Phonetics is probably the biggest breakthrough in modern linguistics. When when we talk about phonetics, the first thing that comes to mind is the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The idea of representing each distinct sound with a unique symbol is very appealing and accurate and could seemingly solve much of the pronunciation/spelling inconsistency that pertains to the writing systems we have today. That is why we might be tempted to think that it would a wise move to drop all traditional alphabets in favor of IPA. Well, as promising as that might seem, it is a terrible idea. Let’s explain why.
Usability vs. accuracy.
The number one problem that will emerge if we switched to a phonetically-based writing system is that words in a certain language would be spelled differently in different areas by different people, and sometimes by the same people in the same context. So, while the spelling is accurate, it is less usable across different regions and cultures. For practical purposes, usability is always favored over accuracy. For example, a word such as home would have different spellings within the US and Britain alone (e.g. hoʊm, həʏm, hoːm, ˀəʏm, etc.). While IPA would accurately describe the variations in the pronunciation of the word home, it certainly creates other unnecessary problems.
If English, or any language for that matter, were written using IPA, your grandmother would spell words differently than your children would. Over time, people would have difficulty reading texts from even a few generations ago. The word home is often transcribed in IPA as [həʊm], based on how it was pronounced half a century ago in Britain when the IPA was popularized among linguists. The pronunciation in much of Britain has shifted the vowels much further forward in the intervening years, but this is often ignored in phonetic transcription.
As far as changes in pronunciation are concerned, any change in orthography requires re-educating everyone who already uses the current orthography. This would also have the effect that the first generation to grow up with the new orthography (and every subsequent generation) would no longer be able to read anything written in the old orthography. Similarly, older people (who would be less likely to be re-educated) would be unable to read anything written in the new orthography.
Sometimes the same individual pronounces the same word differently in different contexts. How would we spell and in IPA? When reading it as an individual word, most people pronounce it [ænd], but in conversation, it can take any number of forms: [ᵊn] in “mom and dad”; [ᵊŋ] in “grandma and grandpa”; [ᵊm] in “bread and butter”; and even [ᵊɱ] in “back and forth”. Would we spell the word differently each time, or would we choose one form and stick with it? If we decided to choose a single form, would we choose the citation form (in this case, [ænd]), or the most common form (probably [ᵊn])? Of course, picking any one form would mean that the spelling would still be inaccurate the rest of the time, which just brings us back to the same problems we have with our current system.
Should I say more?
Any implementation of IPA for a language like English would increase the number of letters, necessitating new fonts, new keyboards, and so on. Depending on local dialects` and whether or not affricates like [tʃ] (the CH sound) and [dʒ] (the J sound) would be considered separate letters, there would be anywhere between twenty-three and twenty-six consonants alone. Even excluding the [oʊ ~ əʏ] and [aʊ] diphthongs, there would be between twelve and fourteen vowels. This means that there would be between thirty-five and forty letters total, all of which have to be fit onto keyboards and taught to five-year-olds.
To conclude, the current English spelling system does not seem so bad after all, right? It’s true that it has flaws, but they are flaws everyone got ahead of and got the hang of after using it for a while.
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