Thursday, November 06, 2014

Odds and ends

The last post produced a few comments and quite a few emails that I would like to respond to.

I was able to validate my hypothesis that quite a few English-speakers lack phonological awareness and are not aware of the alphabetic principle. Many people have simply memorized some number of words, by sight and by sound. And since learning Unspell involves having the ability to analyze spoken English as a series of phonemes, people who have been taught to read English using the “look and say” method, which does not attempt to draw any significant parallels between sight and sound, are at a loss. This can be remedied using a simple tool: click on an Unspell symbol—hear how it sounds. I'll work on putting something like that together.

Many people commented on the fact that Unspell uses its own set of symbols rather than the Latin alphabet or the International Phonetic Alphabet which is derived from it. I've explained this before, but I'll try again.

Latin cannot be used because spelled English uses Latin. If unspelled English used Latin as well, that would mean that learning unspelled English would cause one to unlearn spelled English. For example, if the word “queue/cue/Kew” were to be unspelled as “kiu,” then that would interfere with one's ability to remember how to spell it. And since spelled and unspelled English have to coexist, this is not good.

Also, Latin cannot be used because it has many fewer letters than English has phonemes (but has two redundant ones, like X and Q). The alphabetic principle, which Unspell is intended to instill, involves one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes; Latin cannot fulfill this requirement.

The International Phonetic Alphabet cannot be used either, for the same reason as Latin (too similar), but also because it is designed for phonetic transcription, not phonological orthography. Without getting into too much detail, it is useful for capturing minute distinctions between accents and dialects; it is not useful for achieving a dialect-neutral representation of a language.

There were also some entirely negative comments to the effect that “language is a living thing and cannot be reformed by fiat; therefore Unspell is a bad idea.” This is a non sequitur: the former does not imply the latter. The English language is indeed a living thing, just like any non-dead, spoken language. But written language is in essence dead. Grammar is, in general, part of the living language and cannot be reformed, but orthographies are purely artificial and can be reformed quite a lot. The difference is very clear: spoken language is innate, supported by neural structures in the human brain and a critical period during which a language acquisition mechanism exists in children, while written language is an artifice, and, as such, is completely arbitrary. For instance, there is no practical reason why English can't be written using Chinese characters.

Another bunch of negative comments had to do with another misunderstanding: that Unspell is somehow a replacement for English spelling instead of a faster way to bootstrap people into literacy by directly teaching two of its most important prerequisites—phonological awareness and the alphabetic principle. Unspell provides a parallel system that can peacefully coexist with traditional, spelled English. Of course, someone could decide to not bother with learning spelled English and just use Unspell: to each his own.

Some readers thought that Unspell can be best taught through puzzles. I am not sure of that, but—funny that they should have mentioned it—Unspell has built into it the ability to create puzzles. There are the 13 basic shapes (12 if “—” and “|” are taken to be different orientations of the same shape).

These shapes are modified in 4 ways: by stretching them vertically (to make consonants) or horizontally (to make vowels) and by adding a bar and/or a stroke. To make a puzzle, take a phrase of unspelled text and make the shapes generic by erasing these 4 distinctions. To make it even harder, erase the spaces between words (spaces between words are a relatively recent innovation). Here is an example:

Once you get very good at solving such puzzles, Unspell can also be used for divination. The 12 basic shapes can be inscribed onto the faces of a dodecahedron. Toss the dodecahedron in the air or roll it around a table, and see what it is saying.

Lastly, thanks to all of you who have purchased a copy of Unspeller, but I want to hear from you: have you tried using it to learn Unspell it or to teach it to others? How did it go?


JimK said...

What you are trying to do has been done in the past successfully. The Korean Hangul alphabet is a great example. It's not an easy path but perfectly reasonable.

JimK said...

and of course people do write English using Chinese characters, e.g.

I have been trying to learn Tibetan for some years. Sometimes I will read something modern in which English words appear, transliterated into the Tibetan alphabet. It takes an amazingly long time for me to stop trying to find the word in my Tibetan dictionary!

Dmitry Orlov said...

