Praise for a phonetic writing system
Discovery of the alphabet
Jeannot had just turned seven. He entered first grade in the famous first grade class that would finally allow him to learn to read. His first French lesson began by learning an alphabet of 26 letters that his teacher wrote on the board: ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘f'’, ‘g’, ‘h’ ,’i’, ‘j’, ‘k’, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘o’, ‘p’, ‘q’, ‘r’, ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘u’, ‘v’, ‘w’, ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’.
"Each letter of the alphabet is a symbol used to represent a sound" the teacher explained. "The alphabet is a tool that allows you to write your words and read those of others."
According to his teacher, the French alphabet came from the Latin alphabet, itself derived of the Greek alphabet αλφάβητο (alphabeto), itself inspired by the Phoenician alphabet. The first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet woud have been called Aleph and Beth and meant "bull" and "home." In other words, peoples had been copying each other since hundreds of years, smiled Jeannot.
The teacher explained that there were their additional symbols that were not part of the alphabet and which were not pronunciated; for example, the question mark '?' for sentences asking a question. She informed them that the question mark came from the Latin quaestio, which was first shortened to qo. The letter 'q' had then been gradually written on letter 'o', which eventually gave birth to the sign '?'.
Learning the alphabet started by repeating several times, out loud, the sound associated with each letter, as pronunciated by the teacher: [a], [bé], [sé], [dé], [e], [èf], [jé], [ach], [i], [ji], [ka], [èl], [èm], [èn], [o], [pé], [ku], [èr], [ès], [té], [u], [vé], [double vé], [iks], [i grèk], [zèd]. Jeannot immediately noticed some redundancy among the letters 'g' and 'j', which both contained sound [j]; the same for 'c' and 's' with respect to sound [s]; for 'k' and 'q' for sound [k]; for 'i' and 'y' for sound [i]; for 'v' and 'w' for the sound [v]. However, he refrained from comment. If the French had been using it for hundreds years, no doubt there was a reason.
That evening, while returning from school, he was eager to try what he had learned. He urged his brother to him to create this famous Facebook account, which everyone was talking about. Once the account created, his brother showed him how to send a message. So cool! He was now able to chat with his cousin and uncle, who also used Facebook. His first message was a typical message of a first communication through the Internet. He spontaneously wrote the text "salu sa va?". Normally, it should work: he had remembered well the various letters, as well as their corresponding sound. It was not so difficult after all, thinking about his older brother who was always reprimanded for the SMS full of mistakes sent to the parents.
At this stage, most readers will probably notice that the message "salu sa va?" is not spelled correctly, that Jeannot would need to become more familiar with the writing system before writing anything. However, a minority of readers might admire his ability to write a text by himself after only a single French lesson. By analyzing the encoding mechanisms required to generate the text "salu sa va?", neuroscientists would have probably observed the following treatment in his brain: first, recovery of the pronunciation of the first word, which gives the sound sequence [salu]. Second, dissociation of the sound sequence into a list of elementary sounds: [s], [a], [l], and [u]. Third, identification of the letter needed for each sound: the sound [s] is associated with the letter 's'; the sound [a] to the letter 'a' sound [s] to the letter 'l' sound [u] to the letter 'u'. Fourth, concatenation of all the letters, which gives "salu". Jump to the next word, and so forth... hence the message generated spontaneously by the brain: "salu sa va?". The message written by Jeannot is logical, but does not follow the conventions of writing as required by the French orthography: after that first day, Jeannot had not time to be trained - or distorted - by the French orthography.
He quickly received the answer from his cousin. The message was: "sa gaz". Jeannot started reading, a decoding operation realized by his brain in some few milliseconds. First, dissociation of the first letters of the word, either the letters 's' and 'a'. Second, identification of the elementary sound associated with each letter: the letter 's' is associated with the sound [s] and the letter 'a' is associated with the [a]. Third, concatenation of elementary sounds in a sound sequence [sa]. Fourth, recovery of the possible meanings of the sound sequence [sa]. Transition to the next word, he obtained [gaz]. The entire message was then decoded: the pronunciation was [sa gaz] and its overall significance left no doubt. This famous alphabet was indeed useful. He realized, with pride, that he had succeeded in both writing his own words and reading those of another... and all of this, in one single day!
