Can shared alphabets foster peace?

Posted by on March 04, 2013

Our recent roundup of language in the news linked to a BBC report on a new phonetic alphabet, asking if it could “promote world peace”. The project is called SaypU, short for Spell As You Pronounce Universal project, and its website explicitly expresses the hope that this novel alphabet “might help making the world a more peaceful and harmonious place”.

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? There are groups of speakers with very similar dialects and phonologies but who insist they speak different languages, because they wish for their cultures to remain distinct. This wish is sometimes accompanied by outright hostility. Such mutual antagonism between cultures is common and will hardly be dissolved by a shared alphabet.

Promoting peace with an alphabet is an admirable but quixotic aim. For one thing, I can’t see how a 24-character set of symbols could even come close to covering the complex sounds of so many languages, many of them heavily reliant on tonal subtleties. For another, there’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

A post at Language Log reminded me of Douglas Adams’s memorable line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “The [poor] Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different cultures and races, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.” Hyperbolic humour, certainly, but no less probable an outcome than world peace, given what we know of human history and nature. For more practical criticisms, the comments at Language Log are worth reading.

Of course, there’s already an International Phonetic Alphabet, used widely by linguists and language enthusiasts. The BBC alludes to it dismissively with the phrase “indecipherable squiggles”, but while the IPA may seem forbidding at first, it doesn’t take long to adjust to. Macmillan Dictionary shows it right after a definition’s audio file – looking up phonetic, for example, we can follow how /fəˈnetɪk/ corresponds to the sound. And yes: the IPA enables greater linguistic understanding. But world peace will take change of a very different order.

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Comments (15)
  • Like you, Stan, I’m sceptical about this being a recipe for world peace. Look at the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress: they seem to hate each other implacably, yet they not only speak the same language (English), but the same variety of it (American English). But there’s a bigger point. All these systems attempt to replicate speech sounds on paper, but in online dictionaries you can hear how words are pronounced. Could this make all phonetic alphabets redundant?

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 4th March, 2013
  • Michael: Good example. It’s true of politicians in many countries, though the Republican-Democrat divide in the US does seem especially rancorous. I don’t think phonetic alphabets are in danger of becoming redundant, but it will be interesting to see whether their use is affected by the drift towards online dictionaries.

    Posted by Stan on 4th March, 2013
  • BBC os a hypocrite on any ground. I myself learned English-related IPA when I was a kid. It’a just an invaluable asset for every language learner.

    Posted by Mohsen A. J. on 4th March, 2013
  • Mohsen A. J.: I agree, IPA is extremely useful for language learners, and indispensable for anyone interested in phonetics.

    Posted by Stan on 4th March, 2013
  • The SaypU project is clearly hopelessly half-baked, and the BBC article isn’t much better.

    And phonemic transcriptions in dictionaries will continue to be needed, because people can’t be relied on to hear the pronunciation of an unfamiliar language accurately.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 5th March, 2013
  • Stan:
    I prpose a world academy that would require the use of only one language and orthography (no dialect or accent variations allowed). Rulebreakers would be punished with silence after the second infraction. That would solve all our problems.

    Posted by marc leavitt on 5th March, 2013
  • Jonathan: SaypU seems unlikely to catch on beyond perhaps a few niches. And even if it did, there’s no reason to suppose it would lead to greater international harmony.

    Marc: I can imagine people all using the same language — for about 30 seconds, if we all lived in the same room. Then nature would take its course(s).

    Posted by Stan on 5th March, 2013
  • […] Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can […]

    Posted by Centring around phonetic alphabets | Sentence first on 11th March, 2013
  • The late Marshall McLuhan suggested in his book Gutenberg Galaxy that psychic fragmentation of the West is a direct result of a society using an alphabet based writing system. This former English professor at the University of Toronto recommended that the rest of the world ought to learn a non-alphabet based writing like Chinese if world peace is the goal. I believe he warned elsewhere that the Chinese would greatly industrialize if they were to ever use an alphabet in their writing. His prediction has become fact with the Peoples’ Republic of China having adopted a romanization system which they call pinyin. The slight twist is that pinyin is commonly used with computer devices, not brush or pen and paper. Thanks for a great blog.

    Posted by Doré Bak on 12th March, 2013
  • Thanks for your interesting comment, Doré. I reread McLuhan’s Understanding Media a couple of years ago and was struck by the breadth of effects he attributes to the alphabet (and linearity more generally). I think familiarity with other cultures can help us appreciate human difference and diversity, but it doesn’t necessarily — other, more deeply ingrained psychological factors are more likely to hold sway.

    Posted by Stan on 12th March, 2013
  • We might start by reformatting existing languages to use phonetic alphabets. If they are easier to learn, that should promote communication… I would think.

    Posted by capricecake on 13th March, 2013
  • capricecake: Marginally, maybe, but imposing changes on languages is easier said than done. It’s hard to imagine it being carried out successfully on English in its current state, for instance.

    Posted by Stan on 14th March, 2013
  • capricecake: Any language can be written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). If speakers of all languages agreed to replace their own writing systems with the IPA, and if everyone in the world had sufficient phonetic training to be able to interpret the IPA symbols and diacritics and the phonetic features they represent, and if all existing texts in all languages were converted to IPA – these are, obviously, pretty big ifs – then anyone would be able to look at a text in any language and imagine more or less what it might sound like. But this wouldn’t improve their ability to *understand* other languages, let alone improve international relations. If this is a project anyone feels like taking on, good luck to them, but include me out!

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 14th March, 2013
  • Stan, what is your foundation for saying that “The BBC alludes to [the IPA] dismissively with the phrase ‘indecipherable squiggles'”? I wasn’t aware that the BBC had any corporate view on the matter. Or do you mean “someone speaking on the BBC” “someone writing on one of the BBC’s websites”? And if so, who?

    Posted by Kevin on 21st March, 2013
  • Kevin: I don’t know whether the corporation has an official position on the IPA. The phrase in question appears in the BBC Magazine article that’s linked in the first line of my post; it describes SaypU as “an alphabet with none of the indecipherable squiggles of traditional phonetic alphabets” – which I inferred to mean the IPA and other such systems. The article was written by Tom de Castella, a full-time feature writer for the BBC.

    Posted by Stan on 21st March, 2013
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