Reforming English

Dreaming an Impossible Dream

One of my personal little personality quirks is a deep sense of privacy. I mean, I’m civil enough, I suppose, but deep down, I don’t really trust people very much, and I don’t want them to know much about what I’m thinking or doing. For instance, because I have to attend meetings and take lots of notes, I don’t want people to see what I’m writing. But, I also don’t want to be the wierdo who’s obviously guarding his notes from the prying eyes of the other meeting attendees.

So, I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet, and for years I was able to take all my meeting notes in it. Sadly, last year, our team was joined by a perfectly nice Polish woman who is highly educated and speaks several languages, one of which is Russian. So, she can read everything I write in Cyrillic.

Quickscript SampleI thought about learning something like Teeline shorthand, which no one anywhere in the world uses but British journalists, who were taught it in journalism school. But shorthand is hard to learn, and I am lazy. Oh, and you have to transcribe it into English pretty quickly or you’ll forget what it actually says. Which seems like a lot of work that I wouldn’t want to do being, as I said, lazy.

Then I learned about Quickscript. Quickscript, also called the Read Alphabet, was invented several decades ago by a Brit named Kingsley Read. He was really into English-language spelling and writing reform. Over the course of several years, he created an alphabet for English called Shavian, then over the course of several more years, refined that into the Quickscript phonetic alphabet. Quickscript uses 40 letters that correspond to the 40 phonemes of spoken English. You can learn all about it here, because I am, if you’ll remember, too lazy to take the time to explain it in any more detail. Anyway, I learned it, and now I use it all the time, and no one has clue what I’m writing about them at meetings.

A fellow named Paul Tremblay created a chart of the Quickscript characters, which is also on Wikipedia. It looks like this:


Learning Quickscript got me interested in the whole idea of English language reform. It was all the rage a century ago. Even Teddy Roosevelt was a big proponent of it. Sadly, it all came to naught. Which is a shame, because the English language is hard. It’s harder than math. That’s because it isn’t logical.

It has all these silly words that sound exactly the same, but are written differently like “through” and “threw”. Conversely, some words, like “country” and “county” are spelled almost exactly the same, but are pronounced differently. It has words with unnecessary letters, like “butte”.

Even the letters don’t make sense. What in the world do the symbols “A” and “a” have to do with each other? Or “G” and “g”. The only reason we know they are the same alphabetic characters is because we had it ceaselessly drilled into us. Some letters soar above the baseline. Some dangle below it.

Frankly, it’s a mess.

So, I like Quickscript. The thing I like most about it is that it’s phonetic. Unlike English, when you try to “sound it out” in Quickscript, the way grammar school teachers used to tell us, you really do sound it out. Each character is a specific phoneme, with a specific sound.

But, here’s the thing. While it’s nice, Quickscript is a bit aberrant, too. First of all, why have letters that look very similar, such as the B and F or the SH and TH letters, then differentiate between them based on whether they are written above or below the baseline? Why even write above and below the baseline? If you’re making an entirely new English alphabet, why not follow the more logical path of putting each letter on the same baseline? It makes it more readable, and easier to print, too.

Quickscript DetailAlso, the letter forms in Quickscript don’t make a lot of sense. Look at the various glyphs Read used for the different sounds we assign to the letter A in English. Why are the shapes so dissimilar? Wouldn’t using similar shapes for similar phonemes be more logical?

There are no capital letters either. Instead, in Quickscript, you precede capitalized words with a little dot that indicates the word is a proper noun. Of course, because the different glyphs reside on different parts of the baseline, creating capital letters in Quickscript would require creating—and learning— different glyphs. So, his response to the added glyphs that would have to be created to make capital letters was simply to dispense with them completely in place of the silly dot sign.

Finally, why are the Quickscript letters so completely different from English letters? If you’re trying to simplify written English, why start with eliminating almost every familiar letter, especially when so many of them can be written just as simply as the new characters Read created?

In my opinion, Quickscript can be greatly improved by modifying it to meet a few simple rules.

1. Each letter form should be the same vertical height, and placed in the same position on the baseline, in order to make writing and printing them more legible.
2. There should be upper-case letters and they should share the same form as the lower-case letters. Putting on the letters on the same baseline makes this possible.
3. Similar-sounding phonemes should have similar shapes.
4. Modify some of the odder shapes in Quickscript, such as the K and L glyphs, to be more similar to the English consonants they replace.
5. Just as in Quickscript, each letter should be written with a single pen stroke.

With this in mind, I went to work, and created a new revision of Quickscript. I kept most of Kingsley Read’s glyphs, though I have, in several cases, assigned them to new letters. In some cases, I have created entirely new glyphs. The result was this:

My update of Quickscript

The most radical change I made was in completely redesigning how the vowel sounds are assigned. In contrast to Quickscript, I ensured that all the similar vowel sounds use some modification of the basic shape of the short vowel sound. Moreover, I used the same format to designate the short, long, and soft vowel sounds. So, compare the various glyphs for the A sounds in my revision to those displayed above from Quickscript.

Letter detailsNow, all of them recognizably correspond to the same basic letter, as do the other vowel phoneme glyphs.

In addition, the two original glyphs that look like the English B and D letters are now rightly assigned to them. In addition, the K, R, S, and V glyphs are more recognizably similar to the English letters they replace.

I believe this is a significant improvement to Kingsley Read’s implementation of Quickscript.

Sadly, I also believe it will be every bit as effective in reforming the English alphabet, which is to say…it won’t. The scale of effort it would take to replace the current English alphabet would be staggering. We have a massive investment in the Latin letter forms, and it’s extremely difficult to see how a conversion to a new alphabet could ever be accomplished.

Our alphabet has been in continuous use for over 2,000 years, first in Latin, then eventually in every Western successor language, as well as some Slavic languages. Throughout all this history, it has evolved like a living creature. There is no authority, no oversight board, or any other powerful agency we can go to for spelling or language reform. There are just millions of people making individual decisions about writing and speaking, some of which become widespread and conventional as time passes.

It’s kind of fun to mess about with constructed alphabets, but ultimately it’s just an extremely geeky pastime. The weight of millennia rests on our current alphabet, making any significant change extraordinarily unlikely.

I find that a little sad.

UPDATE: I’ve updated my version of Quickscript, and created a TrueType font for it.

Author: Dale Franks

Dale Franks is the former host of The Business Day, ”a daily, four-hour business and financial news program on KMNY Radio in Los Angeles. From 2002-2004, he was a contributor on military and international affairs for Currently, he a publisher and editor of the monthly political journal The New Libertarian, as well as an editor of the popular web log, Q and O. Dale served as a military police officer in the United States Air Force from 1984 to 1993, in variety of assignments both in the United States and Europe, where he also was assigned to the staff of the Headquarters of Allied Forces Central Europe. In addition to broadcasting, writing, and speaking on various topics, Dale has also been a long-time technical training instructor on a variety of computer software and technology subjects. Dale has also long been involved with information technology as an accomplished web designer, programmer, and technologist, serving as the corporate knowledge specialist for Microsoft Outlook at SAIC, the nation's largest employee-owned corporation. Additionally, he is the author of a number of software user guides used for classroom training by one of Southern California’'s premier computer training and consulting firms. His book, SLACKERNOMICS: Basic Economics for People Who Find Economics Boring, is available from Barnes & Noble.