English Spelling Priorities: the ESP alfabet

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In november 1997, the BBC series 'Scare Stories' featured the population explosion. Robert Macnamara had commissioned a statistical investigation of every conceivable factor that might correlate with the population rate. Only one such variable was found. And it was practically a perfect fit.

High population rates went with high female illiteracy. So, women's equal rights are needed to stabilise the population, which is needed to prevent the further destroying and poisoning of the world's natural resources.

In 1970, writing of 'The End', Isaac Asimov played the gruesome game of working out how long, at present growth rates, it would take for the mass of humanity to equal the mass of the universe: less than 5000 years. To equal the mass of animal life on earth (except algae to feed humans): less than 500 years.
(Asimov used a simple exponential formula, like that used to work out the growth of capital at compound interest.)

Asimov said that unless the population problem can be solved, none of the other problems can be.
Given that illiteracy of women is a key factor in the problem, the English-speaking peoples have done precious little, especially to make English spelling easier. Radical ills require radical remedies.

In 1998, the Human Development report found over 20% of the UK (the home of English) functionally illiterate.
In 1999, 'Save The Children' promoted a scheme, led by footballer John Barnes, of Dad reading to boys. Boys tend to be less literate than girls. They are also more likely to rebel against the conflicting spelling rules that make no sense. From the spelling reformer's point of view, the more compliant girls are more likely to humor wrong-headed conventional literacy teachers.

With 22% of adults having very low literacy levels, experts partly blamed 'trendy' teaching techniques moving away from phonics - teaching children to read by matching letters and sounds.

Also in 1999, a government commissioned report stated adults in England have poorer literacy and numeracy skills than any country in Europe except Poland and Ireland.
Ireland is particularly significant because the Irish have to learn two of the worst spelt languages in the world - Gaelic and English.

Sir Claus Moser reports this lack of adult basic skills is disasterous for society and the economy.
The German-speaking peoples most recently moved to more rationally spelt speech.

Even in Britain, Dr Mont Follick eventually won The Case For Spelling Reform (as his posthumous book was called). Joined by Sir James Pitman, he led a backbench campaign in parliament against the combined opposition of the Churchill and Attlee front benches.

The government agreed on school trials of Pitman's initial teaching alfabet. ITA is still some way off a one-letter one-sound alfabet. But the idea was to start children off with a considerably more rational version of the English alfabet, to help them pick up writing more quickly and make an easy transition to ordinary English spellings, with all the extra spelling rules that conflict and confuse.

Professor John Downing led the government tests on ITA which, on the whole, were positive. But he was to deeply regret that ITA introduced new letters to augment the Roman alfabet. (This was reported in the journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, edited by Chris Upward.)

ITA has 43 (or 44) characters. 14 of those are unweildy two-letter combinations. Mont Follick's alfabet reform used no new letters. He ran a language school, bombed-out during the war. And he knew that people dont like to learn long alfabets. ITA over-looked that teachers and parents, to say nothing of the children, might not like having to learn a lot of unnecessary new letters.

Everyone knows that language has to be learned young, or children, like the 'wild boy' growing-up alone in the woods, never speak. A mathematician, who became blind in later life, told me that he could never read braille fluently, because one lost that kind of capacity, by one's forties.

By inventing new alfabets, I found out the hard way that I never became fluent in them. The trouble even with established shorthands is that they take a big investment of time to acquire and keep up.

Therefore, spelling reform must work with convention. The Roman alfabet, invented by an ancient people renowned for their rational law, is the simplest of the great traditional alfabets. Since the nineteenth century, it has been accepted for international postal addresses.

The 'ESP' alfabet and word-code.

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ESP or English Spelling Priorities are the rules of English spelling, given priority over conflicting spellings, to secure a short but rational one-letter one-sound English alfabet. There are a minimum of new letters to learn. (ITA had 43 or 44 letters.) There are no new speech sounds or fonemes to learn. (ITA introduced seven or so new letters just to make speech distinctions previously thought not important enough to include in the alfabet.)

Most of the letters of the ESP alfabet mean exactly what you would expect from the traditional English alfabet. So, without further explanation, the unchanged letters are given as abbreviations or code-letters for some of the most common English words:

a: a/an; b: be(am/is/are); d: 'd/would/should; f: if*; g: go; h: he; i: in**; j (js/jst): just; k (kn): can; l: 'l/will/shall; m: me/my; n: 'n'/and; o: on*; p: up; s: so; t: it*; u: us/we; v: 've/have(has); w: who/ooh; y: you; z: as.

*Also, two numbers stand as letters for fonemes: the = 3; 0 = of (pronounced: o' as in o'clock).
(Two more numbers, used in mobile phone texting, are not basic, just useful for short-hand purposes: to = 2; 4 = for.)

