A Rationale for Unifon
and a critique of the traditional writing system
By Steve Bett

Unifon is a phonemic transcription system for the English Language.  Unifon means "one sound" and implies "one sound per symbol." It is a uni-phonic and uni-graphic alternative to the traditional writing system which has over 560 ways to spell the 40 or so sounds in the English language.  Unifon and most other phonemic writing systems have one unique way to spell each sound. 

This reduction in complexity makes a phonemic writing system at least 10 times easier to learn.  It is easier to learn because there is only 1/10 as much to learn.  40 ways to spell 40 sounds compared to over 400.   

Memorize 40 letter sound associations and you are literate in the sense that you can transliterate [or covert to letters] any phrase you can speak and vocalize any phrase you see written in Unifon.

One can, of course, learn to read a language phonetically without understanding it. Opera stars often learn to read and sing their parts phonetically without being able, for instance, to speak Italian. Italian has a highly phonetic writing system so it is relatively easy to "crack" the code.

Italian and Spanish are over 90% phonemic - they are written as spoken and no one has to think of sounds as independent of their letter representations. English is about 40% phonemic - it corresponds to its pronunciation guide only 40% of the time.  

Flesch [1984] and other advocates of phonics first have argued that English is 95% phonetic.  Wijk thought  that with the help of 100 rules, he could determine the pronunciation of 85% of the words in the dictionary. Hanna [1964] determined that you could guess the pronunciation of 84% of the words in the dictionary in four tries. There are statistical regularities in the traditional English writing system but to claim that spelling or pronunciation is more than 40% predictable without positional and lexical cues is a stretch.  There is nothing about the language that prevents it from being as phonemic and predictable as Italian.  With the Unifon writing system spelling and pronunciation are over 98% predictable.

Except for syllables ending in R, o is used for the aa sound.

UNIFON has 1 character for each of the 40 basic sounds of English - 16v 24c

UnicodeRegistry U+E740 –UE76F standards.  [link]

Letter - Sound correspondences  

Unifon means on sound and implies that the transcription system has one and only sound for each symbol in the alphabet. 

With 40 sound signs, the Unifon alphabet has a symbol for every significant sound in the English language and a sound spelling for every word in the dictionary. 


The words phonetic and phonemic mean based on sound.  All languages are 100% phonemic.  They are all sound codes. Writing systems are phonemic to the extent that they visualize the sound code.  A writing system does not have to sound based -- there are other ways to convey meaning.  The number system, for instance, can have a meaning independent of its vocalization. Icons found on the signs in airport terminals and used to identify the controls on consumer electronics also have meaning independent of their vocalization in a particular language. 

Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was a mixture of phonograms, pictograms, semagrams, and logograms. The great breakthrough in simplification came with the full realization that phonograms alone were sufficient to record speech.  According to McLuhan, the phoenician alphabet made writing a skill that could be acquired in a couple of weeks instead of one that took half a lifetime to master. 

The idea of the alphabet spread like wildfire and within few hundred years, all of the cities where the Phoenician's exchanged trade goods adapted the semitic letters to their own language.  The Greek's added phonograms for vowels to make system that was usable for non-semitic languages. Under Greek influence, the Copts started writing Egyptian using a Greek-Phoenician inspired system. The Roman's adapted the Phoenician inspired etruscan script.

Although England was occupied by the Romans in the 4th century.  When the Romans left in 430 AD, the Engles and Saxons moved in.  They spoke a low German tongue.  In the 8th Century, the Saxons adopted the Roman letters and adapted it to Old English. As was the custom, when the Anglo-Saxon's adopted the Roman alphabet, they also adopted the Latin sound values.  The Latin sound-symbol correspondence system was augmented with the additon of ae or ash and the thorn and ash or crossed D: These were sounds that were not found among the Latin phonemes.  

By 1200, the Anglo Saxons had perfected a highly phonemic system of spelling for Old English. For information on what happend next, read the history of English Today, nearly half of the words in the English dictionary contain shifted sound values and are in need of respelling.  However, after years of neglect, there is no alphabetic standard -- no real to way 
anglacize spelling. We know the 40 significant sound categories of speech, but  we don't know for sure how to assign these sounds to the 26 x 2 available letters. 


Starting with the 20 letters where there is agreement, Unifon arbitrarly assigns sounds to 20 additional letters including some upper case letters.   With 40 unequivocal sound signs, it is now possible to respell all of the words in the English language.  With a restored alphabet, reading and writing can once again become as simple as it was in ancient times and as easy as it is in languages with highly phonemic writing systems.

