I was thinking last night about the issue of writing with a phonetic alphabet being not quite as simple as one would think, and I came up with a good way of illustrating this. Take the name challenge—try to write you own name in the Deseret Alphabet. For example, let’s try my name.
John. Starting off with my given name, I’m already in trouble. I speak a dialect of English which has undergone what’s called the caught-cot merger, and that means that whereas some dialects of English distinguish |ɑ| and |ɔ| (that’s 𐐉 and 𐐂, respectively, in the Deseret Alphabet—or is it the other way around?), mine doesn’t. I can hear the distinction if I’m listening for it, and I can make it if I want to, but those are both conscious processes. Since I grew up not making the distinction, I can’t off-hand predict with anything near 100% certainty which one will occur in any given word.
So with the name John, I don’t know whether to spell it 𐐖𐐱𐑌 or 𐐖𐐪𐑌. I’ve been spelling it 𐐖𐐱𐑌, but I have to check either in a dictionary or in some of the extent materials in the Deseret Alphabet (in this case the Deseret Third Reader) to be sure. Fortunately, it says 𐐖𐐱𐑌 and I happen to have done it correctly.
Now, a child growing up with the Deseret Alphabet wouldn’t have this problem. Even if they spoke Utah English as I do, they would simply learn that John is spelled with a 𐐉 and not a 𐐂, the same way that French kids grow up knowing that chat is a boy cat and chatte is a girl cat, or, for that matter, the way an English-speaking kid grows up knowing that John usually has a silent h, but since it can be spelled Jon, you have to learn for any particular John you meet which one it is. Since John is short and common, kids would probably pick up on the proper Deseret Alphabet spelling without even realizing it.
At the same time, this does mean that at some point a lot of the Deseret Alphabet generation will come home and complain to their parents, “I thought we were supposed to spell everything the way we pronounce it? So what’s with all this crap about 𐐉, 𐐂 and 𐐃?”
Howard. Even worse. To start with, is that 'w' there simply as part of the “ow” vowel we start with, or do I actually pronounce a |w| sound? Am I saying “how-ard” or “how-ward”? It sounds to me like there’s a |w| sound in there, that my mouth isn’t just pretending to make a |w| on its way from the one vowel to the other without actually doing so, but I’m not entirely sure.
As for the second vowel, it precedes an |r|, and that always screws up vowels. Since it’s written with an ‘a’, you would assume that there either is or was an “ah” sound there—I’m guessing 𐐪, but I’m not sure. Still, it’s an unstressed vowel, and those tend to turn into schwas, and when I sound the word out, it sounds a bit more schwa-y than not. I’ll go therefore with 𐐐𐐵𐐶𐐲𐑉𐐼, but again I don’t know without checking a dictionary. “Howard” isn’t any of the published Deseret Alphabet materials so far as I know, but a modern dictionary says |ˈhaʊərd|, which means I’m wrong and it should have been 𐐐𐐵𐐲𐑉𐐼.
Jenkins. There are two ways to pronounce my surname, my way and the wrong way. My way has a long vowel in it, |e|. The wrong way has a short vowel in it, |ɛ|.
The ‘n’ is a bit problematic. The problem is that it precedes a ‘k’, and in English, |n| tends to turn into |ŋ| when this happens. The tongue is in the same position for |ŋ| and |k|, you see, and so it tends to move into that position a bit early when it’s working with an |n| in order to get ready for the |k|.
Historically, the name is Jen-kins or Jan-kins, “Jen/Jan” being one of the many forms of “John” out there and “-kin” or “-kins” being a diminutive (think lamby-kins, and yes, that means my name is “John Johnny”). That means that it was definitely an |n| sound way back when and I do hear people pronounce “Jenkins” with a very distinct |n|. In listening to what I say, however, and paying attention to what my tongue is doing, I’m pretty sure I’ve got a |ŋ|.
