Some Thoughts About Phonetic Reform

Note: In the below, “x” refers to the word x; [x] refers to the phonetic pronunciation x; ‘x’ refers to the letter (or digraph) x.

The first thing to understand about the English alphabet is that we don’t really have an alphabet. Functionally, English is more like a hybrid between a true alphabet and an abjad. A true alphabet has a character for each phoneme of the language. An abjad only has characters for consonants, and vowels are simply assumed. (Think Hebrew or Arabic.) English has a small number of vowel characters, yes, but they are not only insufficient, they are used highly erratically. Meanwhile our consonants are broadly phonetic, and the exceptions are often either consistent (the ‘sh’ digraph always represents [ʃ], for example), or are foreign loanwords.

Our alphabet is also not featural, that is, the characters are wholly unrelated to how you’re supposed to say them. (Actually they are often corruptions of the hieroglyphic symbols for common words that started with that letter in Egyptian or Phoenician: ‘A’ was Phoenician “alef”, meaning “ox”, using the Egyptian symbol for “ox”, and wasn’t a vowel at all but a pre-vowel glottal stop that became used as a mater lectionis; ‘B’ was Phoenician “bet”, meaning “house”, using the Egyptian symbol for “house”; etc.) Even if spelling could be standardised, a new featural alphabet would be of use to new learners anyway, and to help prevent dialect drift. Using a wholly new alphabet would also help avoid confusion where current English spelling has slipped too far: for example, “wait” (and “weight”) is pronounced [weit], while [wait] should be pronounced the same as “white” (and “wight”).

So I have created a new system for English that is both phonetic and featural. It has already been very interesting and useful to me in understanding pronunciation and language.

The start point of the system is that all characters are either consonants, with marks off a central strike, or vowels, with marks off a central oval. Immediately then one can see what kind of phoneme one is looking at. I also like the symbolism of a hard strike for consonants and a round oval for vowels.


The consonants are quite simple and I fixed their layout almost immediately. The principle is that the tongue sits in different positions in the mouth for each.

Consonant Phonemes by Mouth Position
Position Voicing Lips Transition Front of
Middle of
Back of
Nasal M [m] N [n] NG [ŋ]
Top of Mouth Unvoiced P [p] T [t] CH [c] K [k]
Voiced B [b] D [d] J [j] G [g]
Lower Middle Unvoiced F [f] FTH [θ] S [s] SH [ʃ] H [h]
Voiced V [v] DTH [ð] Z [z] ZH [ʒ] KH [x]
Bottom of MouthApproximants L [l] R [r] Y [y] W [w]

You’ll see that there are some unusual entries. ‘FTH’ and ‘DTH’, as in “thing” and “that”, have their own column, or could have their own row, depending on how you want to view it. The approximants ‘L’ and ‘R’ could be shifted one column right and ‘Y’ could have its own column. ‘CH’, ‘FTH’, ‘DTH’, ‘SH’, and ‘ZH’ don’t have their own character, but are usually represented by digraphs or just by other letters entirely. There are two semi-detached phonemes that are not properly used in English, which I have put in brackets: ‘NG’, which is a sort of swallowing that some dialects use at the end of words like “sing”, though personally I prefer to pronounce the ‘g’ because my native accent is north-west English; ‘KH’, which is how I’ve written the sound at the end of “loch” and “Bach”.

The consonants lend themselves quite neatly to mapping onto a grid. Here is an image of the consonants, using the same mapping as the table above.

Placeholder for image

I think that all makes sense and is mostly dialect-neutral, so I won’t dwell on it any further for now.


The vowels presented a greater problem. Firstly, they are different across dialects – very different, especially internationally. Secondly, they are very unclear in English, and even a single speaker might pronounce a word differently on different occasions. Thirdly, whereas for consonants the only intimate connections are between voiced and unvoiced phonemes, a majority of vowel phonemes are made up of diphthongs and even triphthongs. The first two issues I decided were outside my scope to solve: I would create the best approximation of English as I could, and so long as it was reasonably complete it should be able to roughly reflect different dialects. And anyone who really hates it doesn’t have to use it! Note though that it means that despite my best efforts you might not follow my vowel notation, as we may have very different accents. The third problem scuppered my first attempt at the vowels, which did not show any connections between diphthongs and their constituent monophthongs, and being familiar with both RP and estuary English I wanted to be able to include those dialects’ triphthongs. So I settled on a system that uses a single mark for the monophthongs, and then two or three marks, in much the same place as the monophthongs, for diphthongs and triphthongs respectively.