Children can learn a highly phonemic system in a couple of weeks, an adult can learn it in 40 minutes. Once mastered, a child will be able to write any of the 3000+ words they can pronounce and pronounce or "sound out" any word they see spelled. 

After two weeks of practice, students can learn to spell better 
in a  phonemic system than they can in the traditional English 
writing system.  The level of mastery attained in two weeks a 
phonemic writing system can be equivalent to ten years with 
the traditional system.

For an adult, sound writing seems more difficult than traditional writing but for a child it is ten times easier than memorizing the configuration of whole words.

lurn tU spel fast!   [2 weeks vs. 10 years] After two weeks of practice, students can spell better in a phonemic system than they can in the traditional writing system after ten years of practice. Findings consistent with this claim have been published in the Journal of Reading Research.  For example, students of German can spell words in the German writing system with greater accuracy than they can spell words in the writing system associated with their native tongue [Upward, 1990]

The reason for this is that German is more phonemic and consistent than English.  English has too many orthographic options.  On the average, there are over 14 different ways to spell a sound in the English writing system.  In Unifon, the average is less than 1.4 different ways.  This makes Unifon about ten times easier to spell. 


Learn 40 phonograms and you can spell any word as you pronounce 
it.  When it comes to learning speed, it is like comparing the speed of 
a tortoise [the traditional system] to the speed of a hare [phonemic 

Wouldn't you prefer to spell tortoise the way it is pronounced?  You 
can with Unifon:
tOrtcs. The c In Unifon is interpreted as a "lazy U" 
rather than a redundant symbol for s or c. The lazy U represents the
obscure vowel in English also known as schwa. Schwa is an 
unstressed mid lax vowel that has no unique representation in the 
English writing system. There is nothing obscure about the sound: it 
is the most common sound in English speech.


The dictionary will tell you that the word is pronounced /'tr-t's/, which is fine if you can read IPA. Traditional spelling gets the first syllable correct.  The spelling of the second syllable might seems to rhyme with TOYS.  Whatever the pronunciation of [TOISE], few would guess /t's/. If you had to spell TUSK, it is unlikely that you would pick TOISEK among your first 100 guesses.  In Unifon, TUSK  would be spelled tusk if stressed and tcsk if unstressed.

The traditional writing system [TO] is ambiguous.  Almost any particular spelling in the TO can be pronounced a half dozen different ways. The word, Unifon, for instance, might be pronounced "oo-nee-fawn". With Unifon there is no ambiguity. "YnifOn" has to be pronounced [yoo-nih-foan]. According to the look-up table: Y=you, i=the vowel in in, and O=the vowel in Old.

The virtue of a phonemic alphabet is its simplicity.  An alphabet is a code, it is a correspondence table such as the one above that maps the sounds of the language onto a set of letter shapes. When England first adopted the Roman letters in the 7th century, they also adopted the Latin sound conventions.  The Saxon scribes had to add an additional vowel, the ash, and associate the five vowel letters with ten different vowel sounds, as was the practice in Italy. To indicate the short vowels, they usually doubled 
the consonants.  The Saxon writing system based on the this alphabet was as consistent as any in Europe in the 10th century. 

The consistency and predictability of an orthography can be calculated by comparing the dictionary spelling with pronunciation guide spelling.  The spelling of Old English or Anglo Saxon was over 85% consistent with its pronunciation. This is the estimated average for most European languages today. The spelling of Modern English is less than 40% consistent with its pronunciation.  Dictionary spelling matches dictionary pronunciation guide spelling less than 40% of the time. tortoise does not match its pronunciation spelling: tOrtcs hare does not match its pronunciation spelling her.  her does not match its pronunciation spellings hur or hcr as in hurdcr.  tortoise hare her here TORT'S  HER  H' HIR

Most people will concede that Unifon is indeed a simpler way to code the sounds of the English language. The real question is whether or not the learning of Unifon will speed up the learning of the traditional code. 

Learning Unifon or any phonemic system will certainly improve language skills and provide important insights. Phonemic awareness is supposed to be one of the best predictors of reading success. Unifon provides insight into how the alphabet is supposed to work. 

Unifon can be mastered quickly by children.  Learn 40 phonograms or sound signs, and you can write any word you can pronounce.  As with Pitman's i.t.a. in the 1970's, children will master the code quickly and without the usual frustration and difficulty of having to memorize whole words. 

40% of Unifon will transfer since it corresponds to the consistent part of the English code.  60% will not transfer any better than explicit phonics training.  Irregular words will have irregular spellings and will still have to be memorized as logograms.  Unifon provides little help in this area. 

