I have always loved the beautiful diversity of the English lexicon, but I have never loved its inconsistency of spelling, nor its poorly thought-out punctuation. In this piece, I’d like to propose an alternative, consistent, and phonetic redesign of the written English language, mostly as a thought experiment, but with hopefully the integrity needed to actually work in practice.

To be clear, the thing that’s cool about English to me is its etymological diversity—that is, the fact that we have so many words from so many different languages for each concept. In no way do I want to lose any of the different sounds, connotations, and unique shades of meaning each word holds. But, I do want to try something different.

Because of English’s complex roots, spelling different words can be so insanely difficult that we have a completely normalized cultural practice of holding spelling competitions, which are absolutely bizarre if you think about them for too long. I don’t know if there are spelling bees in other countries, but I have to assume that literally any other language would be cake in comparison to the hodgepodge of German, French, Latin, Celtic, Norse, and more that fell into the melting pot of English.

The most glaring problem I find in traditionally spelled English is the redundancy and ambiguity of pronunciation for many sounds. The sound for “k” can be written any number of ways: ‘k’ as in king, ‘c’ as in class, ‘q’ as in quit, ‘cq’ as in acquire, or even ‘ck’ at the end of words like dock.

Similarly—through, though, and tough all have the exact same ‘ough’ in them, but are pronounced like “ooh,” “oh,” and “off,” respectively.

Now I’m sure one of you English nerds could write me a long comment explaining the precise etymological origin of each example. I’ll look forward to reading it, but if you feel compelled to write it, you’ve missed the point. Only weirdos like us care about spelling and how it developed.

Instead, imagine the clarity that could be created with a well-designed English system of spelling. Where you didn’t have to constantly cross reference sound and spelling and meaning to know a word?

I know of systems of phonemes like the International Phonetic Alphabet, but these academic approaches are impractical for actual textual content and (in my opinion) needlessly complex, recreating many weirdnesses and redundancies of traditionally written language with archaic characters that must be pronounced in a way that feels far from obvious.

In response, I devised a new alphabet according to several principles:

  • Every letter must only be assigned a single sound.
  • Every sound in the English language must be represented as a letter.
  • Each letter should be based on a regular Roman glyph with minimal, intuitive diacritic use.

Vowels (pronunciation capitalized in traditionally spelled English)

a (hAt)
ā (cAr)
æ (nAme)
e (tEn)
ē (sEE)
i (It)
ī  (bIte)
u (bUt)
ū (hOOt)
o (hOme)
œ (nOIse)

Consonants (pronunciation capitalized in traditionally spelled English)

b (Big)
c (CHin)
d (Day)
f (Far)
g (Go)
h (Hot)
j (Jam)
k (Kid)
l (Land)
m (Mist)
n (Nope)
p (Pig)
q (THis)
r (Red)
s (Sit)
t (Time)
v (Vile)
w (Win)
x (SHin)
y (Yes)
z (buZZ)

So qis is a sentens riten in Englix wiq qe nū speling skēm.
[So this is a sentence written in English with the new spelling scheme.]

As yū kan sē it is mor ekonomikal in karaktur yūs.
[As you can see it is more economical in character use.]

Naw wē xuld talk ubowt punkcūæxun and kapitalizæxun.
[Now we should talk about punctuation and capitalization.]

Here are the rules I came up with for punctuation and capitalization:

  • Hyphens and em dashes should create short and long semantic breaks, replacing commas and semi-colons, respectively.
    • One day, it will happen; today is not that day.
    • wun dæ – it wil hapen — tūdæ is not qat dæ
  • Pipes [|] should replace periods to indicate the end of a regular sentence, but are only required when text continues on that line
    • I would like a burger. I will add fries too.
    • ī wud līk a burger |  ī wil ad frīs tū.
  • Forward slashes [/] should begin and end sentences that are questions, replacing the question mark
    • I would love a walk. How are you feeling?
    • ī wud luv a wālk | /how ār yū fēling/
  • Backward slashes [\] should begin and end emphasized sentences, replacing exclamation marks
    • Here we go!
    • \hēr wē go\
  • Only characters of the same case should be used; proper nouns are indicated with periods directly adjacent to the first and last character
    • Welcome to Starbucks Coffee.
    • welkom to .starbucks coffee.
  • Colons retain their grammatical function, but can be used more flexibly and in place of commas, where applicable
    • We need three things: chips, salsa, and beer.
    • wē nēd qree qings: cips – salsa – and bēr
  • Quotations are indicated with parentheses, sentences that set up quotes end with colons.
    • He said, “The line was, ‘These pretzels are making me thirsty!’.”
    • hē sed: (qe līn wās (\qēs pretzels ar makīng me qurstē\))
  • Abbreviations are handled with hyphens, as are compound words.
    • I will grab the dry-cleaning after I work out at the Y.M.C.A.
    • ī wil grab qe drī-klēning after ī werk owt at qe .y-m-c-a-.

 

I’m sure this system is likely far from perfect or even complete, but I hope to keep evolving it, because a better-designed form of written English could have powerful potential. Try using the system to rewrite a sentence, or even just to write your name and I think you may agree with me that there’s something here. If we could make one of the world’s most widely used languages easier for everyone to communicate with, I wonder what benefits we all might reap.

Jack Van Allsburg

Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)

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