I use six pure single-vowel sounds: ‘AH’, ‘EH’, ‘IH’, ‘OH’, ‘UH’, ‘ʊ’ (as in “foot”); and also the schwa ‘ə’, which appears in weak positions inside and at the end of words like “comma”. I treat a few formal “monophthongs” as being diphthongs, because I think it makes more sense to do so. [ii], for example, as in “flee” [flii], seems to me clearly a long vowel composed of two short ‘IH’ [i] vowels. In addition, these vowels can all end words and have a characteristic following consonant, which the six pure monophthongs can’t and don’t. My diphthongs are divided into three groups: trailing [i], trailing [ʊ], and trailing [ə]. These vowels have a characteristic following consonant of [y], [w], and [r] respectively. The four [*i] vowels are: [ii] “keen”; [ei] “cane”; [ai] “kine”; and [oi] “coin”. The three [*ʊ] vowels are: [ʊʊ] “boot”; [aʊ] “boat”; and [oʊ] “bout”. The six [*ə] vowels are: [iə] “fear”; [eə] “fair”; [uə] “fur”; [aə] “far”; [ʊə] “four”; and [oə] “for”. Yes, those latter two are very similar – again, I take the attitude that anyone else who wishes to use this system but doesn’t see them as different can pick one and be unaffected by the hidden existence of the other. Then the triphthongs are the six pure monophthongs and the [*i] and [*ʊ] diphthongs with a trailing ‘ə’.

Here is a table of the vowels.

Vowel Phonemes by Group
Monophthongs *i Diphthongs *ʊ Diphthongs
* Vowels i e ii ei
u ə a ai
ʊ o oi ʊʊ o
*ə Vowels iiə eiə
aiə aʊə
ʊə oiə ʊʊə oʊə

And here is an image of the vowels, using the same mapping as the table above. You can see that the monophthongs are blue, the diphthongs are red, and the triphthongs are purple. External markers are initial vowels; internal markers are ending vowels. Since ‘i’ and ‘ʊ’ are used at the start and end of vowels, they have a separate but linked marker for being at the start and the end: top-left and top-centre for ‘i’; bottom-left and bottom-centre for ‘ʊ’. ‘ə’ is only used at the end of a vowel, so it can be added to any other set of vowels as-is without confusion.

Placeholder for image

I hope this is clear. My vowels may not match yours, but I hope that the principle is explicit and you can figure out what is meant. Now we can put words together.

One especially interesting thing to come out of thinking about pronunciation is the observation that “a”/“an” is not the only word that changes ending before a leading vowel. All English vowel-ending words – “Thai” [tai], “you” [yʊʊ], “paw” [poə], etc – are, before leading vowels, followed by the characteristic consonant I mentioned earlier: ‘y’ for ‘i’ to become [*iy]; ‘w’ for ‘ʊ’ to become [*ʊw]; and ‘r’ for ‘ə’ to become [*ər]. (On the rare occasions where it’s relevant, monophthongs seem to be followed by a [h].) So “Thai is my favourite” is [taiy iz mai feivrit], “you are my friend” is [yʊʊw aə mai frend], and “the paw of the bear” is [ðə poər ov ðə beə]. (Notice that I found instances where the word has a trailing letter that does not match its characteristic consonant, to show that the rule is phonetic, not based on the grapheme.) In addition, at least two other words that I’ve spotted change their form entirely, like “a”/“an”, before a leading vowel. “the cat and the ant” is [ðə kat and ðiiy ant], and “go to India and to China” can be, at least when said quickly, [goʊ tʊʊw indiiyə and tə cainə”]. You can see that the entire vowel changes. My North-West English accent also adds a ‘g’ sound after [ŋ] when it precedes a vowel. Again, this is all using my dialect: yours may vary.

