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Can Google Glass help to establish a virtual Universal Alphabet?

By Jaber Jabbour - posted Tuesday, 21 May 2013

As I sat down on my seat in the flight from Lisbon to London, the captain started welcoming the passengers on-board. The nearly three-hour journey had just begun and from the back pocket of the seat in front of me "INSTRUÇÕES DE SEGURANÇA" was staring at me. Luckily, the English translation was written below it "SAFETY INSTRUCTIONS". As a result, I realised that INSTRUÇÕES means INSTRUCTIONS in English and that SEGURANÇA means SAFETY. I guessed that DE was used to show the relationship between INSTRUÇÕES and SEGURANÇA, similar to OF in English.

"Well done me! I have just learnt two and a half words in Portuguese. I should start repeating these words in my head in order to memorise them", I thought. However, I realised shortly after that pronouncing these new words was not easy – "How would I go about pronouncing the Ç or the Õ? Is the sound of U closer to the English U as in BUT or the French U? What about the E, is it like the E in PEN or the E in HE?"

I asked the Portuguese passenger next to me to pronounce "INSTRUÇÕES DE SEGURANÇA". Because the phonemes in Portuguese are not identical to those in English, I was unable to correctly repeat the pronunciation in my first attempt. However, after a few attempts and a couple of jokes with the Portuguese passenger, I received his approval for one of the pronunciations I had uttered. Admittedly, my pronunciation was not as accurate as that of a native Portuguese speaker, but it would have been understood by any Portuguese speaker. As I was memorising the right pronunciation, a new phonetic spelling of this phrase started to form in my mind to enable me to remember how to pronounce it in the future.


During the flight, I wondered: "Why are the Portuguese alphabet and the English alphabet pronounced differently despite the fact that they are both derived from the Roman alphabet? Why do we need the letter C, cannot we just replace it with an S or a K? Would it not be easier if words were spelled phonetically in a consistent manner across all languages using a universal alphabet?"

I then started answering my own questions: "Different languages have evolved independently in separate trajectories that reflected the unique social, political, educational and economic realities of various societies. The phonemes and sounds that exist in certain languages don't exist in other languages and therefore it is more efficient to use the same letters differently in these unique languages. It would be very inconvenient to change how words are spelled just to make languages more easily accessible to foreigners."

Later in the flight, new answers to the previous ones arose: "In the age of globalisation, more languages are in danger of extinction than before at the same time that everyone is travelling more frequently. Therefore, there is more value in making it easier to speak and learn languages. With the help of technology, there would be no inconvenience to anyone. If a simple universal phonetic spelling system exists, anyone can switch from traditional spelling to this phonetic spelling and vice versa with a press of a button or, soon, with a whisper to a Google Glass."

I initially thought that the new spelling system could be based on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). The IPA has over 100 letters and over 50 diacritics to accurately represent the large number of phonemes humans can utter across different languages and even across different accents within the same language. This is why the IPA is very useful to linguists. However, it takes a very long time to learn the IPA, it is not convenient for everyday use by the "non-experts" and it would be difficult for most people to fluently pronounce words using such a comprehensive alphabet. In addition, because of the large number of vowels, it is sometimes unintuitive to transcribe words using the IPA. I concluded therefore that the IPA is not a practical solution for the time being.

As a result, we launched the Spell As You Pronounce Universal project (SaypYu). This is a collaborative crowd-sourced universal alphabet experiment that aims at building a list of words from all languages spelled phonetically using a 24-letter alphabet. The purpose of this alphabet is to co-exist virtually in conjunction with current alphabets where users can electronically switch back and forth to and from SaypYu.

All of the 24 letters of the SaypYu alphabet were taken from the standard Roman alphabet, with the exception of the letter schwa, ɘ. The letters C, Q and X were eliminated because they could be replaced by their phonetic equivalents: K and/or S. More letters could be added in the future to make the pronunciation more accurate. However, the level of accuracy that the alphabet could achieve must be weighed against the level of effort that users would be willing to put to learn the alphabet.


The purpose of the pronunciation using the SaypYu alphabet is comprehension, rather than accuracy. This is why SaypYu can afford to have a much fewer number of letters than the IPA as it is easier to pass the test of comprehension than to pass the test of accuracy.

The simple phonetic spelling of words would enable everyone to easily pronounce foreign words and learn foreign languages. We hope that this would lead to a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures, which might make our cosmopolitan world a more peaceful, harmonious and inclusive place. In addition, the simple spelling would make it easier for everyone, particularly those with learning difficulties, to learn how to read and write.

Unlike Esperanto, SaypYu involves phonetics only and does not require the learning of new vocabulary. In fact, with the help of machine translation, there might not be a need any more for a universal language in the immediate future. For example, an English person can translate a question from English into French and then convert the French spelling into SaypYu spelling, which he/she can easily pronounce in a manner that a French person would understand. In his/her turn, the French person can do the exact opposite and pronounce the answer in English in a manner that the English person would understand.

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About the Author

Jaber Jabbour, who speaks Arabic, English and French, moved to the UK from Syria in 2004, taking a place at Imperial College. He worded in fixed income at Goldman Sachs. In 2009, he founded Ethos, advising investors on how to restructure their swaps and derivatives portfolios.

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