What would a phonetic English alphabet look like?

How many unique phonetic sounds are there in the English language? What are the letters and symbols used to represent them? How many “letters” would you need to represent them (things like the ‘th’, ‘ion’, ‘ch’, and ‘sh’ sounds)?

The book A Biography of the English Language states that Present Day English has 25 unique consonant phonemes, and 14 vowel phonemes. Not every phoneme is phonemic for every dialect of English–many, including myself, pronounce cot and caught exactly alike.

Dialectical variations would prevent a truly phonetic alphabet, but you could certainly get a lot closer than we have now with only a 50% increase in the number of “letters.”

When you think about it, the Japanese phonetic alphabet has 45 letters. So if we go by Opus1’s theory, a 50% increase would result in only 39 letters; still less than Japanese. And Japanese letters aren’t really that hard to learn.

I think we should go for it!

Here’s an alphabet that some guy cooked up as phonetic English,

There have been many attempts to establish a phonetic alphabet for the English language.

One of the major contenders is the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA) first developed by Pitman (of shorthand fame) which uses 40 sound signs (17 vowels and 23 consonants).

More examples can be found at the Spelling Reform Webring

suggested Google search (phonetic alphabet shaw pitman) produces about 150 results.

How about the Deseret alphabet?

There is already an International Phonetic Alphabet. Why would we need one that is just for English?

George Bernard Shaw designed a phonetic alphabet (well, why not? He gave us Prof. Henry Higgins!) and even had his play Androcles and the Lion printed using it. I’ve got a copy.

Here is a page of links to Shaw Alphabet sites. There’s a sa,ple of his “alphabet” (which uses invented symbols) on the page:


Yipes. It looks like Tolkien’s Tengwar alphabet.

Which English language? The English I speak is undoubtedly different than the English you speak. This is true whether we come from different cities or from different continents.

Generally speaking, “Standard” American English has 24 phonemically distinct consonants and 16 vowels. The “standard” British dialect (“Received Pronunciation”) has 20 vowels. Your mileage may vary.

If you know how to read and write, then I think you already know the answer to this question.

If you want distinct symbols, then you need 40 for SAE, or 44 for RP.

KneadToKnow, the IPA is great for phonetic spelling. Phonetic spelling is useful for writing down precisely the sounds of a speaker. You can distinguish the difference between the t-sounds in toe, at, and little.

For general use spelling of words, phonemic spelling is much more useful. Most readers could care less which t-sound is used. t is sufficient for all of the t-sounds.