Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Take the Name Challenge

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 |ษ‘| and |ษ”| (that’s ๐‰ and ๐‚, 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 ๐–๐ฑ๐‘Œ or ๐–๐ช๐‘Œ. I’ve been spelling it ๐–๐ฑ๐‘Œ, 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 ๐–๐ฑ๐‘Œ 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 ๐‰ and not a ๐‚, 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 ๐‰, ๐‚ and ๐ƒ?”

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 ๐ช, 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 ๐๐ต๐ถ๐ฒ๐‘‰๐ผ, 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 |หˆhaสŠษ™rd|, which means I’m wrong and it should have been ๐๐ต๐ฒ๐‘‰๐ผ.

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, |ษ›|.

The ‘n’ is a bit problematic. The problem is that it precedes a ‘k’, and in English, |n| tends to turn into |ล‹| when this happens. The tongue is in the same position for |ล‹| 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 |ล‹|.

(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 |ล‹| and |ส’|, whereas the standard English alphabet has no consistent way of spelling them. |ล‹| 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 |ษช| to me, but since it’s unstressed that may be another schwa. The ‘i’ indicates that it was historically |ษช|-ish, but that’s not a big help. Anyway, I’m going with |ษช|. The net result here is ๐–๐ฉ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†.

And I’m wrong again. The Mac OS X dictionary application says |หˆสคษ›ล‹kษ™nz|, which would be ๐–๐ฏ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฒ๐‘Œ๐‘†. Wikipedia says “Jen-kins & Jon-kins”, which is no help at all (except they think it’s an |n|, apparently), and says |หˆdส’ษ›ล‹kษชnz|, which would still be ๐–๐ฏ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†, not ๐–๐ฉ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†. 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 ๐–๐ฉ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘† 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 ๐–๐ฉ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†, some would be ๐–๐ฏ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฒ๐‘Œ๐‘†, and some would be ๐–๐ฏ๐‘๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†. (And some would be ๐–๐ฏ๐‘Œ๐ฟ๐ฎ๐‘Œ๐‘†, 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 ๐–๐ช๐‘Œ who would get as upset if you spelled it ๐–๐ฑ๐‘Œ 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 ๐๐ด๐ผ๐จ ๐ค๐ฏ๐‘Š๐‘…๐ฒ๐‘Œ in the Deseret Alphabet, and our youngest clearly has ๐„๐‘Š๐ฎ๐‘‚๐จ๐ฒ ๐ก๐ฌ๐‘† 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 ๐Ÿ๐ฏ๐‘Š๐จ๐จ. 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.


  1. But the phonetic alphabet is what got us where we are today with the variations of names.

    Using the example of John, you can think back and see how tons of names have arrived due to locked down spellings, but pronunciations changing over time. (English like all languages was once 100% phonetic, and in the 1500/1600s the spellings started to get locked down based on common pronuncation, and ... then pronunciation continued to change over time, quite dramatically. The Great Vowel Shift, loss of initial kn- loss of initial hw- loss of hr/wr differentiation, etc)
    And if we started using this now, you have the issue of the Great Lakes Vowel Shift, and the California Shift changing all the vowels in opposite directions.
    So that modern "mop" will be more of a "map" in one region, ond "mope" in the other within the next hundred years.
    But will be the same word. Now that I travel between the two areas regularly, it's really quite jarring how your brain just re-adjusts all vowels into words so long as they are consistant in context so you can understand.
    But hearing single words (no time to calibrate), or consciously listening for the off vowels you realise there's a good 50% miss rate in comprehension.
    Spelling can never be phonetic as it would need to be updated every 30 years to match the evolution of each generation.
    And unless locked down and standardised, the old spellings would quickly become incomprehensible.
    Just look at Old Modern English spellings from the 1600s, and the Late Middle English spellings of the 1400s. 200 years, and comprehisibilty changes nearly dramatically, most people would be able to barely pick out any words at all.
    All because early modern became locked down with the printing press. So we have learnt to spell things as they were pronounced in the 1600s.
    And thus, kept the language comprehensible over time.

