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