**Capital-i or I = ai, as in aisle/isle, is useful for this frequent dipthong.

The letter r is spelt as normal, tho, in the drift away from traditional Northern English pronunciation, it tends not to be pronounced after an unstressed vowel. For example: earn, verse, girl, work, turn. A useful shorthand tip is to leave out the preceding vowel, to convey an unstressed vowel before r. Hence: rn, vrse, grl, wrk, trn.
My code word for r: her.
Scots still pronounce "her" as it is spelt.

Old word processing programs could automatically transform single letters to words of your choice. (Whatever happened to them?) When these programs became popular, Prof. Abe Citron, the spelling reformer produced a list of one, two, three etc letter abbreviations for the commonest English words. (This appeared in the Spelling Progress Bulletin.)

The main change the ESP alfabet makes to the consonants is that letter c is confined to its sound value in words like social and ocean. This was a feature of Dr Reg Deans' 'Britic' (pronounced as 'British') alfabet.
And c is made the code letter for 'she', by far the commonest English usage of this foneme.

In the European family of Roman alfabets, c often features in the spelling reserved for it in the ESP alfabet. To give but three examples, French: chef; German: schnapps; Italian: Puccini. It would be useful if the European Union designated c as the standard letter for the foneme in she or chez.

Following from this use of c, the English digraf ch, as in which, would be re-spelt tc. 'Which' becomes 'whitc'.

Failure to agree by spelling reformers of English (who dont all have English as their first language) perhaps has been caused by two distractions.
The lesser distraction has been the pattern (regular but not rational) of adding the letter h to some other letter to make a digraf. This precedent has encouraged the use of two letters where one letter will do.

The more serious trap for spelling reformers has been to follow the pattern of spelling dipthongs, introduced by William Caxton, the first English printer. He put e on the end of a word to change a vowel, in a word, to a dipthong.
Hence, from mad to made; cod to code; wed to weed; rid to ride; cut to cute, Americans pronounce like 'coot'.

Three objections to Caxton's dipthongs: Firstly, they are not fonetic. The Caxton digrafs cannot depend on an appreciation of how vowels combine to make dipthongs. They have to be learned by rote - dumbly, as it were. But learning, as a rule, is intelligence first, only then backed up by habit, to release intelligence to learn new things.

Secondly, the Caxton spellings were not followed in European languages, and their lack of sound logic is naturally not acceptable to Europeans or their former colonists. One day there may be a standard Roman alfabet for all the languages of Europe and their overseas counterparts. Caxton-ruled English spelling reformers are too parochial.

Thirdly, the Caxton dipthongs dont always look familiar even to English readers, when used consistently. For instance, Caxton spelling reformers render made as maed; ride as ried; code as coed; rude as rued.

But we can make good use of the fact that the English vowels also stand for dipthongs, provided we find a better way of distinguishing them than the first English printer could.

Using the ESP alfabet, sentences are not started by capitals. The full stop or period serves to separate sentences.

The convention of I ( capital-i ) for a dipthong already exists for the personal pronoun (and one-letter code word), I ( as in aisle). I could be written like an uncrossed t; small-L would always be written with a loop.

Personal pronouns are a very common and grammatically important group of words (as the ESP alfabet table shows below). Another example is: they. The dipthong. in: they, is spelt fonetikly. But mostly it is not spelt so accurately, apart from words, like: vein. Most often, this dipthong is spelt with an a, as in: acorn, and made, as distinct from: mad.

Therefore, the ESP alfabet accepts the spellings ei or ey as a fonetic alternative to spelling this dipthong with: q.

Capital letters take longer to type because of the need to press the shift key first. But the ESP alfabet can get round this for the letter O, by typing 0 ( zero ) instead. The ESP name or code word, for 0, is o', as in o'clock. This is short for "of the clock", so: 0 = o' = of.

The word, 'own' would be '0n'. This is distinct from 'on' which is the ESP code word or name for the vowel, o.
And for letter. I, the number one, 1, is at least a possible substitute: 'hide', would be 'h1d', as distinct from 'hid'.

Letter w, literally a double-u, also serves for the long-u dipthong. Hence, rwd = rude, cwt = coot.

By analogy, y is a sort of double-i, used in the way that the words, to the Elgar march, rhyme 'glory' with 'free'. Hence, wyd = weed.

Note, however, these oddities that come from economising with the number of letters in the ESP alfabet: ww = woo; yy = ye (archaic). This is distinct from, say, wud = wood; yer = year.

The code word for j (which is just) is the only code word to the ESP alfabet not to be found among (or near) the 100 most common English words.

