40 Characters for 40 Sounds
40 Characters 40
By John M. Culkin

Wednesday, July 20, 1977 The New York Times
Culkin's related article in Science Digest


Our alphabet is not as easy as ABC. By definition, an alphabet is a set of symbols representing speech sounds. Standard spoken English has 40 sounds: 16 vowels and 24 consonants. [16 pure vowels, 22 pure consonants]. Logic would suggest that we have just 40 ways of visualizing those sounds. Alas, we spell them almost 300 ways (some put it as high as 800) through combinations of our 26 letters. 

There are, for instance, 17 spellings for the long o sound (as in “open”), 16 for the long a sound (“age”), 7 for the sh sound, [29 for the u sound in rule]. By the time these inconsistencies are encoded in words, written English has become at least 82 times as hard to learn as it needs to be. Children and foreigners have trouble with our alphabet because our alphabet has troubles. Imagine our system of Arabic numbers if any of the numbers could randomly take on several other values. 

We can get out of the mess by doing something as simple as adopting a totally phonetic alphabet: 40 characters for the 40 sounds, one and only one character for each sound. Spanish, Italian, German and Finnish are close to that ideal. There are two phonetic alphabets now being used in experimental reading programs: the Initial Teaching Alphabet developed by Sir James Pitman and the unifon alphabet developed by John R. Malone of Chicago. 

I recently visited the Howalton Day School in Chicago, which was established seven years ago by black parents. For the last three years, the first graders achieved the highest reading scores of all first grade students in the greater Chicago area, urban and suburban, public and private. 

The students, taking the standard Stanford reading tests using the traditional alphabet, scored at well beyond the third grade level. Some had read as many as 20 books. Mr. Malone supplied the alphabet; Dr. Margaret Ratz provided the pedagogy and training; Mrs. Elizabeth Jones did the teaching. 

Students had mastered the unifon system by October, were reading and writing by December and had transferred these skills to conventional English by April. Similar results have occurred with extensive experiments involving unifon and the Initial Teaching Alphabet with thousands of students. It works because the children's first experience with print is positive. They become readers and writers simultaneously. They work with their own lively words and they are reading from the first day of the school year. The phonetic alphabet makes sense to the children of the media age. Those verbal monsters through, though and tough are nicely tamed to: 


The implications are twofold: 

1. We can use a phonetic alphabet to facilitate learning of reading. 

2.  We can install a phonetic alphabet as our official alphabet. (It has been done before in Russia, Japan, Turkey and Yugoslavia. Two years ago one region of China adopted a 50 character Romanized alphabet to handle the 50,000 characters of the ideographic- written Chinese language.) 

The latter prospect scares most people. It exhilarates me. It would open the world of competent, confident and joyous reading not only to our American children but to those in the 90 other nations for whom English is a required course. English is, in fact, the lingua franca of the modern world. 

Nothing terrifies like success. The opponents of both of these reforms have been around for a while and they have a long litany of difficulties, problems and obstacles, almost all of a practical nature, and few based on what is best for the child. Sure it looks funny at first, but that's just habit. And, of course, no system is meant to be teacher-proof. All that is being suggested is that we are trying to teach pole-vaulting to people with knapsacks full of bricks on their backs. It's time to check the knapsacks. 

This is of course too brief an introduction to an important and complicated topic. The arguments for and against alphabet reform are complex. 

At a time, however, when there is so much legitimate concern about reading competency we cannot ignore something as basic as the alphabet. We have focused so much attention on the printed word that we have often been unaware of the disharmony between our spoken and written codes. Today's child comes to school with a vocabulary of between 12,000 and 25,000 words. In 1900, by contrast, it was less than 1,000 words. Ten years ago it was 6,000­12,000 words. The children are not stupid; the alphabet is stupid. The International Year of the Child will be 1979. It seems like the right time to get alphabet reform on our national agenda. 

           John M. Culkin was the director of the graduate programs 
                in media studies at the  New School for Social Research.