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Universal Alphabet

Adopt a universal phonetic alphabet based on Roman characters
  (+1, -8)(+1, -8)
(+1, -8)
  [vote for,

The benefits of literate people around the world being able to communicate, regardless of spoken language, are obvious. When building a writing system, there are two possible approaches.

1) Use symbols based on meaning. In such systems there are necessarily a lot of these (in the thousands. Chinese uses this strategy.

2) Use phonetic values (an alphabet or syllabary). English (and many other non-Roman-alphabet languages) use this system; the number of symbols is often substantially less than 100.

I propose an alphabet, rather than a system of ideograms, and specifically a phonetic version of the Roman alphabet, because

a) well over half of humans live in countries where the Roman alphabet has official or co-official status (3.8 billion)

b) alphabets are easier to learn (if you are a first-language Chinese-speaker and need 3,000 characters to read a newspaper, how hard can it be to learn 30 more?)

The main benefit will be facilitation of second-language learning, rather than universal communication (anyone learning Japanese or Chinese can attest to this). Because of course different languages have different sounds, an expanded Roman alphabet could be used (mimicking the International Phonetic Alphabet?) That would be more fair, so everyone has to learn a somewhat new system, even people who already read Roman characters.

Someone posted a proposal here that all languages be written in ideograms. Beyond the difficulty of teaching ideograms to alphabet-readers, it's very difficult to adopt these symbols between languages, given differences in word order and grammar. The best-known example, Japanese, uses a klugey system of Chinese characters with home-grown syllabary characters scotch-taping them together within Japanese grammar; and the ideograms do drift from their original meanings, defeating the purpose anyway of adopting such a difficult system.

The problem of implementation is first and foremost a political one, of convincing the Chinese and Arabic-speaking governments of educating their citizenry to be at least bi-scriptural. But Turkey has done so, without which change it's doubtful whether there would even be an argument today over whether they could join the EU.

ringworldengineer, Apr 20 2008


       Isn't this just a "let's all use the IPA for communication"?
dbmag9, Apr 20 2008

       //the IPA for //
India Pale Ale?
AbsintheWithoutLeave, Apr 20 2008

       International Phonetic Alphabet. Not as tasty, lacks a creamy head, but lower in calories and better for you.
8th of 7, Apr 20 2008

       I can see a few problems. Many languages, including English, have stronger and weaker pronunciations of the same words, for instance we may say /&nd/ for "and" at some times, but /n/ at others. What about allophones? In English, the clear and dark l are allophones in some dialects but full phonemes in others. The number of possible phonemes would necessitate the use of either lots of digraphs, lots of diacritics or a very long alphabet with most letters redundant. What about the likes of pitch accent, lexical tones, ejective consonants and the like? What about glottal stops? It would also fragment writing of currently mutually intelligible dialects into completely unintelligible languages, for instance the difference between Glaswegian and Sydney dialects would be so drastic as to make it impossible to communicate. Also, Latin is not the best script phonetically by any means. Korean is better, for example. If all languages using a non-Latin script should adopt the same script, there might as well be a completely new one.   

       Besides this, historical continuity would be lost and most records, particularly in English, would become incomprehensible or require a special learning effort to understand. Right now, a literate English user can understand something written in the fourteenth century, but if this were adopted it would be difficult to read anything at all written in English before the first generation which adopted this system.   

       What about the likes of elision , eclipsis, external sandhi and initial glottal stops? I find Welsh confusing because it's spelt phonetically, whereas Irish is easier to follow because it isn't.   

       It might also make it harder to learn foreign languages, at least among speakers of English, French, Portuguese, Russian Chinese, Japanese, a number of south and south east Asian languages and any language using Arabic script, because their languages would no longer appear visually similar to other languages linked historically to them. Turkish speakers have lost this advantage by adopting this alphabet, and moreover use a number of letters in an unusual way which creates a barrier between themselves and other languages using a Latin script.
nineteenthly, Apr 20 2008

       I will summarize your dissertation: In short he said, "It's already baked."
Jscotty, Apr 21 2008

       Katakana would be much better
Voice, Apr 21 2008

       i took a linguistics course   

       and i guess ESPERANTO   

       is like that, its an amalgam of a bunch   

       of languages. check it out.   

       apparently it takes like 2 weeks to learn   

       super easy.
sooriir, Apr 22 2008

       I'm changing my opinion about people who work for apple [sic].
coprocephalous, Apr 22 2008

       I learnt Esperanto myself many years ago. I once met someone who spoke it, another time i saw someone with an Esperanto T-shirt and once i saw a flower bed with a phrase spelt out in Esperanto on it. That's the limit of my use of it. It is fairly easy for a speaker of a European language to learn but has serious flaws, particularly the fact that it has SIX participles. Also, i don't see the connection with a universal alphabet. It has letter-diacritic combinations found in no other script in the world - not exactly universal.   

       Katakana would only work for languages with no consonant clusters, five vowels and mainly open syllables. There are some of them, for instance Samoan and Swahili, but many aren't. Korean visually represents mouth shapes and tongue positions.
nineteenthly, Apr 22 2008


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