THE RED LIST
Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.
Chances are, dear reader, you are in the language industry — as a translator, teacher, localizationer, game industrialist, and so on. There’s also a good chance your mother tongue is not English. If either or both are the case, you are going to love this column, especially as it comes with a free game.
If your mother tongue is English, as mine is, then chances are you were brought up to assume that the English language and the Latin alphabet were the summit of linguistic perfection, and it would only be a matter of time before the rest of the world comes to its senses and adopts both.
If your mother tongue is not English, then chances are you realized a long time ago — especially if your job is to teach or translate into or from English — that the English language (and possibly also the Latin alphabet) is riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies and other holes, and it should only be a matter of time before it gets towed out into the Atlantic and allowed to sink of its own accord.
We English have known about these inconsistencies all along, of course, and we laugh them off with a wave of the hand. I had been so accustomed to the laughing and the waving that I only really understood what everyone trying to learn English has to go through when I tried to create a Scrabble game in non-Latin scripts.
I thought making such a game would be a fun way to introduce endangered alphabets, but what I discovered was that it simply cannot be done.
It can’t be done because most languages in the world have developed scripts that have a different letter for each spoken sound, and if you have, say, between 60 and 600 spoken sounds, you would need a Scrabble board the size of an aircraft carrier, and the little trays that hold your tiles would have to be 20 meters long. Either that, or you would simply never be able to make anything more than a two-letter word with the tiles you had been dealt.
Put simply: Scrabble works for the Latin alphabet and the English language because English is appallingly sloppy. As you already know if you’ve had to learn English as a second, third, or fourth language, virtually every letter in its apparently lean and sleek alphabet can be pronounced two or three ways or even not at all. Most written words can only be understood and pronounced if you have already sweated through a vast, irregular vocabulary list and if you already understand the context.
Of course, we English make you feel as though this is because you are (a): foreign and (b): not very bright, but the fact is, if even a Brit were to be introduced to someone named, for example, Mr. Brough, they would have no idea how to pronounce his name.
To be strident for a moment (or a paragraph), this sloppy inexactitude is, in fact, profoundly ethnocentric and selfish. Because the pronunciation and meaning of a word rely heavily on context, essentially non-Brits have to know our language and our culture and our language’s history in order to be able to learn our language. It’s an extension of colonial thinking, which is, if you want to improve, you need to be like us. And it’s not easy to be like us because we think of ourselves as special — and we don’t really want to make it easy to be like us.
Okay, I’ll get back off the soapbox and tell you about the game.
The game is superficially like Scrabble (without tiles), but it’s really a kind of anti-Scrabble, or Revenge Scrabble. At first, in fact, my working name for it was Sloppy Scrabble. The object of the game is to add words to make an intersecting grid, like Scrabble, but in doing so you exploit the inconsistencies in English spelling in the most fundamental way: You add a word to an existing word by choosing a word in which the intersecting letter is pronounced differently in each word.
Here’s something really interesting: There is no English word for a letter that can be pronounced in more than one way, even though (or perhaps because?) English is riddled with them. It’s as though we are so accustomed to such floppy pronunciation we can’t imagine anything else. So after some thought, I’ve decided to call such letters “polyphones”.
Here’s an excerpt from the rules:
At the heart of the game is a word that does not yet exist in English, so I made it up. The word is polyphone, and it means “a letter that can be pronounced in more than one way.” In fact, most English letters are polyphonic. An A can be short, as in HAT, or long as in HATE. A C or a G can be soft or hard. An E can be long or short or even silent, as in PARADE.
To the right, you’ll find an example of how the game grid might look after just a few turns.
Look closely, and you’ll see that every interesting letter is pronounced differently in each of the intersecting words.
The name of the game, by the way, is no longer Sloppy Scrabble, as I was concerned that might infringe patent laws, and in any case I want a more striking name. Consequently, the name is now called Forked Tongue.
Appropriately, the name has two meanings. The name refers to the fact that in the English tongue, a single letter may go in two directions. But also, the first word in the game is always TONGUE, which is written or entered in the center of the blank grid. All other words will fork away from that word. And the delightful thing about the word TONGUE is that every single letter is a polyphone. Whichever player goes next can start literally anywhere: with the second T in STATION to intersect with the T, with OFF to intersect with the O, and so on. The game literally starts with a deconstruction of English spelling.
I posted a test version of Forked Tongue on my social media, and people went bananas. Within minutes we had a grid of words measuring 30 by 22, and growing rapidly.
Several people have responded by saying, “Oh, this is a wonderful tool for teaching English.” And yes, it certainly goes to the heart of some of the language’s greatest challenges.
Yet I see it slightly differently. As a native Brit, I see it as a mirror, to hold up to ourselves and to make us to see just how poorly we have established the relationship between script and language, and how unfit we are to be the world’s exemplar and writing toolkit.
It also shows how wrong we are in our self-serving, self-satisfied declarations that a small character set makes a script easier to learn. We have, by world standards, a very small character set. And we pat ourselves on the back as if this is a good thing. But Forked Tongue shows that it simply means it’s actually much harder to learn than a larger and more exact set of characters.
Forked Tongue also threatens the sacred cow of haste. Many of our developments in writing technology have been intended to allow people to communicate more quickly.
What we see with Forked Tongue is that if you do that, by reducing the number of characters and having individual characters that stand for multiple phonemes, you give the appearance of speed, but you pay for it in ambiguity and potential misunderstanding.
I am so committed to Forked Tongue as a teaching tool in this larger sense that I am giving it away free. If you would like a copy of the complete rules, simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My only stipulation is that if you duplicate it and play it or use it as a teaching tool, as I hope you will, you credit me and the Endangered Alphabets Project. And in lieu (a great Forked Tongue word) of a fee, a donation would not go amiss.
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