Monday, November 26, 2007

Good and Bad Phonetic Alphabets

“A is for apple,” we say when teaching children the alphabet. We pick key words to give a good example of the typical sound a letter makes. Jeffrey Haines writes, “As if the English language weren’t distressing enough with its irregular verbs and perverse spellings, several letters of our alphabet sound confusingly similar. That’s why we struggle to find ways that might clarify spelling of easily misheard words: “B… that’s B as in boy, not D as in dog....’”

Sometimes tutors and learners have trouble with pronunciation, and here at LitNet we hear things like, “No, it’s ‘b.’ ‘B’ as in bictory!” Before WWII, our armed forces developed a uniform phonetic alphabet using simple, direct words they thought would be universal, e.g.: “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy....” But people from lands where they pronounce Q’s like K’s and where H doesn’t make any sound—found these words were ambiguous or confusing. So we modified this to create an International Phonetic Alphabet. Now military members say, “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie Delta ....” and on down the line to “Zulu.”

Below I took a confusing alphabet created by Jerry V. Haines that I found somewhere on the internet (can’t remember where) months ago. He found words that were bad examples, phonetically speaking, because they either sound like the name of another letter, or they use an atypical (i.e. weirdo) sound for that letter. I attempted to come up with a more relevant, more local alphabet, up to date with what people are more likely to hear around the grocery store, shop floor or gas station. You will find it below in the right column. Can you come up with any improvements? Key words should give the most common sound of the letter, e.g. the short sound of the vowels and the hard sounds of ‘c’ and ‘g.’ They should be short, and they should mean something to your learner.



A Are
B Beady
C Cue
D Django (helpful only to jazz aficionados)
E Eye
F Fiji
G Gneiss
H Honorable
I Ian
J Jeans
K Knees
L Llama (you’d use the authentic Spanish “y” pronunciation, of course
M Mnemonic
N Niece
O Oedipus
P Pneumonia
Q Quay
R Try to roll it, as in “Rrrrrobert Burrrns.”
S Sea
T Teepee
U Urn
V Apparently a V is always a V…
W Why
X Xerxes [or xylophone]
Y You
Z Ziti

A Ask
B badger
C cap
D dollar
E Elmo (any parent knows who this is)
F Fox
G gallon
H hotel
I India
J Jack
K kilogram
L Lake
M Mendota
N north
O Ox
P papa
Q quick
R Romeo
S simple
T tutor
U uncle
V Victor
W Wisconsin
X ax
Y yogurt
Z zoo

Please keep in touch, and don’t be shy about sending in your questions or brainwaves. Next week: a tip courtesy of tutor Ali Phillips, who found some good web resources.


Anonymous said...

This comment is from Mary Pelzer, Literacy Network tutor:
I liked your alphabet since I also have to spell my name P as in Paul, Z as in Zebra when I am speaking it or I get very weird spellings.

I have a couple of suggestions:
E as in enter (for our foreign learners, I am not sure they all do know who Elmo is)
H as in hat or hello
V as in village
X as in exit (because ask and ax sound similar)


Alan Post said...

I know this entry is coming on two years old, but on the off chance it is still relevant to you:

I've often confused myself saying "H as in Hotel" because we also have the english word "Motel." That particular word stands out as a suboptimal example for me in the NATO Spelling Alphabet.

I got a chuckle out of the bad example list!