    Now, back to John.

    "Ian" (pronounced yawn)
    Now, lets skip over the y -> SH/DJ part.
    so people who wanted IAN to be YAN -> YANA / JANA can do their part
    and skipping those who went to SHAN, SHAWN, SEAN, part of the tree

    We get spelling change of swapping between the vowel "i" and the consonant "i"
    i/j splits, you end up with ee-awn => ee-in,

    The spelling Ian thus gets the spelling reading of "yawn, or EE-awn => EE-in."
    And the spelling Jan gets the "Jan" (a in father, now on written as [jawn])

    Spelling changes to make the distinction clear.
    Closed syllables become short.
    This is the beloved john

    However, that A is still slowly migrating, and you now have people who are pronouncing it with a stressed [jahn] rather than [jawn].
    "Jan" (as in janice) wins.
    and "Jan" an in "Jane" needs to add an "e" to differentiate.

    And good old [jawn] now needs an "o" as "a" just won't work anymore.
    But, oh no, this doesn't work either. and it's needs to be clarified that "jon" as in [jawn] needs to be different from "jon" as in [joan]
    Could add an "e" to open the syllable.
    Nope, that's still [Joan]
    So, just add more silent letters to differentiate the vowel.

    Thus, you can see how phonetically sound spelling of "ian" was forced to be changed to "john" just because the ever persistant changing of sounds people make.

  2. And phontically, words like "madde" => "mad" were the same.
    Orginally, it was pronounced "maude-uh" but when final schwas were killed off in English, you didn't need to write a final "e" everywhere. and the doubled consonant to keep the syllable closed (otherwise it becomes long (made)) could be dropped.
    So programme -> program. Stalle=>Stall. Madde => Mad.
    And outsied the US, this still sticks around: travel -> travelling (US Spelling doesn't double consonants to preserve closed syllables anymore)

    And with spelling changes, introduce more pronuncation changes.
    daie => day. (like die)
    But becase that was lost: tokay, unless you were taught it, would mispronounce the "ay" like in "day" rather than the historic (and proper) toke-eye

    Dimension had 4 syllables in the 1600/1700s.
    The reader I had described it as something along the lines of "Do beware that the the two syllable "-tion" ending is pronounced with an "s" sound as in snake." (see german relaxing t => s, water -> wasser). And then the si-on two syllables merged to the /shun/ sound now. But, stress was consistantly on the third last syllable in 4+ syllable words. so di-MEN-ti-on; stress stayed as the word collapsed beneath it to di-MEN-shun.

    And as for Asimov, The correct Russian spelling is still Osimov. (eg: Nochnoi, would be pronounced notch-noy, and like in English, the "O" switches between an "a" (father) unstressed, and "o" (so) stressed, to even a modern stressed "a" now (nau) )
    And the pronunciation, as least from a russian perspection. is a more central-low A, close to the a in father which isn't quite in English.
    The "V" aspect, is how it's written in Russian, as like most European langages, you cannot voice a final consonant.
    So, as you use Asimov in regular speech, it'd be a /v/ sound or an /f/ sound depending on how it was conjugated. (asimof, asimova , asimovya, asimovii, etc. Mr Asimov (/f/) would be married to Mrs Asimova (/v/)

    But still, going from the name his father gave him, in Cyrillic, at birth in Russia:
    ะ˜ัะฐรกะบ ะžะทะธ́ะผะพะฒ
    Isaák Ozímov
    Well, English doesn't pronounce Issac anywhere close to how the russians do: moving the stress from /a/ to /i/, changing the /s/ to a /z/.
    And then changing the unstressed O to match the higher A he preferred in english, yielded the phonetic russian of his anglicised name :
    ะ́ะนะทะตะบ ะะทะธ́ะผะพะฒ.
    Áǐzek Azímov