The English foneme th would be no more than a secondary letter in a world alfabet. Foreigners find it hard to pronounce but we understand them and the various English dialects that only pronounce th approximately.
Three-quarters of English usage of this foneme is in the word 'the'.
Some languages dont have a definite article and foreigners often leave it out even when speaking English. So do newspaper caption writers.
I suggest the number, 3, do service for the foneme 'th' as well as shorthand for 'the'. This is because 3, spelt: three, is close to word, the, and looks something like a kind a hand-written capital-t.

From the point of view of learning literacy, tho, the digraf, th, doesnt cause much problem. However, this is a question of relaxing the condition for the most basic alfabet to establish literacy with a one-letter one-sound. Compromise alfabets with the jumble of English spelling are the subject of other pages (Get REAL... and Kompromis Speling...).

Table of the English Spelling Priorities (ESP) Alfabet
classifying one-letter word abbreviations by parts of speech.

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The English Spelling Priorities (ESP) Alfabet
Personal Words verbs logic words showing words
possessive subject object
m: my I/1: I (m: me) b: be n: and/'n' a: a/an
h: he (h: him) v: have/'ve 0: of/o'(clock) 3: the
r: her c: she (r: her) k(n): can f: if o: on
t: it (t: it) g: go s: so p: up
au: our u: we (u: us) l: 'll/will/shall z: as j: just
y: you (y: you) d: 'd/would/should w: who
e: their(there) q/ei/ey: they (e: them)

Note: Letter x in the Roman alfabet may be given the same value as Cyrillic (or Russian) 'x', also similar to Greek chi. This is the foneme in Scottish loch or German Bach. It isnt needed for the English language but might become the standard meaning for x in a World Roman alfabet.

The letter, q, is redundant and not much used. It could be re-used without too much confusion, so that: made = mqd. It is helpful that the letters, a and q, look similar, so people could remember that the stalk on a to make it q was, in effect, an accent for dipthong, ei/ey, instead of vowel, a.

The table shows a revised English alfabet of 27 letters. But q = ey is optional.

The dipthong, au, (fonetikly spelt) does not have a single English letter. au is usually spelt by the digrafs, ou / ow.

Notice that the object section of personal words are all doubled for, by letters in the possessive or subject sections. This is standard shorthand practise. Also e can double for 'their' and 'there', because which is meant can be told by their different grammatical positions in a sentence. The same is true of using b to mean either 'be' or 'by'. Also, all the irregular forms of the verb to be: am, is, are, can be symbolised by letter, b.

So, the ESP alfabet doesnt just include about 25 of the 100 most common English words but about 36, allowing for the double meanings of some letters.

Half of English in 100 words

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10 words make up one-quarter of English usage (if 'an' also counts as 'a'): and in to the I that is of an it ( shortened: ) n i 2 7 1 7t b 0 a t.

Half of demotic English usage is covered by some 100 words.
So, it would be economic to make two or more letter shortenings for as many as possible of those 100 most common words, having coded all the single letters of the ESP alfabet.
Three words with no single letters left to shorten them were: or, no, at. (The three-letter word 'out' may be left unshortened, too.)

About 22 (plus 2) words have fairly clear 2-letter codes:
mn: man wn: when bt: but
md: made al: all bn: been, was, were.
tm: time gd: good af: after
sd: said fr: from mk: make
mt: might lk: like wt: what
hd: had nt: not yt: yet
hs: his rt: right sm: some
ti: till

20 other letter pairs may not be so easy to guess:
km: come en: any wr: where tw: too
kd: could na: now sy: see ts: its
ms: must ov: over wI: why 0n: own
mc: much wc: which mq: may yn: even (e'en)
sc: such nw: new hr: here, hear

Some three-letter shortened words might be:
yor: your onl: only mor: more mos: most.
sns: since wel: well abt: about

Number 3, th[re]e, stands in, for digraf th, in the following common words given short-hand forms:

wi: with; 3t: that; o3: other; 3n: than, then; 3s: this; 3r: thru / through; 3o: tho / though.

Likewise for these 3 four-letter shortenings that contain th:

3os: those; 3ys: these; 3ng: thing.

Note: shorthands write numbers in their usual Hindu-Arabic form 1, 2, 3, etc. tho like mobile text users, Ive seconded some of them for extra letters.

Any list of unspecialised English from everyday speech, journalism or literature, compiled on a broad statistical basis, would mostly agree on the 100 most common words. Differences would be marginal.
The above listed words total about 107, including different versions of the same word from irregular verbs.

I made my list firstly by consulting my own experience and backing my own intuition as to the most important words. But I became keen to check with other sources. Some are already cited. Others included the prime vocabularies of various shorthand systems, and Basic English.
The 100 word list, in Helen Fouché Gaines' Cryptanalysis, comes to about 49% of their sample. A less conservative estimate is John Dewey's: half of popular English in 69 words.