As you’ll’ve spotted, I have also cobbled together a transliteration back into broadly recognisable English characters. I have used the IPA characters for ‘θ’ (“fth”), ‘ð’ (“dth”), ‘ʃ’ (“sh”), ‘ʒ’ (“zh”), ‘ŋ’ (“ng”), ‘ʊ’ (“ouh”), and ‘ə’ (“er”) because there weren’t any better options. I have used ‘c’ for “ch” and ‘x’ for “kh”. I have used ‘y’ for [y] instead of IPA’s ‘j’ because I’m writing English. I write out diphthongs as two graphemes because that is more like English. I will use these symbols in this website for convenience because I can type them rather than having to always draw them, but for avoidance of doubt I’m always thinking of the new characters.

This page is part of a short series. You may also be interested in my thoughts about Numeric Reform and Grammatical Reform.

sum θoətiz abaʊt fənetik rifʊəm

noət: in ðə beloʊ, “x” rifuə tə ðə wuəd x; [x] rifuə tə ðə fənetik prənunsiiyeiʃən x; ‘x’ rifuə tə ðə letə (oə daigraf) x.

ðiiy umθ θiŋ tʊʊw undəstand abaʊt ðiiy ingliʃ alfəbet bii ðat wii riəlii hav not an alfəbet. funkʃənəlii, ingliʃ bii mʊə laik a haibrid bitwiin a trʊʊ alfəbet and an abjad. a trʊʊw alfəbet hav a karəktə foər iic foʊniim ov ðə langwij. an abjad oʊnlii hav karəktəriz foər konsənəntiz, and vaʊliz bii simplii aʃʊʊməð. (kom θink hiibrʊʊw oər arəbik.) ingliʃ hav a smoəl numbər ov vaʊl karəktəriz, yes, but dii bii not oʊnlii insəfiʃənt, dii bii yʊʊzəð hailiiy eratiklii. miinwail wiis konsənəntiz bii broədlii fənetik, and ðiiy eksepʃəniz biiy oftən aiðə konsistənt (ðə ‘sh’ daigraf oəlweiz reprizent [ʃ], foər egzampəl), oə bii forin loʊn-wuədiz.

wiis alfəbet biiy oəlsoʊ not fiicərəl, ðat bii, ðə karəktəriz bii hoʊlii unrileitəð to haʊ yii bii səpoʊsəð tə sei dii. (akcəlii dii oftən bii kərupʃəniz ov ðə hairəglifik simbəliz foə komən wuədiz ðat staətid wið ðat letər in ijipʃən oə foʊniiʃən: ‘A’ biiyid foʊniiʃən “alef”, miinin “ox”, yʊʊzin ðiiy ijipʃən simbəl foər “ox”, and bii not a vaʊl at oəl but a prii-vaʊl glotəl stop ðat bikumid yʊʊzəð az a meitə lektiiyoʊnis; ‘B’ biiyid foʊniiʃən “bet”, miinin “house”, yʊʊzin ðiiy ijipʃən simbəl foə “house”; ets.) iivən if speliŋ kʊd bii standədaizəð, a nyʊʊ fiicərəl alfəbet wʊd bii ov yʊʊs tə nyʊʊ luənəriz eniiweiy, and tə help privent daiyəlekt drift. yʊʊzin a hoʊlii nyʊʊ alfəbet wʊd oəlsoʊ help avoid konfyʊʊʒən weə kurənt ingliʃ speliŋ slipiv tʊʊ faə: foər egzampəl, “wait” (and “weight”) bii prənaʊnsəð [weit], wail [wait] ʃʊd bii prənaʊnsəð ðə seim az “white” (and “wight”).

soʊ mii kriiyeitiv a nyʊʊ sistəm foər ingliʃ ðat bii boʊθ fənetik and fiicərəl. hiiy oəlredii biiyiv veriiy intərestiŋ and yʊʊsfəl to miiy in undəstandin prənunsiiyəʃən and langwij.

ðə staət point ov ðə sistəm bii ðat oəl karəktəriz bii aiðə konsənəntiz, wið maəkiz of a sentrəl straik, oə vaʊliz, wið maəkiz of a sentrəl oʊvəl. imiidiiyətlii ðen wii kan sii wot kaind ov foʊniim wii lʊkin at. mii oəlsoʊ laik ðə simbəlizəm ov a haəd straik foə konsənəntiz and a raʊnd oʊvəl foə vaʊliz.


