A Response to Anglo-Centric Geography: The Possibilities of Universal Communication

by Jen Turner

By свт. Стефан Пермский.Дзио Романо at ru.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Backers of a universal alphabet say it will make pronunciation easy and foster international understanding by using phonetic methods of spelling. But what might phonetic spelling systems really be able to do for geographers?

Admittedly, the hazards of attempting to pronounce foreign languages on global travels might be lessened.  A BBC article on the topic gives the example of being in Vietnam and wanting to order a a bowl of soup. You ask a local where you can get “pho”. After momentary confusion you are handed a book. It’s the curse of phonetics. Pho was correct. But you failed to emphasise the vowel and so articulated in Vietnamese “copy” (of a book). I myself have had many an awkward conversation with telephone communications operatives trying to pronounce the lines of address from my mid-Wales hometown.  Welsh is notoriously difficult to pronounce using the untrained tongue, but English has more pitfalls than most other languages.  “Don’t desert me here in the desert” is a classic example of the heteronym, words spelt the same but pronounced differently.

The argument over regulating spelling has been raging for more than a century, with the likes of Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw becoming advocates of a new phonetic alphabet.  Apparently, Shaw bequeathed a large sum in his will to setting one up.  Today, this has been attempted by Jaber George Jabbour, a Syrian banker living in the UK. 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 sound “schwa”. Jabbour was a frustrated traveller. He would see words on billboards, menus and street signs. But he didn’t have a clue how to pronounce them. When he first got to London he said Leicester Square as it is written – Le-ses-ter Square – receiving funny looks. Only later did he realise that it is pronounced “Lester”. His new alphabet transforms words such as ‘like’, ‘quote’ and ‘new’ into ‘layk’, ‘kwowt’ and ‘nyuu’.

Reading this article brought to mind an Area paper by Gesa Helms, Julia Lossau and Ulrich Oslender that discusses the dominance of English within the human geography discipline.  The article reflects on the workings of language, not only in the field of academic publishing, but also more widely in the research contexts and everyday work. The work draws upon the authors’ experiences as German-language speakers at different stages of their academic career and highlights personal observations.  They argue for a wider recognition of language in the practical terms of academic work is called for in the light of an increasing ‘internationalization’ of academia.

It seems, that rather than attempting to homogenize it, Helms et al consider the need to appreciate and utilize the variety of different language available to add to the breadth and depth of geographic enquiry.  It may be that Jabbour’s rational for the SaypU alphabet attempts to secure ease for the traveler and improve communications connections; but, if the case in academia is an example, what impacts will this cultural globalisation have upon the place of language in our everyday lives?


Gesa Helms, Julia Lossau and Ulrich Oslender, 2005, Einfach sprachlos but not simply speechless: language(s), thought and practice in the social sciencesArea, 37(3), pp 242-250. 

60-world2 Tom de Castella, Could a new phonetic alphabet promote world peace?, BBC News Magazine, 20 Feb 2013.

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