = 1, shows that several consonants are used so rarely in English as to be practically redundant:

e = 89

a = 67

t = 61

i = 61

n = 58

o = 54

r = 51

s = 50

l = 33

h = 33

d = 30

c = 29

m = 21

u = 21

f = 18

p = 17

g = 15

b = 12

y = 12

w = 11

v = 8

k = 4

x = 2

j = 1

z = 1

q = 1

However, there would be enormous difficulties in recasting the alphabet on a rational basis for an orthographic reform of English even within the English-speaking world, much more so towards a basis for the international language.

The principle of orthographic regularity is important, but should not be taken to excess. In any case it will have to be approached gradually and carefully. The letters of the English alphabet represent phonemes, or narrow ranges of speech sounds, which are often different from those which are most common in other parts of the world. Moreover, users of ideogrammatic and syllabic scripts have coped for aeons without an alphabetic orthography: there is no reason why they should adopt one unless it were clearly beneficial.

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