I just came across this article on the BBC Website (Could a new phonetic alphabet promote world peace?) because it was posted in the /r/badlinguistics sub-reddit, and for good reason.

It is such a remarkable mix of bad linguistics and general cluelessness that I would have thought that even with media’s generally low standards of science (especially language) reporting, something like this would not have made the cut.

First of all, I am not sure why they even chose to write a whole article around this SaypU thing. People keep coming up with spelling standards every other day, and SaypU isn’t even particularly impressive.

He has set up SaypU, an alphabet with none of the indecipherable squiggles of traditional phonetic alphabets.

It contains 23 letters from the Roman alphabet as well as a back to front e. There is no place for “c”, “q”, or “x”, which merely repeat sounds achievable by using other letters. The “ɘ” represents the soft “a” of “ago” or “about”, a sound known as “schwa”.

_None of the indecipherable squiggles of traditional phonetic alphabets is either thoroughly ignorant or thoroughly racist. It is ignorant if they are trying to refer to the IPA, because they fail to appreciate that the reason the IPA needs to have so many symbols is because it has to represent innumerable sounds from languages around the world, something the SaypU dude has conveniently overlooked. And it is racist if they are trying to call every non-Roman script character an ‘indecipherable squiggle’_, as if writing systems around the world are all meaningless just because they aren’t A-B-C-D-E. This is particularly ironic because most of these squiggly scripts do a much better job of representing the sounds of their respective languages than that used for English does.

As a side note, it’s slightly unusual that SaypU chooses the ɘ to represent the schwa (the -uh sound). You’d think that once they’d decided to use a non-English character, they could as well have used the standard symbol for schwa. Hipster much?

A simplified universal alphabet would end not only misunderstanding. It would help foster peace around the world, he believes.

This seems to come from a person who’s never come out of their English bubble, which is rather weird because the inventor has been described as a Syrian banker, so I’d assume he’d at least be familiar with Arabic. I dunno how SaypU is supposed to represent Arabic sounds, and exactly how it would help even if I could bypass the Arabic script if I didn’t know Arabic in the first place.

“I come from Syria, a place torn apart by war now. The war is not to do with languages but the groups fighting each other do use different pronunciations.”

I don’t see how any merging of pronunciation (something that a spelling standard, including SeypU cannot achieve anyhow) can help in ending conflicts. Even cultural conflicts, that often include a conflict over language, aren’t so much due to differing pronunciations as due to the fact that neither party wants to consider the other’s pronunciation as correct, and this is rooted in socio-politics, not linguistics. This is not a problem that can be solved by a universal alphabet.

“If people pronounce and speak in the same way it makes people feel closer to one another. I do think the world with a single alphabet would be a more peaceful place.”

Dialects don’t exist because of ambiguity in spelling. English spelling is fairly standardized (even the US/UK differences are puny), yet you’d find hundreds of English dialect. This is NOT about spellings systems. It’s about language variation, which happens independent of orthographic representation.

I don’t think the inventor of SaypU even understands what it means to have a Universal Alphabet. You need a writing system that can (fairly) unambiguously represent sounds from all the languages of the world. The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is the most widely used standard for this purpose. It has over 100 characters and over 50 diacritics.

I don’t know how SeypU is expected to represent any non-English sound with its 24-character set.

It isn’t always obvious what the correct answer is. The SaypU spelling of “top” and “run” have had to be tweaked to take into account the different vowel sounds of American and British English.

This paragraph comes just a few paragraphs after the claim that everyone would start pronouncing words the same way once we had SaypU.

SaypU champions simplicity. But because of that it will struggle with languages in the Caucasus which have five or six ways of pronouncing the “k” sound, and South African languages like Xhosa where clicks play an important role, Ostler says.

Not only Caucasus languages but practically any language that is not English. If they had listened to what Ostler (chairman of the Foundation for Endangered Languages) said, they won’t have published the article.

It is only towards the end of the article that they put in counter-views:

It’s a futile aim, says Hitchings.

The funny part is that these views are considered as skepticism. This is like printing an article raving about intelligent design and then printing that a few scientists are ‘skeptical’ about the whole thing and are suggesting that evolution is possibly a better explanation.

[Cross-posted on Quora]