Thursday, January 7, 2010

27 Vowel Sounds

We received one of those humorous posts that tend to circulate by e-mail from my brother. It deals with spelling reforms under the guise of an initiative by the European Union. The text begins in plain English, but as each “reform” is instituted in the narrative, the text continues with the changes incorporated. A somewhat longer version is available here at the site of The Spelling Society. I’ll reproduce the last paragraph to give the flavor of things here:

Zis proses vil kontinu, in a kumulativ fashun. Eventuli English vil be ze komon languag ov ze Komuniti, vich vil no longer be merly an ekonomik sifer, but a kominashun ov fre pepls. Ve shal kontinu to red and rit as zo nuzing has hapend. Evrivun vil no vot ze uzer sitizens ar saying and komunkashun vil be mutch ezier. Ze Komuniti vil hav achevd its objektivs ov congrewents and ze drems ov ze pepls of Urop vil finali hav kum tru. It is hopd zat zes signifikant konseshuns vil finaly reashor ze “Uroskeptiks”!
The spoof didn’t go far enough for me. Notice, above that vich (for which) has the short and rit (for write) has the long i-sound. With that in mind I wondered how many distinct letters we would need to represent each vowel sound unambiguously. Webster’s to the rescue. From this dictionary I infer that we’d need 27 distinct letters—or 25 if we did not wish to sound out, correctly, the French words boef and the German Hölle and the French feu and the German Höhle (beef, hell, fire, and cavity respectively).

Here is a trade-off between simplicity of spelling relying on acquired habit and precision in spelling to help children read immediately. In Hungarian, the language in which I learned to read, we have a, e, i, o, u, and y and then additionally á, é, í, ó, ú, ö, ü, ő, and ű—thus 15 vowel sounds. Once you knew what to do with those diacritics, it was very easy. There were also some consonantal combinations to memorize in addition.

Brigitte and I are World Class Level MyWord players. We can do wonders with the six English vowel letters. Could we have been helped mastering English rapidly by having started in other languages? Maybe all children should first learn, say, Italian. Then English will be a snap.


  1. What a great conclusion!
    hee, hee..

  2. Max and I are finding out how immediately readable Spanish is to a French speaker : with one of those lovely little books called a dictionary not too far away, we can do a reasonable translation of about four paragraphs of Allende's Hija de la Fortuna from Spanish to French in about an hour! Especially if the subject is child rearing and breastfeeding and a midwife is helping with the translation process...