By John Culkin

 
     Science Digest-August 1982  
  UNIFON, a phonetic alphabet that is five times more efficient than our ABCs, may revolutionize reading and writing-and help us communicate better with computers.  
 


We weren't prepared for the overwhelming reader response generated by our first article on Unifon one  year ago ("The New Age of Reason," August 1981). Scores of you took the time to draft your comments in Unifon. Several sent in phonetic alphabets of their own, and one reader sketched his conception of Unifon in dot matrix form to show how it would appear on a computer screen. Because you wanted to know more, John Culkin presents an update, offering further reasons why  Unifon can bring alphabetical order to our illogical language.

  On October ninth, Korea celebrates Hangul Day, a national holiday in honor or the Korean alphabet. A growing number of Americans would like to see a similar red-letter day declared in this country, heralded by a presidential proclamation reading something like this:

  WHEREAS standard spoken English has 30 to 50 discrete sounds, currently spelled more than 200 different ways, giving our language an efficiency rating of 20 percent: and

  WHEREAS 25 million adults in our nation are functionally illiterate; and

  WHEREAS we want to encourage and facilitate the use of English as an international language; and

  WHEREAS we need an alphabet easily translatable into binary code in order to communicate in English with computers:

  BE IT RESOLVED that one year from today, on August 1, 1983, the United States I of America shall adopt the 40-character, 100 percent efficient Unifon system as its official alphabet and that its use shall be mandated for all forms of government, commercial, educational and social communication.

  Unifon, created 20 years ago by Chicago economist John R. Malone, is directly related to the Roman alphabet. To the familiar 23 letters it adds 17 new ones, each representing a phoneme (the smallest unit of sound) of the English language. The main problem plaguing our current alphabet is its illogical orthography (spelling system). Foreigners and children learning to read and write English soon learn the hard way that there are so many spellings for the basic sounds. Thus the finny creature that swims in the sea could be spelled, in English, as ghoti: gh as in tough, for the f sound; o as in women, for the i sound; and, finally, ti as in nation, for the sh sound.

  According to one study, the average child entering first grade has a recognition vocabulary of 8,000 words (up 7,000 from the turn of the century). But in their introduction to reading and writing, first-graders learn to read only 400 of these words, and not the most exciting 400, either. When fast-moving kids with short attention spans spend a whole year learning 5 percent of their spoken vocabulary, you have disaffected students and shrinking reading scores. The beauty of Unifon is that once children know the 40 sounds and letters, they can write anything they can say,  first-graders can easily write words as complicated as television and helicopter.

  Our present ABCs may actually be hazardous to students, studies show. One author estimated that 60 percent of the reading disabilities (dyslexia) in the world occur in English-speaking countries. A transcultural study of this phenomenon by Dr. Kiyoshi Makita, a Japanese professor of neuropsychiatry, tentatively concluded that the problem lay with our inconsistent alphabet. The results of a questionnaire sent to 323 teachers in Japanese private schools suggest that dyslexia may be 10 times less prevalent in Japan than in Western countries. Japanese kana (one of the written languages), Makita points out, "stands in extreme contrast to English; for in kana the script- phonetic relationship is almost a key-to-keyhole situation." Makita hypothesizes that learning disabilities could be the result of an inconsistent alphabet rather than neurological irregularities.

  The Unifon system has been successfully tested in public schools in Chicago, Indianapolis, Hammond (Indiana), New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Students learn to read in Unifon, then return to the traditional alphabet.

  

  At the private Howalton School in Chicago, first graders who learned to read with the Unifon alphabet tested at the 3.8 grade level.

  Unifon has had other significant successes. Fifteen years ago, only four elders recalled the language of the Hupa Indian tribe in northern California. Since the language wasn't written, only spoken, it would have been lost forever but for Unifon. Since 1969, the Yurok, Tolowa and Karuk tribes have been using Unifon both as the official alphabet for their own languages and as their initiation into the reading and writing of their own traditional literature and English. Like Sequoyah, the Cherokee Indian who invented an alphabet for his people over 100 years ago, the proponents of Unifon have created a written language where non existed. According to project head Tom Parsons, community classes have adopted the traditional pan-generational form; grandparents, parents and children attended the classes together. In one class the oldest student was 104  and the youngest only 4. The tribes once threatened with cultural obliteration, now have lexicons, grammars and textbooks all written in their native language.

  Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Unifon is its potential application in the computer world. Requiring 14 percent fewer characters than the traditional English spelling. Unifon was designed to be compatible with alls scanning and computer technology. Each letter is designed to fit a rectangle with sides in a 5-to- 7 ratio that translates into binary code and can be accommodated by a seven-bit system.

  Since Unifon is an isomorphic system -- one letter for each sound and one sound for each letter -- the programming of voice-activated computers and type writers would be far simpler than the present alphabet makes possible. Unifon can be readily digitalized for transmission or for storage on tapes, discs and electronic registers. Furthermore, language can be synthesized from coding.

  Unifon inventor John R. Malone says he is convinced that "The means of using written and spoken words interchangeably, through digital conversion to a common control system, will be as important as the lever, steam power or electric power has been to man.

A WORLD LANGUAGE

  If Unifon were adopted and English became logical and consistent, our tongue would be the top candidate for a world language, for several reasons:

     1. Vocabulary. English has the largest organized vocabulary of any language on Earth. There are 600,000 words in the regular vocabulary and another 600,000 in the scientific vocabulary. Ninety percent of the world's scientific literature is now written in English, and the language is constantly incorporating new words in response to the tremendous activity of the scientific community.

  2. Phonemic Range. English has a relatively large range of sounds. The 40 phonemes of English outnumber and contain most or the phonemes in the languages of the major industrialized societies.  This allows for easier learning and translation.

  3. Positional Grammar. The meaning of English words derives from their location in a sentence rather than from their inflection. This is a much simpler system than that used in such languages as German and Russian, which have four or more cases for nouns and employ extensive variations to indicate verb tenses and persons.

                                 

  George Bernard Shaw a passionate proponent of alphabet reform, left money in his will to establish a competition for the design of a "Proposed British Alphabet" of 40 letters. He wrote, "The waste of  war is negligible in comparison to the daily waste of trying to communicate with one another In English through an alphabet with 14 letters missing. That must be remedied come what  may." Shaw, of  course, had never heard of Unifon.

  Three thousand years ago, the Greeks presented us with a perfectly logical and consistent alphabet. The play of history and the mixing of languages-since then have led to the creation of our enormously rich but needlessly complicated language. Fans of Unifon feel it's time to deal with the problems or our language instead or letting them pile up for another 30 centuries.

  John M. Culkin. executive director of the Center for Understanding Media. Serves as a
  communications consultant to Federal Express.

 

 
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