ðə konsənəntiz bii kwait simpəl and mii fiksid diis leiy-aʊt oəlmoʊst imiidiiyətlii. ðə prinsipəl bii ðat ðə toŋ sit in difrənt pəziʃəniz in ðə maʊθ foər iic.

konsənənt foʊniimiz bai maʊθ pəziʃən
pəziʃən voisiŋ lipiz tranziʃən frunt ov
midəl ov
bak ov
neizəl M [m] N [n] NG [ŋ]
top ov maʊθ unvois P [p] T [t] CH [c] K [k]
vois B [b] D [d] J [j] G [g]
midəl ov maʊθ unvois F [f] FTH [θ] S [s] SH [ʃ] H [h]
vois V [v] DTH [ð] Z [z] ZH [ʒ] KH [x]
botəm ov maʊθaproksiməntiz L [l] R [r] Y [y] W [w]

yii siiyil ðat ðeə bii sum unyʊʊʒʊʊwəl entriiyiz. ‘FTH’ and ‘DTH’, az in “thing” and “that”, hav diis oʊn kolum, oə kʊd hav diis oʊn roʊ, dipendin on haʊ yii wont tə vyʊʊw dii. ðiiy aproksiməntiz ‘L’ and ‘R’ kʊd bii ʃiftəð um kolum rait and ‘Y’ kʊd hav hiis oʊn kolum. ‘CH’, ‘FTH’, ‘DTH’, ‘SH’, and ‘ZH’ hav not ðeər oʊn karəktə, but bii yʊʊʒʊʊwəlii reprizentəð bai daigrafiz oə just bai uðə letəriz entaiəlii. ðeə bii tʊʊ semii-ditacəð foʊniimiz ðat bii not propəlii yʊʊzəð in ingliʃ, wic mii pʊtiv in brakitiz: ‘NG’, wic biiy a sʊət ov swoloʊwiŋ ðat sum daiyalektiz yʊʊz at ðiiy end ov wuədiz laik “sing”, ðoʊ puəsənəlii mii prifuə tə prənaʊns ðə ‘g’ bikuz miis neitiv aksənt bii noəθ-west ingliʃ; ‘KH’, wic bii haʊ mii raitiv ðə saʊnd at ðiiy end ov “loch” and “Bach”.

ðə konsənəntiz lend diiselfiz kwait niitlii tə mapin ontʊʊw a grid. hiə bii an imij ov ðə konsənəntiz, yʊʊziŋ ðə seim mapin az ðə teibəl abuv.

pleis-hoʊldə foər imij

mii θink ðat oəl meik sens and bii moʊstlii daiyəlekt-nyʊʊtrəl, soʊ mii dwelil not on hii enii fuəðə foə naʊ.


ðə vaʊliz prizentid a greitə probləm. umθlii, dii bii difrənt akros daiəlektiz – verii difrənt, espeʃəlii intənaʃənəlii. tʊʊθlii, dii bii veriiy unkliər in ingliʃ, and iivən a singəl spiikə mait prənaʊns a wuəd difrəntliiy on difrənt əkeiʒəniz. tiiθlii, weəraz foə konsənəntiz ðiiy ʊonliiy intimət kənekʃəniz bii bitwiin voisəð and unvoisəð foʊniimiz, a majoritiiy ov vaʊl foʊniimiz bii meikəð-up ov dipθoŋgiz and iivən tripθoŋgiz. ðə umθ tʊʊw iʃʊʊwiz, mii disaidid, biiyid aʊtsaid miis skoʊp tə solv: mii wʊd kriiyeit ðə best aproksimeiʃən ov ingliʃ az mii kʊd, and soʊ loŋg az hii biiyid riizənəblii kəmpliit hii ʃʊd bii eibəl tə ruflii riflekt difrənt daiəlektiz. and eniiyum hʊʊ riəlii heit hii haf not tə yʊʊz hii! noʊt ðoʊ ðat ðis miin ðat dispait miis best efətiz yii mait not foloʊ miis vaʊl noʊteiʃən, az wwii mei hav verii difrənt aksentiz. ðə tiiθ probləm skupərid miis umθ atempt at ðə vaʊliz, wic ʃoʊwid not enii kənekʃəniz bitwiin dipθoŋgiz and diis konsticʊʊwənt monopθoŋgiz, and biiyin familyə wið boʊθ rp and escəriiy ingliʃ mii wontid tə bii eibəl tʊʊw inklʊʊd ðoʊz daiyəlektiziis tripθoŋgiz. soʊ mii setəlid on a sistəm ðat yʊʊz a singəl maək foə ðə monopθoŋgiz, and ðen tʊʊw oə tii maəkiz, in muc ðə seim pleis az ðə monopθoŋgiz, foə dipθoŋgiz and tripθoŋgiz respektivlii.

