Thursday, August 9, 2007

Vowels are for chumps

For some reason, in the last year or two I've become slightly obsessed with the idea of writing English without vowels. I had first conceived of the idea back in 9th grade, but it took me about ten years of tweaking to get a model system into a state that worked for me.

From a purely academically curious point of view, I continue to be surprised by how little trouble I have in reading English in which only the consonants were indicated. So how necessary are vowels, really, for a well-oiled orthography? Hebrew and Arabic, inter alias, seem to do just fine without them. The only real problem is one of homonymy: "bt" could mean bat, bet, bit, bot, or but; "til" could be tile, tail, teal, or toil. My hope is that context will take care of this, but I need more experimental data.

In my own experience reading transliterated texts, though, the concept seems to work astonishingly well. This makes me wonder: is the modern marvel of the phonemic alphabet in which both consonants and vowels are written really the best of all possible orthographic systems? Maybe the Phoenicians had it right in the first place.

Here's an excerpt from a favorite book of my childhood, transliterated into one potential version of a consonantal script (from Adrian Mole from Minor to Major by Sue Townsend: London, Mandarin Paperbacks 1992):
Uuk ep uŧ sr ŧrut, kdnt sulu, trid tšut dunstrz bt kd eunli mnj ekruk. Trid tetrkt mi fđrz etnčn bi bŋŋ en mi bdrum flr uŧ eskul šu bt mi fđr šutt, 'Stp đt bldi bŋŋ'. Evnčli ei snt đdg dunstrz uŧ emsj tkt ensid ets klr. Ei uitd feijz, đn ei hrd đdg brkŋ en đstrit. Et hdnt dlvrd đmsj! Ei uz klus tdspr. Ei hd tgt ep tgu tđtilt bt hu ei gt đr ei dunt nu; et ez el ehizi blr. Ei std et đtp vđstrz nkrukt ez lud ez ei kd bt mi fđr hd hz Elma Kugn rkrdz en su ei uz frst tgu dunstrz ttl hm ei uz el. Mi fđr lkt en mi muŧ nsd, 'Krist Elmiti, Eidrin, ir tnslz lk lik Plrs mslz! Wt er iu duŋ dun hir? Gt bk entu bd et uns, iu ful.' Hi tk mi tmprčr: et uz 112 Frnhit. Bi rits ei šd bi dd.

Et ez nu fiv mnts tmdnit, đdktr ez kmŋ en đmrnŋ. Ei jst pri đt ei kn lst eut entl đn. Šd đurst hpn, ei hirbi liv el mi urldli gdz tPndra Briŧuit v69 Elm Tri Driv. Ei ŧŋk ei em vsund mind. Et ez vri hrd ttl wn iuv gt etmprčr v112 Frnhit.
Note: Lest you think I am completely insane, I swear that there are at least two other people besides me who have succeeded in reading this stuff, one of whom was not even a linguistics major.

Anyway. Compared with the standard English version, the omission of vowels uses 31% fewer characters and 28% less space. One can only wonder at the reduction in trees needed for sacrifice to the printing presses of the English-speaking world if we were to adopt such a system.

...not that the contingency is a likely one. Still, I think it's a cool idea.

Next week: We explore the marvelous possibilities of consonantless writing systems. I i a ee i eay ie a o o oeia o u a iea, o ou?


Amelia said...

Yeah, I have no idea what that says. err...

? hv nu ?d? ut ?t sz

Ron said...

I can't really read that either...

Amelia said...

Wait, Wait! "Woke up with sore throat!" I figured out the first part!