Disappointment due to orthography
The joy of Jeannot was nevertheless short-lived. The next morning, he discovered the response from his uncle on Facebook with a message much harder to decipher than the first one: il fallait écrire salut ça va!".Impossible to decrypt this message. First, the letters 'é' and 'ç' were not part of the famous alphabet of 26 letters. Was it his uncle who was wrong? Or was it his teacher who had forgotten letters in the alphabet presented the day before? He made the assumption that it was his uncle who was wrong. Despite this, it was impossible for him to guess the meaning of the text he was trying to pronounce aloud. Under the rules of the alphabet, the decoding of the message gave the following sound [il falla-it' esrire salut' sa va]. It was incomprehensible. Jeannot was pragmatic. He asked his brother to print this last message. It would show it today to his teacher. Not bother to panic, he had probably misunderstood a detail during lesson of yesterday. He walked away from the computer humming tube of an old seventies recently resurfaced on the airwaves:
Voici venu le temps des rires et des chants
Dans l'île aux enfants
C'est tous les jours le printemps
C'est le pays joyeux des enfants heureux
Des monstres gentils
Oui c'est un paradis
Si seulement vos parents
Avaient envie de vivre dans notre île
Tout serait beaucoup plus gai
Et pour chacun la vie serait plus facile
Upon arrival at school, Jeannot showed the message from his uncle to his teacher. He began by pointing out the unknown letters 'e' and 'ç'. The teacher indicated him that there were letters he had not talked about the day before, in order to simplify the first lesson. He explained that if all the letters are taken into account, the French alphabet is actually made of 42 letters: ‘a’, ‘à’, ‘â’, ‘æ’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘ç’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘é’, ‘è’, ‘ê’, ‘ë’, ‘f’, ‘g’, ‘h’ , ‘i’, ‘î’, ‘ï’, ‘j’, ‘k’, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘o’, ‘ô’, ‘œ’, ‘p’, ‘q’, ‘r’, ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘u’, ‘ù’, ‘û’, ‘ü’, ‘v’, ‘w’, ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘ÿ’, ‘z'. Things were getting complicated, lamented Jeannot.
In addition, the teacher explained him very quickly a few additional rules: First, letter ‘é’ is pronounced with sound son [é] and letter 'ç' with sound [s] ; Second, letter ‘c’ is sometimes pronouced with sound [k] ; Third, letter ‘a’ followed by letter ‘i’ is pronounced with sound [è] ; Fourth, letter ‘t’ at the end of the words "fallait" and "salut" is mute, and the same for letter 'e' at the end of the word "écrire".
Jeannot's brain began to turn briskly: With the first rule, the message that he wrongly decoded as [il falla-it' esrire salut' sa va] became [il falla-it' ésrire salut' sa va]. The second rule enhanced the decoding step giving [il falla-it' ékrire salut' sa va]. The third rule leaded closer to the final result giving [il fallèt' ékrire salut' sa va]. The fourth rule ended decrypting the message by revealing its true pronunciation: [il fallè ékrir salu sa va].
All these rules seemed quite complicated Why two different letters ‘s’ and ‘ç’ for the same sound [s]? Why two different sounds [k] and [s] for the same letter ‘c’? Why two letters ‘a’ and ‘i’ for sound [è] given that the alphabet already contained letter ‘è’? Why letter 't' was mute et why was it necessary to write it? Why two lettres ‘l’ in the word « fallait » given that one letter would have been enough? His brain was lost with so many questions. Finding no logic, he did not know anymore how to perform the operations of reading and writing.
After this second day, Jeannot realized how much French was difficut to write and read. He had been far too optimistic the day before. If he continued thereafter to chat with his cousin, who understood him, he stopped his correspondence with his uncle. He would take over when he would write "correctly" provided it could possible one day. He anticipated no doubt that he would still need a good ten years to master this famous French orthography.
Back to basics
Jean was now adult. He had the chance to travel a lot and, as he liked understanding other cultures, he had learnt the rudiments of several languages. He classified these languages into three categories regarding their writing system.
The first category included only two languages: Chinese and Japanese. Their writing system proved extremely complicated to learn. It was indeed necessary to learn hundreds or thousands of different symbols to be able to read and write them. He had even given up trying to learn them. He thus only learnt to speak the basics of these languages, sometimes with the help of of the phonetic Pinyin and Katakana writing systems for learning certain words. These simplified writing systems were very practical. He could not understand why Chinese and Japanese did not use them systematically.
The second category also included only two languages: French and English. These two languages used both a writing system that was full of inconsistencies. Even if they used an alphabet of less than fifty letters, the use made of their alphabet was completely chaotic. Jean met the same surprises with English as those encountered when learning the French writing system. For example, some letters could be pronounced in different ways like in the words good and blood , some sounds were written with different letters like in the words cycle and silo. As a result, French and English people passed much of their lives with two eternal questions: "How do you write it?" when writing an uncommon word and "How is it pronounced?" when reading of unknown word such as a village name. And all - or almost - were thinking of it as a necessary evil.
