Tag Archives: orthography

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Apostrophes, brackets, colons, commas, dashes, ellipses, exclamation marks, full stops, guillemets, hyphens, question marks, quotation marks, semicolons, slashes. In brief: Punctuation.

What would we do without those little symbols that organise our words on paper, that indicate intonation and thus meaning, essential to disambiguate sentences?

Earliest alphabetic writings had no capitalisation, no spaces, no vowels (i.e. today’s Abjad writing system) and very few punctuation. In ancient Greece and Rome, symbols were used to mark where speakers should pause; the longest section (the period) was divided by the ‘period’ pause – hence a ‘period’ mark –, the shortest section (“that which is cut off”) was divided by a ‘comma’.

When the Christian Bible started to be copied and translated (around 400AD), an early punctuation system was developed. Only when printing was introduced in the 15th century however, punctuation became more common and systematic.

Nowadays, punctuation varies across languages, register, and authors may (not) use it for a specific stylistic style.
While punctuation may facilitate comprehension, the lack of it may facilitate ambiguity – which must not be a bad thing at all.

Imagine you had a fight with your boy/girlfriend and you’re mad at them but don’t want to show it; you leave them a note saying ‘Have a good day’ without any punctuation. Many ways to read it:

Have a good day! – you fool
Have a good day… with me? Surprise me with some chocolate and apologise
Have a good day. There’s nothing more to say, just give me time to breathe.

Well, something along those lines. Makes the whole story much more interesting, don’t you think!?

Some readings:

Dale, R. 1991. The role of punctuation in discourse structure. In Proceedings of the AAAI Fall Symposium on Discourse Structure in Natural Language Understanding and Generation, 13 14. USA.

Lee, S. 1995. A syntax and semantics for text grammar. MPhil. Dissertation, Engineering Dept., Cambridge University.


Brn wrkt

m tryng t prf pnt hr tht ppl wh knw nglsh r prfctl (r s) cpbl f ndrstndng txt wrttn wtht ny vwls. hv lrdy wrttn pst rltng t ths r n rthgrphy (hr). Snc w’r t t tryng t ‘mprv’ nglsh rthgrphy, whch s n f th lst phnmc ns, t s rgbl whthr rthgrph nd phnlgy shld b cmbnd t t lst sm xtnt n ths pst s .g. y s phnlgclly vwl, bt n th bc t s rgrdd s cnsnnt. D t smplcty, wll nt dlt t hr thgh.

Tr, t s qt hrd t ndrstnd shrt wrds tht, thrgh vwl dltn, nd p s sngl cnsnnts nd nly th cntxt mks clr wht s mnt (bt t my stll rmn mbgs), nd sm wrds lk th ndfnt rtcl r cmpltly rdctd. Hwvr lnggs sch s rbc shw tht t s pssbl – nd nglsh lrdy mks s f t n fr xmpl txts.

Wld vwl dltn llw rthgrph t rprsnt nglsh nd ts dlcts bttr? ftr ll, th dffrnc n th prnnctn f vwls s mjr chrctrstc f dlcts nd ccnts. Frthrmr, ths sstm wld shrtn txts lt. Nvrthlss, t lst whn y’r nt sd t t, t tks mch lngr t wrt nd rd.

wll kp ths pst shrt (s t s tkng m whl t tp nd prbbl y w bt t fgr t). hp cld 1) mk y thnk bt nglsh rthgrphy (phnlgy nd th PA), 2) shw hw mzng th hmn brn s n bng bl f dcphrng (hpflly mst f) ths, nd 3) gv y lttl prcrstntn brk frm wrk 😉

(shd hv smply wrttn p ths pst ‘wth vwls’ nd thn dltd thm, nd nt wrttn t strght wtht vwls (=tkng lngr nd pssbly csng (mr) mstks), bt t ws gd brn xrcs!)

[EXPAND Click here if you’re desperate for a ‘translation’]

Brain workout

I’m trying to proof a point here that people who know English are perfectly (or so) capable of understanding text written without any vowels. I have already written a post relating to this area in orthography (here). Since we’re at it trying to ‘improve’ English orthography, which is one of the least phonemic ones, it is arguable whether orthography and phonology should be combined to at least some extent in this post as e.g. y is phonologically a vowel, but in the Abc it is regarded as consonant. Due to simplicity, I will not delete it here though.

True, it is quite hard to understand short words that, through vowel deletion, end up as single consonants and only the context makes clear what is meant (but it may still remain ambiguous), and some words like the indefinite article are completely eradicated. However languages such as Arabic show that it is possible – and English already makes use of it in for example textese.