mii yʊʊz so pyʊə singəl-vaʊl saʊndiz: ‘AH’, ‘EH’, ‘IH’, ‘OH’, ‘UH’, ‘ʊ’ (az in “foot”); and oəlsoʊ ðə schwa ‘ə’, wic apiər in wiik pəziʃəniz insaid and at ðiiy end ov wuədiz laik “comma”. mii triit a fyʊʊ fʊəməl “monopθoŋgiz” az biiyin dipθoŋgiz, bikuz mii θink ðat meik mʊə sens tə dʊʊ soʊ. [ii], foər egzampəl, az in “flee” [flii], siim tə mii kliəlii a loŋ vaʊl kompoʊz ov tʊʊ ʃʊət ‘IH’ [i] vaʊliz. in adiʃən, ðiiz vaʊliz kan oəl end wuədiz and hav a kariktəristik foloʊwiŋ konsənənt, wic ðə so pyʊə monopθoŋgiz kan not hav and hav not. miis dipθoŋgiz bii divaidəð intʊʊ tii grʊʊpiz: treiliŋg [i], treiliŋg [ʊ], and treiliŋg [ə]. ðiiz vaʊliz hav a karəktəristik foloʊwiŋ konsənənt ov [y], [w], and [r] respektivlii. ðə fʊh [*i] vaʊliz bii: [ii] “keen”; [ei] “cane”; [ai] “kine”; and [oi] “coin”. ðə tiiy [*ʊ] vaʊliz bii: [ʊʊ] “boot”; [aʊ] “boat”; and [oʊ] “bout”. ðə soh [*ə] vaʊliz bii: [iə] “fear”; [eə] “fair”; [uə] “fur”; [aə] “far”; [ʊə] “four”; and [oə] “for”. yes, ðoʊz latə tʊʊ bii verii similə – agen, mii teik ðiiy aticʊʊd ðat eniiyum els hʊʊ wiʃ tə yʊʊz ðis sistəm but sii not dii az difrənt kan pik um and biiy unafekt bai ðə hidən egzistens ov ðiiy uðə. ðen ðə tripθoŋgiz bii ðə so pyʊə monopθoŋgiz and ðiiy [*i] and [*ʊ] dipθoŋgiz wið a treiliŋg ‘ə’.

hiə biiy a teibəl ov ðə vaʊliz.

vaʊl foʊniimiz bai grʊʊp
monooθoŋgiz *i dipθoŋgiz *ʊ dipθoŋgiz
* vaʊliz i e ii ei
u ə a ai
ʊ o oi ʊʊ o
*ə vaʊliz iiə eiə
aiə aʊə
ʊə oiə ʊʊə oʊə

and hiə biiy an imij ov ðə vaʊliz, yʊʊzin ðə seim mapiŋg az ðə teibəl abuv. yii kan sii ðat ðə monopθoŋgiz bii blʊʊ, ðə dipθoŋgiz bii red, and ðə tripθoŋgiz bii puəpəl. ekstuənəl maəkəriz biiy iniʃəl vaʊliz; intuənəl maəkəriz bii endiŋ vaʊliz. sins ‘i’ and ‘ʊ’ bii yʊʊzəð at ðə staət and end ov vaʊliz, dii hav a seprət bət linkəð maəkə foə biiyin at ðə staət and ðiiy end: top-left and top-sentə foər ‘i’; botəm-left and botəm-sentə foər ‘ʊ’. ‘ə’ biiy oʊnlii yʊʊzəð at ðiiy end ov a vaʊl, soʊ hii kan biiy adəð tʊʊw eniiy uðə set ov vaʊliz az-bii wiðaʊt kənfyʊʊʒən.