An i.t.a. builds phonic awareness, provides the satisfaction of early success with reading and writing, builds good word attack strategies, and postpones the frustration of having to deal with the inconsistencies of the traditional code. Unifon provides a "metalanguage"  a way to talk about the sounds of speech.  All we can say for sure is that starting with Unifon does not slow down the learning of the traditional code. . 

Pitman's i.t.a. was shown to speed up the learning of the traditional           
writing system.  In England, those learning to read i.t.a. progressed through the basal readers much faster.  After 2.5 years, 78% of the i.t.a. learners had passed beyond Book 5 but only 39% of the control group children had done so [Downing, 13].  In other words, the children matched the progress of children learning consistent writing systems such as Italian and Spanish who typically progress
twice as fast as those trying to learn the English code. 

The i.t.a. experiment was based on the transfer of skill hypothesis:  
That skills learned in one medium, i.t.a., could be readily transferred to the more complex task of learning the traditional code.  The transfer of skill has been well documented in a variety of areas. You master the 
simpler component tasks before tackling a complex task.  It is not that well documented in language. 

By the time they reach school, children have already mastered the phonemic speech code.  The phonemic alphabetic code is an exact model or replica of the speech code.  The speakers of any language have mastered the code but cannot articulate or explain it. It was not until around 1900 that linguists became adept at explaining the specifics of the phonemic code. 

All languages change over time. They may change faster when not anchored by an archaic writing system and an educational system.  Some words start to be pronounced in a different way, some words cease to be used and others are coined.  English was changing rapidly in the late 15th century around the time that its spelling was being fixed by the printing industry . What was fixed was a set of conventions that properly applied to the earlier way of speaking. In Chaucer's time [pre-1400] "law" was pronounced lq or lqc  [lae-oo-wuh] the spelling law or lawe reflects the pronunciation of a long A [ah] followed by a rounding short 
u.  Today law is pronounced
lx [lah-aw].  When such variations are multiplied by 1000 words, a certain disparity between spelling and pronunciation is engendered.




  • Culkin's magazine article on Unifon  [Malone]

  • unifon is a close match to the notation used by Merriam-Webster

  • bad arguments against spelling reform [rye]

  • the trouble with the english spelling system [bett]  trouble 2

  • the lack of consistency, polyvalence, and code overlaps in the traditional writing system

  • how a phonemic notation facilitates education [Archer] [Lindgren]

  • a brief history of spelling [Scragg]

  • the problem [Cunningham]

  • phonemic transcription with unifon

  • sampa machine readable IPA - 20 languages 

  • glossary of spelling

  • i.t.a.  initial teaching alphabet [Downing, Southgate]


The current English alfubet, however, is not as easy as ABC. Our 26 letters are at once too few and too many to handle the roughly 40 pieces of sound (phonemes) that constitute today's spoken English, the variety of speech used by tom brOkx and pEtcr jeniNz. [more]

We have a total of more than 560 spellings for the 40 basic sounds of spoken English. This is many times the number required; it produces an efficiency rating on average of just 20 percent for our written code. [more]

Ask any child or foreigner about the vagaries of written English. They will chronicle the agonies of "one" and "eight"  and "tough" and "through" and "though." English is a verbal melting pot, and we have never had an Academy, as do the French, to establish linguistic standards. As a result, we have 15 spellings for the long o sound (owe, beau, though, doe, etc.) and another 15 for the long A sound (may, maid, gauge, great, weight, etc.). Imagine the efficiency of our Arabic number system if any digit could randomly take on several other values: "7 (frequently) times 6 (occasionally) equals 42 (more or less)."  [more]

Mark Twain, who wanted a new one for one alfabet, had a few words on the subject: 
"The English alfubet is pure insanity.  It can hardly spell any word in the 
language with any large degree of certainty. ... The silliness of the English 
alfubet are quite beyond enumeration. 



If UNIFON or something similar became the alfubet, these improvements could follow:

  • Economics: UNIFON takes up 14 percent less space

  • Decline in Dyslexia: One author’s data suggests that more than 60 percent of the world's dyslexia occurs in English-speaking countries Experts point to the gap between our spoken language and our alfubet as a leading contributor. 

  • Foreign Languages Learning: Phonemic alphabets are already used for ESL training. Keyboard Unifon is ascii based and has a certain advantage over IPA. 

  • With minor adjustments and additions, Unifon can transcribe any language.  It is already the official alfubet of several American Indian tribes.

  • English as World Language. 

  • On the downside, the adoption of Unifon would take all the difficulty out of spelling and thus make everyone a Spelling Bee champion.  The game would probably cease to exist because everyone would be too evenly matched. [more]

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