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Contributed by Mohammad Shadmani   
Monday, 23 July 2007
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V  THE CHANGING ALPHABET

Any alphabet used by peoples speaking different languages undergoes modifications. Such is the case with respect both to the number and form of letters used and to the subscripts and superscripts, or diacritical marks (accents, cedillas, tildes, dots, and others), used with the basic symbols to indicate modifications of sound. The letter c with a cedilla, for instance, appears regularly in French, Portuguese, and Turkish, but rarely, except in borrowed words, in English. The value of ç in French, Portuguese, and English is that of s, as in the word façade. In Turkish ç represents the ch sound as in church. It once represented ts in Spanish, but that sound no longer exists in standard Spanish. So, too, letters have different sound values in different languages. The letter j, for example, as in English jam, has a y sound in German, as in the word ja, meaning “yes.”

Although alphabets develop as attempts to establish a correspondence between sound and symbol, most alphabetically written languages are highly unphonetic, largely because the system of writing remains static while the spoken language evolves. As the spoken language changes, the result is nearly always a decrease in correspondence. Thus, the spelling of the English word knight reflects the pronunciation of an earlier period of the language, when the initial k was pronounced and the gh represented a sound, since lost, similar to the ch in the German word Ich, meaning “I,” or the English loch. The Roman alphabet as used by English contains three totally unnecessary consonant letters: c, q, and x. The two sounds of c, for instance, could be written with the letters k (“kat”) and s (“sity”); qu could be written kw (“kwit”); and x could be written ks (“oks”). The divergence between the written and spoken forms of certain languages, particularly English, has prompted movements for spelling reform in the past.

At present, English spelling and pronunciation are only slightly related, as in the words leave, brief, light, bomb, know, and scenery. Moreover, many words with similar spelling are pronounced differently: tough and cough, wind and find, flood and brood. On the other hand, words with the same pronunciation may be spelled quite differently: ate and eight, bare and bear, peace and piece. Spelling reform would require a corresponding reform of the alphabet to achieve the ideal relationship of one letter for each sound. Some letters would have to be added. For example, the sound sh is written four different ways, as sh in shape, as ch in chartreuse, as ti in nation, and as s in sugar. Spelling reform would create a single symbol for that sound. Vowels present even more problems than consonants. The letter a, for example, is pronounced five different ways in the words same, cat, ball, any, and star. The letter o is pronounced differently in hot, to, go, and for. Conversely, one vowel sound may be spelled in many ways; the oo sound is written eight ways in the words soon, chew, true, tomb, rude, suit, youth, and beauty.

A major problem in English spelling reform would be determining whose speech to use as a model. Every language has speech varieties; some differences result from geographic region, others arise from social class. For many speakers of American English, the words dog and fog have the same vowel sound. But for some, the vowels differ: dog is pronounced as if it were spelled dawg and fog as if it were spelled fahg.


 
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