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15 Comments

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Mohsen A. J.: I agree, IPA is extremely useful for language learners, and indispensable for anyone interested in phonetics.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • We might start by reformatting existing languages to use phonetic alphabets. If they are easier to learn, that should promote communication… I would think.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

  • 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.