pleis-hoʊldə foər imij

mii hoʊp ðis bii kliə. miis vaʊliz mei mac not yiis, but mii hoʊp ðat ðə prinsipəl biiy eksplisit and yii kan figər aʊt wot bii miinəð. naʊ wii kan pʊt wuədiz təgeðə.

um espeʃəliiy intərestiŋ θiŋ tə kum aʊt ov θinkin abaʊt prənunsiiyeiʃən bii ðiiy obsəveiʃən ðat “a”/“an” bii not ðiiy oʊnlii wuəd ðat ceinj endiŋ bifʊər a liidiŋ vaʊl. oəl ingliʃ vaʊl-endiŋ wuədiz – “Thai” [tai], “you” [yʊʊ], “paw” [poə], ets – bii, bifʊə liidiŋ vaʊliz, foloʊwəð bai ðə karəktəristik konsənənt mii menʃənid uəliiyə: ‘y’ foər ‘i’ tə bikəm [*iy]; ‘w’ foər ‘ʊ’ tə bikəm [*ʊw]; and ‘r’ foər ‘ə’ tə bikəm [*ər]. (on ðə reər əkeiʒəniz weə hii bii reləvənt, monopθoŋgiz siim tə bii foloʊwəð baiy a [h].) soʊ “Thai is my favourite” bii [taiy iz mai feivrit], “you are my friend” bii [yʊʊw aə mai frend], and “the paw of the bear” bii [ðə poər ov ðə beə]. (kom noʊtis ðat mii faindid instənsiz weə ðə wuəd hav a treiliŋ letə ðat mac not hiis karəktəristik konsənənt, tə ʃoʊ ðat ðə rʊʊl bii fənetik, beisəð not on ðə grafiim.) in adiʃən, at liist tʊʊw uðə wuədiz ðat mii spotiv ceinj diis fʊəm entaiəlii, laik “a”/“an”, bifʊər a liidiŋ vaʊl. “the cat and the ant” bii [ðə kat and ðiiy ant], and “go to India and to China” kan bii, at liist wen seiyid kwiklii, [goʊ tʊʊw indiiyə and tə cainə]. yii kan sii ðat ðiiy entaiə vaʊl ceinj. miis noəθ-west ingliʃ aksənt oəlsoʊw ad a ‘g’ saʊnd aftə [ŋ] wen hii prisiid a vaʊl. agen, ðis oəl yʊʊzin miis daiəlekt: yiis mei veərii.

az yii spotivil, miiy oəlsoʊ kobəliv təgeðə a tranzlitəreiʃən bak intʊʊ broədlii rekəgnaizəbul ingliʃ karəktəriz. mii yʊʊziv ðiiy i.f.a. karəktəriz foə ‘θ’ (“fth”), ‘ð’ (“dth”), ‘ʃ’ (“sh”), ‘ʒ’ (“zh”), ‘ŋ’ (“ng”), ‘ʊ’ (“ouh”), and ‘ə’ (“er”) bikuz ðeə bii not enii betər opʃəniz. mii yʊʊziv ‘c’ foə “ch” and ‘x’ foə “kh”. mii yʊʊziv ‘y’ foə [y] insted ov i.f.a.-iis ‘j’ bikuz mii raitin ingliʃ. mii rait aʊt dipθoŋgiz az tʊʊ grafiimiz bikuz ðat bii mʊə laik ingliʃ. mii yʊʊzil ðiiz simbəliz in ðis websait foə konviiniiyəns bikuz mii kan taip dii raəðə ðan haftər oəlweiz droə dii, but foər avoidəns ov daʊt mii oəlweiz θinkin ov ðə nyʊʊ karəktəriz.

ðis peij bii paət ov a ʃʊət siəriiz. yii meiy oəlsoʊ bii intərestəð in miis θoətiz abaʊt nyʊʊmerik rifʊəm and gramatikəl rifʊəm.