Sortie into Linguistics
I tried to learn Farsi' (Persian) at age 44. 1 learned the vocabulary for ordinary conversation, but illiterate people couldn't understand me (they thought I was speaking English). My 8 year old daughter knew many fewer words than I, but she had a perfect accent. The uncanny thing was that she could be my "translator" without even knowing all that she was saying. In other words she corrected my pronunciation of words that she didn't know. Later my niece told me that I had strephosymbolia, the inability to learn foreign languages, not quite an insult or so I assumed.
Thirty-one years later a method occurred to me of how to teach any language worldwide with a perfect accent. There was one exotic sound in Farsi which I could say, the ch sound in Loch Lomond as it sounds in Scotch dialect, which my mother turned on occasionally just for kicks or maybe for telling ethnic jokes. This was the clue to my method: get a grant from some foundation for video recorders to be taken overseas by Peace Corps volunteers or missionaries; after all Peace Corps Volunteers are secular missionaries, if you stop to think about it. Use these recorders to record children at play singing their play songs like "...... 'pendicitis said the doctor, 'pendicitis said the nurse, 'pendicitis said the lady with the alligator purse," a fragment of a jump rope song I happen to remember.
Collaborate with a university
linguistics department to select enough of these songs to contain all the
sounds of all human languages, not an enormous number. We all babble them
as babies before we zero in on the ones we are going to use for our native
language. Play, these on popular television programs like
In English we have Arabic numbers but the Roman alphabet. An alphabet is a rather superficial feature of a language. Here are two examples from recent history:
In the 1920s Kemel Ataturk, a popular leader of Turkey, who brought Turkey into modernity in one generation, decreed that henceforth the Turkish language would be written in the Roman alphabet instead of the Arabic alphabet—the spoken language was not changed at all. The expert linguists who were assigned the task of making the Turkish language entirely phonetic succeeded 100%. Because it is totally phonetic this makes it very easy to read.
After ten minutes study I became able to read Turkish to a Turk without understanding it myself. (of course, the phrase book did have an English version). Incidentally, after reading the Turkish text I learned that English has a vowel that we never write. It is the most inconsequential possible vowel, which linguists call a schwa. It does appear in phonetic script. In Turkish it is written with an un-dotted i. There are no words that start with a schwa, so that Turkish words beginning with I have a dotted capital I. In English, if we wrote with the schwa, it would appear between the t and l of little and similar words. For illustration, pronounce littul. The u replaces the schwa (which linguist write in phonetic script as a mirror image of a lower case e). There were more vowel sounds in the Turkish language than the six letters in their version of the roman alphabet, so they use umlauts to designate all of the needed vowel sounds (similar in principle if not in detail to modern German). The linguists who devised the new Turkish alphabet also noticed that c was left over—s or k were enough for all the sounds of c, so c became a ch sound. Learn these few details and you can read Turkish out loud. Now we will discuss a non-phonetic alphabet, Chinese. The word alphabet has come to mean any means of writing language even if only concepts are expressed and not any particular actual words.
Tung also had a program for converting Chinese to the
Roman alphabet because thorough knowledge of Chinese characters is seldom
achieved until after age 40—hence his motivation for alphabet reform was even
stronger than Ataturk’s motivation. Mao Tse Tung had to postpone reform
because the written language had unified
The conversion of Chinese to the Roman alphabet has been postponed until a new generation of Chinese children have been taught Mandarin Chinese (or English, see below). Meanwhile street signs have been written in both Chinese characters and the
Roman alphabet—a boon to tourists. When you check into a Chinese hotel, they give you a card with the name and address of the hotel in both alphabets. If you get lost, you can show the card to a passerby to have the direction of the hotel literally “pointed” out,
Here is some further insight into the consequences of non-phonetic alphabets (in other words Chinese characters as opposed to ABC or alpha beta gamma type alphabets). Whether the recipient of a letter written in Chinese characters actually speaks the same language as the writer is of no consequence because lost connotations and innuendos would be equal in both cases—going from spoken words to concepts and back to spoken words will create gaps in meaning in effect creating “losses in translation” without even changing languages. Some years ago when machine translation was coming online some wag who knew no Russian is said to have tested a Russian translation program by presenting to the machine for translating into Russian, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”, and then presenting that translation for another translation back to English—the result: “The vodka is good but the meat is poor.” This may be an apocryphal story but it illustrates the point.
The next story is for real. The “professional breeders” of language, dictionary writers, use statistical analysis of how words are actually used by native speakers to justify new definitions. However, they should be professionally obligated not to foster the persistence of harmful linguistic mutations. For example, Webster’s Third Edition defined bimonthly as meaning both twice monthly and every two months, thus rendering the word bimonthly unnecessarily obsolete.
In English we have no body comparable to the French Academy to address such problems. These kinds of ambiguities fostered in oriental culture by their alphabet may go a long way toward explaining what we westerners consider their extreme courtesy. My take: oriental people are just as forthright as any human beings, but they have learned how to overcome (unnecessary) misunderstandings of connotations and innuendo by long, drawn out, preternaturally courteous rituals.
One final point, the Chinese are unifying their country by teaching Mandarin in all regions; Hindi is the official language of India, but English is the preferred second language there and in most of the world (it used to be French a couple of generations ago). Esperanto, a simplified artificial language, has not caught on anywhere. Native speakers of English should consider tolerating a transition to reformed English spelling—much less difficult than what the Turks have accomplished, and English would become a much less difficult language.
3) English spelling
So English seems well on the way to being the front runner for the universal (second) language. As a child I was taught that I was lucky to be learning English because it is especially difficult, so many irregularities. True we are stuck with irregular verbs, but not that many more than Spanish, an "easy" language. However, English syntax is very free wheeling--convert a noun to a verb on the fly and nobody blinks. Our spelling was standardized by the printers over beer after work in the early days after Gutenburg (the Chinese had movable type long before him). Our spelling could be corrected in one generation, meanwhile giving a well deserved leg up for the foreigners over the native speakers. Remember, even the whole Turkish alphabet was changed successfully less than 100 years ago.
The following examples have occurred to me with apologies to linguists whose expertise has not been readily available. (I was quite humble about selecting songs with all the sounds of all languages). I have long been aware that we have two sounds for th. Most native speakers without strephosymbolia have not even been introspective enough to notice. Take thigh and thy. The latter should be spelled dhy to be consistent with the difference between d and t (voiced and unvoiced). Now an egregious example which we spell at least three different ways, the z in azure, the s in pleasure, and the second. g in garage. All should be zh to be consistent with the difference between s and z (consider sh). And we say we make plurals by adding s. We really add z about half the time but never spell it that way. Note that I have proposed no changes in spoken English. These ideas have been only a few teasers to stir the experts to action. When the public makes suggestions to physicians, I hope we listen. In any event we are the ones largely responsible for implementing any successful suggestions. For example Sister Kenny's physical therapy for poliomyelitis instead of plaster casts.
If alphabets had to be phonetic, the Chinese language would not yet have its first alphabet, and English is not quite phonetic enough.
John A. Frantz, MD
November 29, 2006
Motto for a Humane Society or Literacy Council
It is possible that cetaceans (dolphins and whales) are as intelligent as we are. They just didn’t have papyrus and styli to permit them to achieve literacy and it’s potential for transmitted culture through millennia. August 21, 2003