Why do we need a new alphabet?

There comes a time in the life of every car owner when you have to put aside your sentimental attachment to the vehicle that's taken you so far over so many years, and buy a new car.

Maybe you could put it off for a few more years by making some repairs, but you'd only be throwing good money after bad. Better to make the change sooner rather than later.

That's the situation we're in with our alphabet and spelling.

A thousand years ago, when we first switched to the Roman alphabet, it worked well. We had to keep a couple of runic letters, and we had to make up a couple of new letters, but the alphabet matched the language pretty closely.

But since then, the language, the alphabet and the spelling have drifted apart. Now, we're missing quite a few letters, and our spelling is crazy.

Some people think we can fix just the spelling, without changing the alphabet, forgetting that it's because of the flawed alphabet that we ended up with this crazy spelling.

And it's not just English that has a problem. Even languages with "good" spelling, like Spanish, Finnish or Czech, have added letters, diacritics or digraphs to the Roman alphabet.

This just isn't a very good alphabet.

Our alphabet and spelling are tools for communication just as much as our cell phones and computers. We don't write with quill pens on parchment any more - we don't even write with typewriters any more! Why would we, when better tools are available? So why should we be writing in a second-rate alphabet, when better technology is available?

For example, this website presents a new alphabet called Musa. It's much better than the Roman alphabet:

  1. It has letters for all the sounds of English (and almost every other language in the world).
  2. Those letters stand for the same sounds in every language, so for instance the first letters of John Jean Juan Johann are all different.
  3. Even though Musa has lots of letters, a Musa keyboard needs only 20 keys. There's even an app that lets you type Musa into your computer from your cellphone.
  4. The shape of each letter helps indicate its sound - similar letters sound alike.
  5. There are no CAPITAL LETTERS, no different handwritten forms, and each letter is written with only one stroke.
  6. You can write stress, tone and intonation, so present isn't spelled the same as present, and you can convey tone of voice without emoticons :)
  7. You can also use Musa to write numbers and basic arithmetic, so you don't need additional symbols.

Most important, the Musa alphabet is much easier to learn. The English Spelling Society estimates that it takes about three years longer for children to learn to read English than it would if we had better spelling, like Musa. Musa also makes it much easier for foreigners to learn English, and for us to learn their languages.

But we've already invested so much in this Roman alphabet. It's hard enough to change our spelling, much less learn a new alphabet.

Actually, it's easier to learn new spelling in a new alphabet, since we don't have to unlearn what we already know. That's especially true for letters that don't keep the same values.

For example, look at the similar-sounding words for happiness in Russian and Polish. Do you really think the Polish is easier?

Naw imaejin dhaet yuw keym ukros dhis sentins, ritin in u ruvayzd speling. Duz it louk fumilyur?

One of the ironies of these proposals to reform spelling without fixing the alphabet is that the result just looks like misspelling, the very thing the reformers are trying to avoid. If somebody wrote Yoor frend iz stoopid, they would say that it shows how difficult it is to learn English's weird spelling, and how much we need to reform it. But if they propose something similar as a spelling reform, it's great! Most people are going to look at it and see only misspelled words.

Another problem is that during the inevitable transition period, which would probably last for years, it would be hard to distinguish the old spelling from the new. If you read his fool word, does it mean his fool word or he's full ward? Are we going to have digraphic signs everywhere, with two Roman spellings: High Street and Hy Strit ?

What if you text your girlfriend to ask whether she'd like you to come over, and she answers "now!". Did she mean "now" in the old spelling ("come right away"), or "no" in the new spelling ("don't come")? It's like autocorrect fail, but 100 times worse.

With Musa, the letters spell out the sounds, and you'll be reading in no time. There's a video called "Learning Musa" that teaches you all the letters you need to write English: it's only 18 minutes long.

Here's another way to look at it.

Right now, there are 360 million native English speakers in the world, and almost all of them (except the 30 million preschoolers) have already wasted those extra three years learning this crazy spelling. Most of them would be reluctant to throw all that work away and learn a new system, whether or not it uses the current alphabet. (red slice below)

There are another 1.2 billion people who learned English after they were already literate in their native languages, and although many of them have learned the current spelling, almost all of them would vote for a new alphabet if it made English spelling much easier to learn, remember and use. (green slice below)

And then there's the crucial vote: all of the future native speakers, born recently or not yet born, who will have to waste three years of their lives learning this crazy spelling. All of them would vote for a better orthography. And by about the year 2033, they will outnumber the first group. (blue slice below)

So the choice comes down to keeping a bunch of old folks happy by retaining their nostalgic alphabet, or making four times as many young people and foreigners happy by making English spelling as easy to learn as possible. Or both: we keep the old alphabet and the old spelling around until they all die off, but meanwhile, we teach everyone the new alphabet.

Many languages have changed alphabets: Turkish, Malay, Albanian, Vietnamese, ... about 25 in the last century. Three languages (Kazakh, Mongol, and Inuktitut) have announced that they're changing alphabets in the last year alone! We've gone through similar changes in decimalization of currencies and metrification of measuring units. In general, the transitions have been pretty smooth; after a few years, the new seems familiar and the old seems quaint. It's natural to dislike change and to distrust the unknown, but the benefits of a complete and consistent universal alphabet are huge and immediate.

Meanwhile, very few of the attempts to reform spelling without changing the alphabet - most of which have been very modest compared to what our reformers are proposing - have been rejected, including those for German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. The UK has not yet even accepted Noah Webster's spelling reforms from 1828! It seems to many reformers that by asking for relatively small changes, they increase the likelihood of acceptance, but that doesn't seem to be the case!

We could start using Musa right away, for example by writing it alongside the Roman alphabet on signs and labels. Since the two alphabets look very different, that won't cause any confusion. There are already tools available to enable you to use Musa: fonts, keyboards, transcribers, dictionaries, and so on, with more on the way.

If you're still not convinced, take a look at this video: "A New Alphabet".

Want to take a look? Here are a couple of good places to start:

Home A Quick Look at Musa

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