(This, by the way, is a major defect of standard English spelling and one place where the Deseret Alphabet has a very distinct advantage. The DA may be missing a letter for schwa, but it has letters for both |ŋ| and |ʒ|, whereas the standard English alphabet has no consistent way of spelling them. |ŋ| is usually “ng”, but sometimes, as here, it isn’t indicated in the spelling at all.)
As for the second vowel, it sounds like a |ɪ| to me, but since it’s unstressed that may be another schwa. The ‘i’ indicates that it was historically |ɪ|-ish, but that’s not a big help. Anyway, I’m going with |ɪ|. The net result here is 𐐖𐐩𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆.
And I’m wrong again. The Mac OS X dictionary application says |ˈʤɛŋkənz|, which would be 𐐖𐐯𐑍𐐿𐐲𐑌𐑆. Wikipedia says “Jen-kins & Jon-kins”, which is no help at all (except they think it’s an |n|, apparently), and Dictionary.com says |ˈdʒɛŋkɪnz|, which would still be 𐐖𐐯𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆, not 𐐖𐐩𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆. All this unanimity on the first vowel surprises me, because it very much sounds like an |e| when I say it. (It goes without saying that the extant Deseret Alphabet publications are no help.)
Unlike John, though, Jenkins isn’t exactly common. It’s not rare, of course, but it’s rare enough that a child may very well go all the way through school never learning from the school the proper spelling in the Deseret Alphabet. They would simply spell it the way the adults do, and as an adult, I would have said 𐐖𐐩𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆 without really thinking and certainly without consulting a dictionary. I think the net result would be that multiple spellings would come into use, and some people would be 𐐖𐐩𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆, some would be 𐐖𐐯𐑍𐐿𐐲𐑌𐑆, and some would be 𐐖𐐯𐑍𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆. (And some would be 𐐖𐐯𐑌𐐿𐐮𐑌𐑆, too.) It’s not unlike the fact that we have Jenkins and Jenkin (or John and Jon). Once this starts showing up on legal records, the spellings tend to get frozen even if in retrospect they’re wrong.
(To name an example near and dear to my heart, the late writer Isaac Asimov had the spelling of his surname fixed when his family moved to the US from the Soviet Union in 1923. His father didn’t know English at the time and so did the best he could coming up with the spelling—but the name was, in practice, pronounced with a final |f|, not a final |v|, and the spelling was incorrect. By the time anybody realized this, though, it was too late.)
Now names are notoriously tricky things. Since they’re part of people’s identieis, people get very possessive about them and do insist on certain spellings and pronunciations, even when they don’t really make any sense. I’m willing to bet that had the DA gone into widespread use, we would have pretty quickly been seeing some boys named 𐐖𐐪𐑌 who would get as upset if you spelled it 𐐖𐐱𐑌 as I do if you spell my first name “Jon.”
Realistically, too, my name is unusually fraught with difficulties. My wife’s maiden name, for example, is very unambiguously 𐐐𐐴𐐼𐐨 𐐤𐐯𐑊𐑅𐐲𐑌 in the Deseret Alphabet, and our youngest clearly has 𐐄𐑊𐐮𐑂𐐨𐐲 𐐡𐐬𐑆 for her given names. Our other kids, though—Mary Catherine and Joseph Richard—well, of the four names there, “Joseph” is the only one that’s entirely straightforward.
And I’m not going to deny that standard English spelling is any better, because it is genuinely worse. Not only do you have John-Jon and the like, but you have people who deliberately come up with cutsie spellings like Shellee or you have people with legitimate but rare names, like my sister Maren who has spent her life trying to explain to people that it rhymes with “Karen” and isn’t some bizarre variant of Maureen. (In Deseret Alphabet-land, it would only be a matter of time before you found girls called 𐐟𐐯𐑊𐐨𐐨. That’s just the way people are, more’s the pity.)
My point, however, is something quite different. The Deseret Alphabet spellings would be considerably more straightforward than standard English spellings are, there’s no doubt of it. Nonetheless, even with a nominally “phonetic” alphabet, coming up with a standard, agreed-upon spelling for a word may be more complicated than one would think.
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