These most common words are used all the time to support the vast number of less frequent words. That's why it's hard to make sense of them on their own, as the following nonsense verse shows. (Even then I cheated, using might not as the common supporting verb but as the noun for strength.)
The nonsense verse is first spelt in full:

Half of English in a hundred words

Since man has been made, for how much its time
can he or she go on, as we are, from here?
A them-and-us will not do. Then, the one, well up,
shall have most there is, so an-other, than him, had
no-thing but be thru with it all, which some must now,
till who two would, where could, come to good,
that was his, tho her, own, by what you said,
when their might may yet see out my, of your, right
even our such, they, too, at first just, 
were in after, if only about: why
should I like those new over me any more?

Here is the same nonsense verse with the abbreviations introduced above:

Half of English in 100 words.

Sns mn v bn md, 4 hw mc ts tm
kn h or c g o, z u b, fr hr?
a e-n-u l nt do. 3n, 3 1, wel p,
l v mos e b, s a-o3, 3n h, hd
no-3ng bt b 3r wi t al, wc sm ms na,
ti w 2 d, wr kd, km 2 gd,
3t bn hs, 3o r 0n, b wt y sd,
wn 3r mt may yt sy aut m, o yor, rt
yn au sc, ey, tw, at 1st j,
bn i af, f onl abt: wI
d I lk 3os nw ov m en mor?

The above nonsense verse is a possible memory aid or mnemonic for short forms of about a hundred of the most common English words. But what do those shortened common words look like in an ordinary text? Language reformers have a convention of using the Gettysburg address to exemplify their proposed innovations.

It's evident that using letter, u, as shorthand for both we (foneticly rendered ui) and us, looks particularly unfamiliar, But I trust that it is justified by the shorthand convention of using the same letter for subject and object versions of all the personal pronouns. This also usefully frees letter, w for the foneme: w = who/ooh.

The use of q = ey is not practical here, because the common short words are being used with unchanged words that retain q in its original meaning, namely in the word "equal."

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address with the 100 most common words shortened

Four-score n seven yers ago au fathers brought forth pon 3s continent a nw nation conceived i liberty, n dedicated 2 3 proposition 3t al men b created equal. na w b engaged i a great civil war, testing whether 3t nation kn long endure. u b met o a great battlefield 0 3t war. w v km 2 dedicate a portion 0 3t field z a final resting place 4 3os hw hr gave e lives 3t 3t nation mt live. t b altogether fitting n proper 3t u cd do 3s. bt i a larger sense u knt dedicate, u knt consecrate, u knt hallow 3s ground. 3 brave men, living n dead, w struggled hr, v consecrated t, far above au poor power 2 add or detract. 3 world l little know nor long remember, wt u say hr, bt i kn never forget wt ey did hr. t b 4 u t living, rather, 2 b hr dedicated 2 3 great task remaining b4 u - 3t fr 3ys honored dead u take increased devotion 2 3t cause 4 wc ey gave 3 last full measure 0 devotion 3t u hr highly resolve 3t 3ys dead l nt v died i vain; 3t 3s nation, under god, l v a nw birth 0 freedom; n 3t government 0 3 people, b 3 people, 4 3 people l nt perish fr 3 earth.

English Past Tense Proposal

Ogden and Richards devised Basic English as a simplified English for world wide use. They showed that English sentences could be constructed with just 18 of the commonest English verbs: come, get, give, go, keep, let, make, put, seem, take, be, do, have, say, see, send, may, will.
(These 18 verbs combined with directive words, like: in, out, with, away, off, etc, may replace many compound verbs, that have prefixes.)

Only one of these 18 verbs has a regular past tense, adding -ed: seemed. Generally the less used English verbs have this standard past tense.
The English past tense proposal adds 'd to the subject of the verb, just as the future tense already adds 'll (short for 'will' or 'shall') to the verb's subject.

Hence, 'I'd go' or 'The man 'd go' means the same as 'I went' or 'The man went', avoiding the need to learn or remember all the irregular past tenses of English.
This compares to the normal use of 'I'll go' or 'I will go' for an English verb in the future tense.

The traditional distinction of past tense meaning between 'I went' and 'I would go' is preserved, because only the abbreviated form, 'd is proposed as the supporting verb to put all English verbs in the past tense.
Some traditional English writers avoid the short form as colloquial, so this regular past tense proposal for 'd would not conflict with their usage.

Another possiblity for regular past tense is, for example: I did go, which "I'd go" might also pass muster for.

Richard Lung.

1999; minor changes, october 2002; january 2011.
revised 17 january & september 2010. Minor changes 23/09/2012.

My latest speling reform web-page is: Compromis speling and the humbl Apostrofe as savior of English literasy.

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