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A Phonemic Alphabet for the Savard Idiolect

I recall seeing, in the library of my high school, a copy of the edition of George Bernard Shaw's play, Androcles and the Lion, which contained a transcription of that play in the Shaw alphabet. I was quite puzzled by what sound the symbol identified as representing the sound of "a as in father" was supposed to represent.

I rather suspect that Mr. Shaw, and the authors of some introductory books on foreign languages, pronounced the word "father" in a manner quite different from that in which I pronounce that word. I pronounce the a in father as I would the o in often, and not as the a in apple, which seems to be what at least some of these authors are attempting to indicate. Had they but chosen either "rather" or "lather", it would even have worked.

And I also find many popular dictionaries confusing. A symbol, having the form of an upside-down lower-case e, called a schwa, is supposed to represent an English vowel sound. Some of the examples they give correspond to the u in pull, but they tend to give many examples, which correspond to other, distinctly different, vowel sounds.

If one goes to the level of detail provided by the International Phonetic Alphabet, one learns that while French uses simple vowel sounds, English vowels are all dipthongs. In my ignorance, I had thought that English and French used pretty much the same assortment of vowels, even if French used, in addition, on rare occasions the sound represented by ü in German. Of course, it all depends on what English dialect one uses as one's reference, but I had always thought that the choice would be limited to those dialects suitable for a discussion of Spanish precipitation.

Thus, below, I present a way to transcribe the sounds of the English language as I speak it. Given the experiences recounted above, I am hesitant to adopt any pretensions about its representing English as it is spoken by anyone else. However, I will note that I am a Canadian, but not a speaker of one of our more colorful regional dialects. I at least tend to fancy that my pronounciations tend to follow those found on American television, or on British movies in which the pronounciations have been moderated for intelligibility to an American audience.

It may also be noted that what I propose to present below does not purport to represent every dimension of the auditory experience of speech. And old puzzle, presumably intended to raise people's consciousness about world hunger, asks people to find a third word in English which rhymes with "hungry" and "angry". The real answer is that there isn't one. However, the word "agree" might come close. That "ng" is a distinct consonant sound of its own, and is not composed of separate N and G consonants is acknowledged by the transcription I offer below. More noticeable, however, is that the long E vowel sound at the end of "agree", being stressed and longer in duration, sounds quite different from the long E vowel sound at the end of "hungry" and "angry". This is a subtlety which I do not attempt to indicate, and this may explain why I find no need of the schwa. Also, I do not distinguish between voiced and unvoiced "th".

Rather than using special symbols or accented letters, I use pairs of letters to represent some sounds, following the principle advocated by the British simplified spelling advocate Mont Follick. However, unlike him, when two consecutive letters are not used to indicate a single sound, I separate them with a period rather than an apostrophe, so that the apostrophe can retain its original use. No ambiguity is created, as a period performing its original function is always followed by a space, not another letter.

Consonants

b b as in boy
p p as in pickle
d d as in door
t t as in tome
f f as in fill
v v as in vital
g g as in goat
k k as in kite, c as in cape
l l as in lamp
r r as in road
m m as in mouth
n n as in night
s s as in sand, c as in cite, sc as in scene
z z as in zebra
ch ch as in chill, cc as in cacciatore
j j as in jump
sh sh as in shell, ss as in fission, t as in notion
zh s as in vision
th th as in thin
h h as in hold
w w as in wield
y y as in yellow
ng ng as in ring

Vowels

a a as in hat

Examples:

flat: flat

marine: mareen

orange: ohranj

ah a as in far

Examples:

carbuncle: kahrbuhnkul

Spartan: Spahrtan

ay a as in pale, ai as in mail, ay as in bay

Examples:

sailing: sayleeng

e e as in mend

Examples:

effective: effektiv

ee ee as in feel, ea as in bean, i as in ring, y as in baby

Examples:

meal: meel

i i as in tin

Examples:

rhythym: rithim

iy i as in find, ie as in pie, igh as in high, y as in sky

Examples:

pine: piyn

o o as in often, aw as in awning, a as in all

Examples:

off: of

cotton: coton

oh o as in core, ou as in pour, oo as in floor, au as in laurel

Examples:

corral: kohral

coral: kohrul

oa o as in cold, oa as in throat, ow as in flow

Examples:

bone: boan

blown: bloan

condone: kondoan

moa: moa.o

mow: moa

u u as in push, oo as in book, i as in fir, e as in offer

Examples:

pull: pul

uh u as in cup

Examples:

of: uhv

under: uhndur

notion: noashuhn

oo oo as in moon, u as in plume, ue as in blue

Examples:

tune: tyoon

oi oi as in foil

Examples:

spoil: spoil

ow ou as in count, ow as in town

Examples:

mouse: mows

The following diagram attempts to show how these combinations correspond to the symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet:

To illustrate this phonetic writing system, an example of it in action is in order. Here, then, is Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as written using this method:


Fohr skohr and seven yeerz agoa owr fothurz brot fohrth uhpon this kontinent a noo nayshuhn, konseevd in liburtee, and dedikayted too the propoazishuhn that oll men ahr kreeayted eekwal.

Now wee ahr engayjd in a grayt sivil wohr, testeeng wethur that nayshuhn, ohr enee nayshuhn soa konseevd and soa dedikayted kan long endyur. Wee ahr met on a grayt batulfeeld uhv that wohr. Wee hav kuhm too dedikayt a pohrshuhn uhv that feeld az a fiynal resteeng plays fohr thoaz hoo heer gayv ther liyvz that this nayshun miyt liv. It iz oltoogethur fiteeng and propur that wee shud doo this.

Buht in a lahrjur sens, wee kanot dedikayt - wee kanot konsekrayt - wee kanot haloa - this grownd. The brayv men, liveeng and ded, hoo struhguld heer, hav konsecrayted it fahr abuhv owr poor powur too ad ohr deetrahkt. The wurld wil litul noat, nohr long reemembur, wot wee say heer, but it kan nevur fohrget wot thay did heer. It iz fohr uhs, the liveeng, rathur too bee dedikayted heer too the uhnfinishd wurk wich thay hoo fot heer hav thuhs fahr soa noablee advansd.

It iz rathur fohr uhs too bee heer dedikayted too the grayt task reemayneeng beefohr us, that fruhm theez honohrd ded wee tayk inkreesd deevoashuhn too that koz fohr wich thay gayv the last ful mezhur uhv deevoashuhn; that wee heer hiylee reezolv that theez ded shol not hav diyd in vayn; that this nayshuhn, uhndur God, shol hav a noo burth uhv freeduhm, and that [this] guhvurnment uhv the peepul, biy the peepul, [and] fohr the peepul, shol not perish from thee Urth.


Although it illustrates the method itself, it also illustrates the flaw in any reformed phonetic spelling method for English as well; it makes a text rendered in it look badly misspelled, and hence ridiculous. Thus, despite the attendant difficulties of conversion, a phonetic spelling system that uses new symbols at least for the sounds which the existing 26 letters of the alphabet cannot uniquely represent, is attractive.

Perhaps it is only because we are used to it, but the existing spelling of English, preserving, as it does, the existing spelling of words in the languages from which they have been borrowed, has a formality and dignity that a phonetic spelling system cannot seem to match.

Copyright (c) 2005 John J. G. Savard


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