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SynPhony Demos

Want to try out SynPhony? Here are several instances of SynPhony in different languages. They contain the core functionality of creating word lists and checking texts, but not all of the rest of the features available in the full program. Please read the description on how the word lists page and story checking page work before you try them out. Each link opens in a new tab.

  1. Swahili (Tanzania, Kenya)
  2. Wolof (Senegal)
  3. Urdu (Pakistan)

Alphabetic Code Charts

An ideal orthography uses 1 grapheme for 1 phoneme and always uses it consistently. Such an orthography would result in a very boring chart: a single column of spelling patterns matched to a single phoneme. Great for teaching literacy. But these charts below have a perverse fascination: they are interesting to study but reflect the difficulty in mastering how to read and write in these languages.

See the orthographic complexity for these 5 languages with their alphabetic code charts. The interactive charts below display the orthographic complexity of these languages in a unique way. Please read the page which describes how you can interact with these charts. (Each link opens in a new tab.)

  1. French
  2. English
  3. German
  4. Portuguese
  5. Spanish

In the default view each row of the chart represents one phoneme. Each coloured cell in that row (apart from the statistics) represent a way to represent that phoneme in the language. The blue cell contains an IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) character representing that phoneme. Not all of these charts are equally complete or authoritative. I have not been able to do the same amount of work or find native speakers to help develop the analysis for each of them. In addition, people may have valid reasons to analyse spelling patterns differently. Regional pronunciation patterns vary for languages around the world which could also change the analysis.

What makes an orthography complex?

An ideal orthography would use one symbol to represent one phoneme, or sound in a language. You can call this kind of orthography a “transparent orthography”. When alphabets are first created for languages this is the principle they use, or something close to it. However, once languages have a long literary history they face numerous pressures that sometimes results in a departure from this basic principle. One of the main ones is that languages change over time; that is, the way people pronounce their words change over time. If there is no central government that can initiate and carry out a spelling reform, then the spoken form of the language slowly diverges from the written form over time. In addition, people borrow words from other languages all the time. Sometimes these words remain “foreign” in the minds of the speakers for a long time and at other times they become such a accepted part of the language that they are no longer considered foreign. At the beginning they may be used with the pronunciation of the source language, thus introducing new sounds into the receiving language. Or the words may be adapted in pronunciation either right away or slowly until they are considered a native word. This is the case with some world languages today. In this group of languages there are some which have a small degree of orthographic complexity and others that have a much larger degree of complexity.

There are at least 3 ways an orthography can be considered complex. The first is when a language uses more than one letter to represent one phoneme or sound. This can happen when a writing system or the accepted alphabet has fewer letters than the number of sounds in a language. This means the orthography is under-represented. To resolve this shortage of symbols a language can use digraphs, trigraphs or even more letters to represent a single phoneme. We can also call these multigraphs. Examples of this are the English digraphs “th” and “ee”.

Sometimes a language has what are considered “silent letters”. This could happen as a result of a change in speech patterns shifting over time, or a borrowed word being pronounced differently in the source language, or words having grammatical information added that are not used in speech.

The second way an orthography can be complex is if it uses more than one way to represent a phoneme. We can call this kind of orthogaphy over-represented or “complex orthography”. Again, an English example would be the various ways to spell the /k/ sound: “k” – as in “kilt”, “c” – as in “cat”, “ck” – as in “back”.

The third way an orthography can be complex is the most vexing. The same letter (or letters) can be pronounced differently in different words. We could call this an “opaque orthography”. In this scenario the orthography is an unreliable guide for pronouncing a word; that information resides in the mind of native speakers, not its written form. The orthography is a record of the various influences that have played out on the language over time. Again, English has plenty of examples of this feature. Consider that all of the 5 single English vowel letters have 4-7 different ways of being pronounced each!