A friend of mine once convinced a foreigner that Hebrew has merely 14 words and the entire language is derived out of these words. I recently wondered how gullible must that foreigner be, or is it actually plausible. Reaching the full spectrum of a reasonable language while being constrained to 14 syllables is a bit far-fetched. But what if it was 14 characters and not words? Can we reduce the English language to a small type-set of 14 characters?
For a stater, let’s say we’re keeping only consonants and we’ll use nikkud (a form of punctuation) instead. like in this example in Hebrew, in which the red dots indicate how each consonant should be pronounced –
After that, we can omit duplicate consonants while still retaining all the available sounds – “x” can be pronounced with “ks” or “z”, “f” can be pronounced with “ph” and so on.
Talking about this with a friend as I fell in love with the intriguing challenge, as he sent me a video of Karina Galperin explaining why Spanish language should be simplified in order to promote equality. This approach, in fact, sees languages a political tool whereas people might be classified according to their spelling capabilities . Coincidently I came across this video of a thrilling spelling contest and it actually made me cringe at the prospect of a language priding itself in being impossible to spell. Language is a tool aiming to help us communicate with one another – preferably as clear and disambiguous as possible.
I googled for the most efficient language and learned that English is actually considered very efficient, which for me meant the bar is quite low when aiming for “the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy (multiple meanings) and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language“. This has lead me to Ithkuil which is an engineered language, built to be extremely profound but sadly very complex to actually be use (which reminds me the old joke about IBM: “it may be slow but it’s hard to use”). Engineered languages are unlike our normal everyday languages as they haven’t evolved through the course of centuries to include all sorts of weird exceptions (side-note, Do creationist believe in the evolution of languages?). Instead they were preconceived and presumably their creators could have tackled all the problems beforehand. A language, like a software code designed for Space-shuttles, better be right on the first time as “fixes” take generations.
When engineering a language, one must ask whether it should be a relatable language that sounds pretty much like another language (like all latin-based languages are similar) or should it be secretive that no one else could decipher?
During WW2, the Americans used Navajo-native speakers for radio-communication. Navajo, being completely unrelated to any other European or asian language (and having complex grammar regardless) was impossible for the Japanese to decipher without having a native speaker to simply understand it. The story of the WindTalkers is quite incredible on its own.
We should also ask how deep are we ready to go? simply make a unique typography? Perhaps change the way the sentence structure or even fundamentally change the grammar rules into something completely different. I tried tackling those questions on my presumptuous attempt to simplify the English language with a complete disrespect to traditions or reasons that were lost in days past.
For typography, I decided to use the standard latin characters, because many people know how “m” sounds like as opposed to “צ”. Also, creating a new typography means losing all the years of work of thousands of people who created beautiful latin-based fonts.
There are no capital letters in my language. I don’t think they’re necessary. My only exception is that I would use the uppercase “L” instead of the small-case ambiguous “l”.
Character-set can either be maximal, with vowels and each character having a single sounds (but not having duplicities) like most of the Cyrillic-script languages; or minimal, using consonants and a method to make stronger and softer (much like having “h” after “s” creates a new stronger sound “sh”). I decided to go with the minimal approach as I figured it will take less time to learn the different characters:
- My set of 15 characters is “a b g d p h L m n r s t y z”
- Additionally, b̝ becomes softer, to “v” (like in “victory”).
- g̝ which normally sounds like in “game”, becomes “j” (like in “James”)
- k̝ which normally sounds like “kangaroo”, becomes “ch” (like “cheetah”
- p̝ becomes “f” (like “fantasy”)
- h̝ becomes “kh” (like “akhmed”) or the Spanish sounds of “j” (like “Javier”)
- s̝ becomes “sh”
- t̝ becomes “th”
- y̝ becomes “w”
- z̝ becomes “zs” (like “Zsa Zsa Gabor”) or “zh” (like “Doctor Zhivago”)
As I mention, I decided to omit the vowels (leaving only the consonant “a” for the actual sound that you can hear in “apple”). It’s not a simple decision to make, but I think we can learn to read without the vowels (“ppl, u cn hndl ths!”) and it’ll make the words shorter and therefore more digestible. Instead I’ll have nikkud. For this challenge I used characters that appear in standard fonts (although not accessible in common keyboard layout).
- b͒= ba, sounds like “dad”. It looks like your eyebrows when you try to put on mascara.
b̆ = bi, sounds like “dip”. It loos like a smile.
- b̊ = bo, sounds like “mom”. it looks likes an “o” shape.
- ḃ = bu, sounds like “room” (side-note: I challenge you to find a 3 letter english word that has “u” in the middle that actually sounds like “u” (as in “room”) and like a short “a” (like “pug” or “mum”). It looks like a dot as it forces to close your mouth to purse your lips
- b̄ = be, sounds like “bed”, doesn’t really look like anything; it’s just a “meh”-looking nikkud.
