Although many languages share the same alphabets, the pronunciation varies greatly. The letters and words alone do not convey sufficient information.

Phonetic alphabets, on the other hand, are specifically designed for that purpose. They are relatively easy to learn and use, and don't need much more space or time to write down compared to normal alphabets (not including syllable alphabets).

I've often wondered if language learning on a general level would be easier if phonetic alphabets instead of the established alphabets were universally used.

Have there even been serious attempts to replace current alphabets with phonetic ones, or at least make the usage of phonetic alphabets more popular?

3 Answers 3


I think you're confusing the issue a little bit. You need to differentiate between the concept of phonetic alphabet and transparent orthography.

The introduction of the IPA or international phonetic alphabet was the one more or less successful attempt at making communication among linguists and language educator more consistent across languages. But most of its uses focus on key phonemic (rather than phonetic) features of the individual language and are subject to convention. So the pronunciations in a dictionary will not reflect many phonetic features like the nazalisation of vowels, etc. These conventions often compete with language change and dialectal variation. Take for instance the 'a' in English 'bat' Its pronunciation varies greatly across English dialects but in Britain has mostly moved from /æ/ to /a/. However, in most neutral contexts /æ/ is still used for consistency's sake. A true phonetic transcription would also record assimilations leading to spelling such as 'books' and 'budz'. To make things even more complicated, many sounds that are recorded by the same IPA symbol across languages do not actually sound exactly the same - this is particularly true for vowels - leading to more confusion and the necessity to learn local conventions for each language when reading transcriptions for the purposes of cross-linguistic comparison.

As a result an adoption of a fully phonetic alphabet that would apply to all languages or even just one language was not ever contemplated because there would be no advantage to it.

However, transparent orthography is a much more sensible concept. All it indicates that the way words are written makes it easy for native speakers who learned to associate individual sounds with letters (or groups of letters) to reliably pronounce any string as it was intended. No language is completely transparent in the sense, that it is necessary for readers to learn some conventions about how to pronounce certain letters in context, but there are languages that are almost completely transparent (Italian, Slovene) and those that are almost opaque (Mandarin) or very opaque (English) or somewhat opaque (French). Some othographies are only opaque in one direction (Greek - easy to read, more difficult to write, Arabic - easier to write, more difficult to read).

Many languages have successfully reformed their orthographies to be more transparent but English (which is what I think prompted your question) has not. There were some attempts to do this in the US in the 19th century which gave us things like color/colour but they only tinker around the edges. There are several reform movements active in English orthography but they have no prospect of being successful in the short-to-medium term.

Any possible advantages of transparent orhographies are purely marginal. Opaque orthographies have not prevented cultural, economic or geopolitical success of cultures for which they are typical (see US and China). They have certain obvious disadvantages for learning and use but the transactional cost is so small overall, that the possible long-term gain does not outweigh the huge short-term cost of a switch for a large and powerful culture like the Anglophone world or China. Smaller cultures have often undergone such reform but it was always linked to larger issues of cultural and political identity - never purely because of some sort of rationally judged advantage of a more transparent system.

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    I think post-Ottoman reforms to create modern Turkish written in the Latin alphabet are am obvious modern example. Oct 30, 2015 at 18:58

As far as I know, there have not been any systematic efforts to replace an established writing system with a phonetic-symbol based one. There have been numerous cases where the first writing system for a language is based on or more like a prevailing phonetic transcription, for example Lushootseed, Somali, Shona, Saami, but except for Lushootseed, these have been replaced with a system that reduces the number of special symbols in favor of di- and tri-graphs and less phonetic detail. There have also been politically-motivated script changes which have incidentally swept away less-phonetic aspects of a previous script, such as the replacement of traditional Mongolian (Sogdian-based) script with Cyrillic in 1946, where traditional Mongolian reflects historical pronuciations similar to the way that English spelling reflects older pronunciation.

The (current) North Saami system is revealing, as to motivations for opposing phoneticization of writing systems. There is considerable variability in the pronunciation of words in the language, and a too-phonetic writing system either means that there is no standard spelling for most words, or else most people have to learn an arbitrary dialect that they don't speak, and notions like "most widely spoken" aren't meaningful (they are not traditionally city-dwellers). The current system give much less detail than was present in older transcription systems, which means it is consistent with the speech of many more people and for a given dialect, you can usually figure out how to spell and pronounce, if you know the language. There remain some aspects of the language which can pose problems, such as the spelling a, á in neutralizing dialects, whether to write s vs. ŧ (you memorize which words have ŧ), or the nj, ŋ distinction in neutralizing dialects. The de-phoneticization of spelling has been a success precisely because it is less tied to specific pronunciations, and a unified writing system (hence literature) is thus possible.


For most languages, fully phonetic is not that much of a sensible goal. In general, languages aren’t understood in phonetic but rather in phonemic terms. The set of phonemes of a language is the collection of sounds that a speaker would usually differentiate as different sounds. For example, the first sounds in Kate and gate would be differentiated by speakers of English and identified as (voiceless) /k/ and (voiced) /g/ respectively. On the other hand, speakers of English would rarely identify the /k/ sound in Kate and skate as different although the former is typically aspirated while the latter is typically not aspirated, meaning that they would be written slightly differently in a fully phonetic alphabet. (Other languages do distinguish aspirated from non-aspirated plosives so speakers of those would probably identify the two /k/ sounds as different.)

When considering phonemic writing systems rather than phonetic ones, we find that many languages do a very good job at it. Dominik has listed Italian and Slovene, I would like to add Finnish to the list of an almost fully phonemic writing system.

If you look into history and at newly invented scripts, these were often phonemic when they were first used. However, then and now other languages (and cultures) would copy the scripts already in use by their neighbours and adapt them to their own language which often had a different phoneme inventory – especially if the two languages belonged to different families. There were then two options for the copying culture: leave it as is and find workarounds for stuff that did not really work out or invent one’s own script based on the neighbour’s script (including strongly modifying the neighbour’s script to one’s own requirements). Both occurred frequently but the latter tended to result in a new, phonemic writing system more often than not.

If you look at the history of the Latin alphabet, there were many precursors but I will start at Phoenician. This script was adapted to the Semitic language that is Phoenician meaning it had two different letters representing the two s-like sounds and two for the two t-like sounds; in addition, it distinguished between /k/ and /q/. On the other hand, they had no vowel symbols. The Greeks found this writing system useful and copied it, but Indo-European languages like Greek have more necessity for distinguishing vowels than Semitic languages do; on the flipside, Greek had far less use for some of these letters that represented identical (to Greek ears) sounds. Thus, signs were reassigned, vowel signs created and some symbols (like the one for /q/) fell out of use as there was no need for them.

The Early Greek script was copied by the Etruscans who spoke a language that was likely not Indo-European. Again, there was some re-assignment, some double-representations (Etruscan, for example, apparently did not differentiate [g] and [k]) and some sounds lacking. This Etruscan alphabet was then again adopted by a new culture whose founding myth involved a boy raised by a wolf killing his brother. Once again, there were reassignments, new inventions and a bit of this-and-that before this culture had a mostly phonemic alphabet and proceeded to conquer most of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. And there we are, the Latin alphabet once rather phonemic but then passed on, handed down, across languages whose phonemes might or might not match it leading to some better and some worse adaptations.

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