Would vowel deletion allow orthography to represent English and its dialects better? After all, the difference in the pronunciation of vowels is a major characteristic of dialects and accents. Furthermore, this system would shorten texts a lot. Nevertheless, at least when you’re not used to it, it takes much longer to write and read.

I will keep this post short (as it is taking me a while to type and probably you a wee bit to figure out). I hope I could 1) make you think about English orthography (phonology and the IPA), 2) show how amazing the human brain is in being able of deciphering (hopefully most of) this, and 3) give you a little procrastination break from work 😉

(I should have simply written up this post ‘with vowels’ and then deleted them, and not written it straight without vowels (=taking longer and possibly causing (more) mistakes), but it was a good brain exercise!)




When I came to the UK, I was overwhelmed not only by different customs (speaking especially of carpets everywhere and separate water taps),  but also by some linguistic ‘phenomena’. For example the use of ‘like’ like all the time, or that horrifying use of “there’s” instead of “there’re” for plural entities. However, what really struck me was when my teacher asked us students how to write “definitely” (or other (even easier) words). I mean, even I knew/know it, and I’m not a native speaker. English spelling and the pronunciation of words are rather unpredictable, i.e. if you know the one you don’t necessarily know the other. For example “ough” is the letter sequence with the most unpredictable pronunciations (over ten in BE; /o?/, /u?/, /?f/, /?p/, /?f/, /?:/, /a?/, /?/, /?k/, /?x/).

There are probably several English speakers (including my ex-teacher) who wish for some sort of orthography that really represents a word’s pronunciation. Using the IPA? That would give us a few more letters to learn but still, there’d be no “guessing” as to how to pronounce the word anymore. Nevertheless, then spelling itself would get trickier due to dialects and accents, i.e. the IPA-spelling would differ from person to person. So ‘no’ to the IPA.

Well then, what about just using abbreviations? If Arabic speaking people can “guess” those not-written vowels, and Chinese people can “read” arbitrary signs, maybe we could know whole words from, say, only the first (few) letter(s)? W, tbh, t m w f s wo b, a y c s, n f ot b th ar ma wo wh th sa fi l an al, wou y a ‘y’ w y o u? ‘s’ w s o c? ‘f’ w f o 4? (well, to be honest, that might work for some words but, as you can see, not for others because there are many words with the same first letter (s) and furthermore, would you abbreviate ‘you’ with y or u? ‘see’ with s or c? ‘for’ with f or 4?). Obviously, not the best solution either. Yet, I believe that some ‘sort-of-abbreviations’ (i.e. u, r, c…) might become established in English spelling – since they do not longer only occur in informal writings, but even in newspaper articles!

Many spelling reforms proposing more predictable combinations failed (they’re usually more successful in the US). An example for a new standard is “hiccup” (hiccough), a varying form is “donut” (doughnut), common informal forms are “thru” (through) or “tho” (though), and some uncommon forms are “laff” (laugh) and  “enuff” (enough).

As time goes by, changes will come as they always do and who knows, maybe we will end up back with pictograms in a few centuries, or not have any sort of writing system anymore due to ‘audiosation’ (= everything will be recorded and listened to with mini-I-Pods and mini-earphones… or some other futuristic stuff that I can’t think of now because it’s still too far ahead in the future)…

Ps: A pronunciation poem. My English teacher made me read it some years ago. What a tongue twister!

Here is some pronunciation.
Ration never rhymes with nation,
Say prefer, but preferable,
Comfortable and vegetable.
B must not be heard in doubt,
Debt and dumb both leave it out.
In the words psychology,
Psychic, and psychiatry,
You must never sound the P.
Psychiatrist you call the man
Who cures the complex, if he can.
In architect, CH is K.
In arch it is the other way.

Please remember to say iron
So that it’ll rhyme with lion.
Advertisers advertise,
Advertisements will put you wise.
Time when work is done is leisure,
Fill it up with useful pleasure.
Accidental, accident,
Sound the G in ignorant.
Relative, but a relation,
Then say creature, but creation.
Say the A in gas quite short,
Bought remember rhymes with thwart,
Drought must always rhyme with bout,
In daughter leave the GH out.

Wear a boot upon your foot.
Root can never rhyme with soot.
In muscle, SC is S,
In muscular, it’s SK, yes!
Choir must always rhyme with wire,
That again will rhyme with liar.
Then remember it’s address.
With an accent like posses.
G in sign must silent be,
In signature, pronounce the G.

Please remember, say towards
Just as if it rhymed with boards.
Weight’s like wait, but not like height.
Which should always rhyme with might.
Sew is just the same as so,
Tie a ribbon in a bow.
When You meet the queen you bow,
Which again must rhyme with how.
In perfect English make a start.
Learn this little rhyme by heart.