- Lastly, there is an optional tilda below a letter to to hint it’s a long sound in order to help say a word properly, for example the difference between “Daniel” and “Daniel“: “d̰͒n̆āl” vs. “d͒n̆ā̰l”. It can also be useful for a word like ṡ̰p – “soup” so it wouldn’t sound like “soop”.
Numbers are also very important. Inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on Math and Chinese, I would like my numbers to be short words as well. So rather than re-inventing the wheel, number are borrowed from the Chinese system: 0 (L̆ng) 1 (y̆) 2 (ār) 3 (s͒n) 4 (s̆) 5 (ḃ̝) 6 (L̆ẏ) 7 (k̆) 8 (b͒) 9 (ğ̝ẏ) 10 (s̝̆)
The real magic with the Chinese counting system is that there’s no eleven, twelve or any other strange name for numbers. 34 is simply “three-ten-four” (s͒n s̝̆ s̆) so it’s much easier for children to learn how to count all the way up to 99 and it’s makes their life much easier what trying to do simple arithmetics.
I tried to think of the most important words for communication – Yes (ȳs), No (n̊), I or Me (m̆), you (ẏ) and he/she/it (s̝̄). Plurals will be marked with the suffix ās (“es”) so the plural of y·(“you”) will become “ẏās” (pronounced “you-es”).
My language will not have “a/an” determiners. I think it’s useless as their existence makes the default sentence “I eat apple” meaningless. I believe I can do well without them. “The” determiner will be “t̝˜-” as it must come in conjunction using a hyphen with a noun, for example “t̝̄-d̄yt̆” (“The deity”).
English has 12 different tenses. I would like to have a better way to deal with this. Each verb should end with a suffix indicating its tense and time.
- We’ll take the noun k̆s (kiss) with its verb k̆s̄ (“Kissing”, note that the name of the verb doesn’t include time-indicator), and we’ll examine all the variations of it.
- Like in English, my verbs don’t indicate gender but I also omit the “s” that appear on for he/she/it (e.g. “he runs“).
- Verbs gets one of three suffixes to indicate the time – d (past), n (present) and L (future). The nikkud indicates whether it’s simple, continuous (equivalent to “ing” suffix in English) or perfect and whether it’s active or passive.
In English, when asking a question the verb “be” moves to the beginning of the sentence: “She is running” becomes “Is she running?”. As I don’t want the verb “Be”, I’ll use the Spanish technique to indicate the sentence is a question, having an upside-down question at its beginning – “¿s̝̄ r͒n̄n?”, or “¿ḣ s̝̄?” (“who [is] she?”).
On a technical note, in order to write this post, I used a great free “keyboard-layout-editor” app called Ukelele, in order to make my nikkud characters more accessible. removing 10 characters I didn’t need I had a lot more space to prioritize others things (like brackets for example). Being aware it requires adjustment-time, I enjoyed the idea of putting keys according to their usage-frequency (check out Dvorak’s simplified keyboard that unfortunately never caught on with the general public).
Getting the feel for this application, I played a bit further with the hidden potential of a “better keyboard”. One of the thing I did, as I had plenty of available space on my keyboard, was sorting all the number in a one-hand-accessible layout. I think this should be extremely useful for keyboards that don’t have keypad or lazy people like me who don’t want to move their hand all the way to the keypad –
A language becomes politically-biased as soon as you have honorary title, like the German “Sie” or the Italian “Lei” or being gender influenced more than it should – just see how much more complicated German has become when every noun has a gender, which to be honest is quite arbitrary (changing its “the” to either “der”, “die” or “das”). So no. My language is equal and neutral balanced. There’s no honorary title and there’s no other change in the language when talking about subject of different gender. “f̆” means ♀ (female) and “m̄” means ♂ (male). And on another side-note, I’m annoyed that most english words for females are derived from their male counterpart – “woman“, “female“. The etymology of “wife” is actually “shame” and the word “girl”, to be honest, is quite derogatory. “m͒m͒” (pronounced “mama”) would mean “parent” whether it’s the mother, the father, the second father or the second mother (as modern family are much more complicated then a mere “mom” and “dad”.
I also decided that my language will not have a word for “god” or “holy”. these will be transversed to “deity” and “divine” respectively. I will also exclude the words “Husband” and “wife” (to be transversed to “spouse”), neither “man” nor “woman” (to be transversed to “person”). Nothing will prevent other people from introducing these words in the future, but at least as far as I was concerned, I think that for a time it would force people into a healthier perspective on religion and gender-equality
So this was my mental-challenge of simplified English. According to WikiHow’s on creating a language I should create a small dictionary to establish my language. I agree, as I think that “playing” with the language will help uncover exceptions or elements left unclear. But as linguistics ain’t my field of expertise and as fascinating (for me at least) as it may be, I should move on and perhaps get back to it if (for whatever reason) this article will gain traction. Personally, I’d love to explore further on the behavior of comparisons, adjective and adverbs in my simplified English. Perhaps in another lifetime.