Jim -

I didn't mean transliteration. I meant that it is possible to write English text using Chinese characters, as was once done for Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. In fact, there was an experiment done trying to teach English-speaking children to read and write English using a set of Chinese characters to represent English words. And they learned faster than children who were being taught regular, spelled English—up to a point.

JimK said...

ha! that is a wild idea! nouns and verbs wouldn't be so difficult, it seems. But particles like articles and prepositions and conjunctions... would take some creativity!

Tim Bloom said...

I've started in on Unspeller with the goal of teaching it to kids. I'll start with a small group that reads English better than they understand it, but have a goal of teaching it to a group of kids with specific "learning disabilities".

This got me immediately wishing for a "right-now" use for unspeller. In the absence of translation tools, it will make a great "secret" code. Sent as an email of seemingly random asci's or a jpg of the hoppings of some phonecian chicken, it'll be as secure as the Hopi radiomen's "code" back in WWII. Certainly good enough for kids.

Is the Unspeller font available for release? Are they assigned keyboard positions for speed and logic (unlike querty) that can be explained? Do you have a keycap chart such that I can use to print out and paste Unspeller characters to standard keyboards?

Some kids will learn this because it's fun and looks neat. But if you want the buggers to remember it, let them use it.

Thanks again!

Dmitry Orlov said...

Hi Tim,

Teaching Unspell to a small group of kids is a great idea, and I want to give you all kinds of support with it.

There is a family of fonts that needs a few more tweaks from me before I can set them free. The keyboard mapping uses a modified version of QWERTY, but since kids are likely to use touch devices that's not all that important. I can touch-type Unspell, and it doesn't cause interference effects with spelled English. On touch devices the input method (to be written) will involve a map of the 13 basic shapes and, as with most such systems, touch-and-hold will bring up a menu of modified characters. That will take no time to learn, and will even work for various special needs people who do hunt and peck to communicate.

The translation tools are actually pretty far along, not yet ready for public use but they certainly work for me. I am planning to provide unspelled versions of a few classic children's books, but if you have something more specific in mind, please email me directly.

You actually brought up something that's already attested: kids learn Unspell so that they can write notes to each other that 1. don't require them to think about spelling and 2. can't be read by the teachers.

dk said...

Why not use Devnagri script which is the most phoneticalky sound of any language and is still used by one billion people.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Because, for political reasons, it couldn't be anything that is perceived as foreign, or confused with some national script. How would an Indian script play in Pakistan or Bangladesh? Also, your suggestion comes two years after the decision was made.

Red Shia said...

Hi, what about Arabic as a fully phonetic language, used in Farsi, Turkish and many other Asian languages and included Spanish and even Afrikaans in Early days in South Africa. In fact, the first Afrikaans books were written in Arabic script. I have often wondered if Arabic could be used to assist the hearing impaired to pronounce just about any word in any language correctly. Maybe a few tweaks would be required as in the 'p' and 'ch' sounds for Farsi.... Interesting subject!!! Thanks

Dmitry Orlov said...

No. See above.

Tunet said...

Hi Dmitry
Would you like to post your thoughts on the future of the English language?
When the Anglo-American empire collapses, will its language persist as the dominant language in international communication?
It would be kind of strange if still such a large portion of internet and international communication and business was written in English after the empire no longer exists.
+ It is very well spread, not just by number of users, but educated people of most countries speak English.
- Loaded with negative feelings for many, and as you point out, difficult to spell. Could be associated with “loooooser” in the future.
Hollywood has a big part in the international use of English I suppose, and its domination is already fading, in Europe at least.
Living in Sweden I’m thinking about languages to teach my children, and German and Russian is starting to look as important as English.
Many talk about Mandarin as the future, but having been in the steel industry, China is to me the most unsustainable country I ever worked in. Nothing is made to last, killing the environment for junk that will fall apart in just a few years. Building more steel mills when the ones they already have are working at half speed, bridges and roads to nowhere, empty buildings all over and still building more. Looks to me like a perfect candidate to collapse into civil unrest and famine.