However, he was pleasantly surprised to discover that several other languages such as Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, Finnish and Korean were doing a very logical use of their alphabet. He put them in a third category where it was always the same method that worked: all one needed was to learn the alphabet of the language and the pronunciation associated to each letter in order to read, and vice versa for writing where all one needed to learn was the pronunciation of the word in the language, to decompose it into elementary sounds and to finally write letter for that sound. Of course, there were few exceptions to these rules, but nothing in common with English and French.
Jean also took a scientific course that led him to manipulate numbers with several writing systems such as binary system, decimal system, the hexadecimal system, the Roman "system"... He learned that the numbers could be written differently but always keeping the same value. For example, the number eighteen, five-hundred-and-nine and four-thousands-nine-hundreds-ninety-nine could be written with XVIII DIX and MMMMCMXCIX in Roman numerals but could also be written more preferably with 18, and 509 in 4999 using the decimal system. In fact, the decimal system used an alphabet of symbols so logical and so efficient that its use had spread to most of the world. He thought about Obelix and fully approved his position: "these Romans are crazy!". They had lost a lot of time with a completely unsuitable calculation system.
It appeared gradually to Jean that the French orthography was to words what Roman numerals were for numbers. The French writing system was an inadequate tool for words. The orthography crisis clearly showed it: the hours dedicated to learn were decreasing, young people could not assimilate the too many rules required by the French orthography, they were all now writing "as pronounced" and not anymore "as required". Were they more stupid than their counterparts like Finnish, Korean, Spanish or Italian people, who do encountered such a crisis?
He thought back to all languages of the third class he had learned. He also remembered his first day of confrontation with the French alphabet in first grade class. Within minutes, he seemed possible to him to to write and read everything he wanted. During the second day, he started encountering issues with certain barbarian rules, such as silent letters and double consonants. But his cousin had understood him naturally, based on the very basic rules the first day. Intuitively, he used the phonetic alphabet by applying two simple rules: when writing, write each sound with a sinle letter; when reading, read each letter with a single sound.
inally, he may had already solved the problem long ago.
He undertook to start everything from scratch. To this end, he began his work by identifying the list of basic sounds for French: [a], [b], [ch], [d], [e], [é], [è], [f], [g], [j], [k], [l], [m], [n], [o], [p], [r], [s], [t], [v], [w], [y], [z].
But upon reflection, there was still some sounds: he added the sound [ã] of "enfant", the sound [ĩ] of "pain", the sound [õ] of "tonton", the sound [ũ] of "lundi", the sound [ë] of "peur", the sound [ö] of "coucou". He then updated its first list of basic sounds for French, which became: [a], [b], [ch], [d], [e], [é], [è], [f], [g], [j], [k], [l], [m], [n], [o], [p], [r], [s], [t], [v], [w], [y], [z], [ã], [ĩ], [õ], [ũ], [ë], [ö].
By combining a letter to every elementary sound, he obtained an alphabet that should logically have existed for a long time already: ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘d’, ‘e’, ‘é’, ‘è’, ‘f’, ‘g’, ‘i’, ‘j’, ‘k’, ‘l’, ‘m’, ‘n’, ‘o’, ‘p’, ‘r’, ‘s’, ‘t’, ‘u’, ‘v’, ‘w’, ‘y’, ‘z’, 'ã', 'ĩ', 'õ', 'ũ', 'ë', 'ö'.
Some details prevented him from being fully satisfied. He knew that the tilde sign associated with the four nasal vowels would struggling to be accepted, but he really wanted to keep them to remove any ambiguity when reading words like "intimité" and "intifada". At first glance, the choice of letters of the alphabet does not seem important. But upon closer inspection, each letter should ideally combine several properties: be composed of a single character, do not include accent, stay close to traditional writing and be easy to type on the keyboard. In short, it was an extremely complicated problem, and perhaps even insoluble. In the end, it kept these slight imperfections of the alphabet and decided to try it.
He experienced his alphabet on a piece of paper with the first example of a sentence which came to mind: "Salut, ça va?". He had to make the effort to mentally represent how the pronunciate it, something that gave [salu, sa va]. He decompose it more granularly into the sequence of sounds [s][a][l][u] [s][a] [v][a]. Puis il transforma méthodiquement, mais simplement, chaque son à l'aide de sa lettre associée, Afterwards,he methodically transformed each sound with its corresponding letter; he finally obtained the sequence of letters to be written on the paper : ‘s’’a’’l’’u’ ‘s’’a’ ‘v’’a’.
He read an read again the resulting text: "salu sa va?". It was the text he had spontaneously generated many years ago. In the end, he tought about all the time he had lost with these so-called rules of the French orthoraphy. He thought again about Obélix, laughing: "these French are crazy!"