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The New Alphabet

Created on July 5, 2016, 2:51 p.m.

I enjoy thinking about the little patterns and inconsistencies that exist in everyday systems such as the alphabet. The alphabet is essentially a list of names we give to the letters which produce sounds in our language, and their order.

It might sound simple, but naming letters is actually a difficult task. The inherent problem is this - it is impossible for humans to produce the sound of a consonant without also making the sound of a vowel. This is because the vowel sounds are those that correspond to us actually blowing air out of our mouths, while the consonant sounds are like modifiers - ways of adjusting the air flow at the beginning or end of the sound.

This is why, for example, we can't just pronounce the sound of the letter b alone. We need to pair it with a vowel, E.G: b + a = 'bah', b + e = 'bee', b + o = 'boh', b + u = 'buh', or we can place the vowel in front a + b = 'ab', e + b = 'eb', i + b = 'ib'.

Probably when you read b you naturally pair it with the e vowel at the end ('bee'), not (for example) the a vowel at the end ('bah') because this is the conventional name for the letter. But actually there is nothing special about this pairing and any other vowel (or positioning) could have been picked when the letter was named. If we think about some other letter names, many don't do the same as b. For example f also pairs with e but with the vowel at the beginning ('ef'), and r pairs with a vowel at the beginning, but it is the a vowel ('ar').

Others act completely weirdly. The letter h is pronounced 'haich' - essentially an entirely different word, while the letter y is pronounced with a i vowel at the end and a w sound for the consonant ('wi') - and w itself is entirely bizarre, pronounced 'double-you'. Not to mention the symbol for w actually depicts two v symbols not u symbols! The French actually got this one correct - they call the letter 'double-vay'.

Most people never notice or care about this distinction. I think this is because vowels are scattered over the alphabet and the true reason for their distinction from consonants is never really made clear at school. To most people they are all just letters. But because we've noticed this inconsistency, let us imagine how we might put it straight. Here is my proposal for a new alphabet.

We'll start by putting all of the vowels at the beginning of the alphabet. The order can be aeiou because well, you know. This is at least the start of being more consistent. For their names - we'll just call them exactly the sound they make.

a ('ah')
e ('eh')
i ('ei')
o ('oh')
u ('uh')

One odd thing here is that it seems the names of e and i have sort of switched in this new alphabet - this might seem wrong, but if we actually think about their usage it starts to make sense - i (such as in 'pick' or 'pin') definitely produces a kind of 'squeakier' sound much more similar to name for e than i. Again this matches French, where the names are switched just like in this new alphabet.

Next we'll put the consonants in the remaining order. This time, instead of some random pattern we'll pair them with all with the e vowel at the end of the sound. This will leave many the same or similar, but fix a whole bunch that were odd or inconsistent. Lets get started:

b ('bee')
c ('chee')

'chee'? Huh? Shouldn't it be 'cee' same as before? Well, c is a bit of an difficult case because there are three letter in the alphabet with somewhat overlapping sounds - c, s and k. In most of the words you 'classically' associate with c such as 'cat' and 'cut' the sound is actually much more that of the letter k - that 'kuh' sound - so we need to save this sound for later on. The other common sound it makes, such as its name in the alphabet 'cee' or in words such as 'cinema' is more of an s sound - (E.G 'see', 'sea', 'sign', 'sound'). Again - we need to save this sound for later on since previously the letter s was pronounced with the vowel at the beginning ('es'). This leaves us with the only other sound c makes, which is the sound when it is accompanied by a h - such as 'cheese' or 'chess'. Because it is a combo with h it isn't a perfect fit, but this is the best we can do since these letters have so much overlap. 'chee' it is!

d ('dee')
f ('fee')
g ('ghee')

'ghee'? Again? Shouldn't it be 'gee'? This is a similar situation to before - the actual name the letter g has in the current alphabet is a sound much more associated with the letter j (that 'juh' sound). But unlike c, g doesn't ever really take this sound in normal language, and is almost always more of a 'guh' sound - 'gang', 'gun', etc not 'jang', 'jun'. So really this is how it should have always been. We can just make this 'guh' sound clearer by spelling it with a h.

h ('he')
j ('gee')
k ('key')
l ('lee')
m ('me')
n ('nee')
p ('pee')
q ('kwee')

Another pain is q, because it acts so oddly. Firstly, in spelling, it is always paired with a u - but this u isn't actually a real vowel and qu can't be pronounced on its own - it needs to be paired with another vowel E.G qu + i = 'quee', qu + a = 'quah'. Then, there are often very weird pronunciations for words with qs in such as the name of the letter itself which phonetically is said like 'kew'. It doesn't seem that q really has its own sound - the best fit I can think of is that in most places q sounds like a k and a w together - so lets stick with that.

r ('re')
s ('see')
t ('tee')
v ('vee')
w ('wee')
x ('uhee')

Ah, we've come to another trouble maker x. In English x has essentially two sounds - before vowels it takes on a z sound such as in 'xylophone' - and at the end of vowels it usually acts like a variation on the s consonant such as in 'box', which is pronounced 'boks'. If our pattern was to put the consonant sound at the end it might make sense to pick this sound and call the letter 'eeks' (as they do in French), but because we've picked putting the consonant at the beginning we're a bit stuck. Instead we can take inspiration from the IPA which uses x to mean the guttural noise used at the end of a word like 'loch' . Unfortunately this sound doesn't really exist in standard English or American English, is difficult to spell phonetically, and doesn't really pair nicely with the e vowel, but it does appear in several European languages and dialects (such as Scottish) so it is maybe the best we can do.

y ('yee')
z ('zee')

Just two left and both are straight forward. 'yee' of 'yee' fame and of course it is good to finally clear up the 'zed' vs 'zee' debate once and for all. Opps looks like the americans were right all along!

Now I just need to think of a catchy tune to go with it. Then I am sure it will catch on, although I am not so sure people will take the loss of their popular letter 'lmno' lightly.

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