THE HUMAN PHYSIOLOGICAL ALPHABET
Geoffrey Graham Tudor
November 15, 1995
Copyright © Geoffrey Graham Tudor 1995-2019. All rights reserved.
AKA HUMAN PHYSIOLOGICAL ALPHABET
Table of Contents
C. Features and advantages
1. Universal application
2. Easy to understand, learn and use
3. Sound relationships
5. Speech therapy
6. Deaf assist
7. Second language learning
8. Culture neutral
9. Single case letters
10. Human body as decryption key
11. Alternative to IPA
D. HPA letters
(1) Coding parameters
(2) Table of elements
b. Consonant letters
(1) Coding parameters
(2) Table of consonant letters
c. Order of HPA consonants
a. Coding parameters
b. Table of vowels
(1) The midline
(2) Tongue openness/elevation
(3) Tongue backness
(4) Lip roundedness
d. Short forms of vowels
e. Order of HPA vowels
E. Examples of HPA
F. Earlier featural alphabets
1. Korean Hangul
2. Bell Visible Speech
G. Applications of HPA
Physioalphabet, also known as the Human Physiological Alphabet (HPA), is a universal featural alphabet based on the human physiology used to produce speech. Speech pronunciation is the product of physiology. HPA was deliberately designed so that the form of a letter communicates two types of information to a speaker:
1. how to pronounce that letter, i.e., what body parts to use to produce the sound corresponding to the letter, and
2. how the sound of a letter relates exactly to the sounds of all the other letters in the alphabet, i.e., what the physiological and phonological relationships are among the sounds that the letters represent.
No naturally, organically evolved alphabet does either of these things.
There are two systems of constructing letters in HPA, one for consonants and one for vowels. For consonants, there are two levels of design. Each letter is comprised of smaller “elements.” Each element graphically represents a specific body part or body action used to produce a specific speech sound. Just as multiple body parts are used to produce a particular sound, in Physioalphabet multiple elements are assembled to produce letters. For vowels, the letters for each sound communicate up to 5 bits of information, each with its own element: tongue height, tongue frontness/backness, lip roundedness, voicing and nasality. Every vowel consists of a vertical line representing the midline of a vowel chart, and either a straight or curved line projecting on either side of the vertical line, representing whether the vowel is rounded or unrounded. Elements can be added to indicate voicing and nasality. These unique features make HPA a very useful and flexible tool with many valuable functions.
Information is communicated on two levels:
1. Element. Each element represents a body part or body action used to produce speech.
2. Letter. Each letter is a pictographic assembly of two or more elements. A speaker integrates the information communicated by all the elements to pronounce an individual sound, or phoneme.
HPA was created in 1994 by Geoffrey Tudor, an English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) instructor. His aim was to create a new international phonetic alphabet based solely on the sciences of linguistics and human physiology as universals of human speech. His idea was that letters would be self-instructional and show the sound relationships among letters. HPA was originally conceived only as a tool to help people more easily learn to pronounce and speak English. HPA was later expanded to represent the sounds in any language. It has many features and advantages that make it superior to other alphabets for any number of uses.
The name “Human Physiological Alphabet” or “HPA” was originally created because it accurately described the most important features of the alphabet:
1. HPA applies only to human beings. [Note: Any notation system for communication by other species would ideally be based on its physiology, as well. HPA is the notation system based on our own human physiology.]
2. HPA originates from human anatomy and physiology.
3. HPA’s system is an alphabet, not some other notation system.
The shorter term “Physioalphabet” was created for easier reference. However, for the sake of economy, HPA is the name that will be used throughout this article.
C. Features and advantages of HPA
C.1. Universal application
HPA is based solely on human physiology, something shared by all human beings. This makes HPA universal in its application to all languages. HPA is an alphabet for all humankind, because it can be adapted to write any language in the world. This could go a long way toward giving all of humanity one more common bond in a world of cultural and linguistic diversity. One world, one alphabet.
C.2. Easy to understand, learn and use
HPA is extremely easy to teach, learn, remember and use (reading, writing and speaking). This is because HPA is a featural alphabet. The letters encode the phonological features of the phonemes they represent, so each letter codes for a particular pronunciation and sound. The HPA accomplishes this with letters that are both graphic and modular. Each HPA letter is an assembly of modular elements. As a result, HPA can easily be learned and applied in an hour. Contrast this with the years that speakers now must take to learn the various pronunciations of each Roman letter given the irregular spelling in modern English.
C.3. Sound relationships
The design and construction of HPA letters allow users to see the sound relationships among letters. For example, the sounds “F” and “V” in the Roman alphabet are physiologically identical, with one exception. The only difference is that V is voiced and F is unvoiced. With V the vocal cords vibrate and produce sound, or voice; with F, they do not. Otherwise, the human body produces both letters exactly the same way. Both are labiodental, aspirated fricatives: the upper teeth contact the lower lip, and breath moves out through the contact point. We can clearly see and understand the sound similarities and the difference in the HPA letters for F and V.
However, in the Roman alphabet and in the IPA, F and V look nothing alike. The letters convey no information whatsoever to a reader or speaker as to how either one is pronounced, or how they may be related. Alphabets other than HPA are dumb; they tell us nothing.
Letters in HPA are “self-instructional.” HPA allows a speaker to translate the information communicated by the letters themselves into correct pronunciation. HPA letters are anatomical descriptions of how to pronounce themselves. A speaker can see what body parts to use (or not use) to produce the phonemes represented by the letters.
C.5. Speech therapy
Speech therapists can use HPA as a teaching tool to help students learn how to correctly pronounce sounds in English and any other language.
C.6. Deaf education
HPA can help deaf students learn how to pronounce sounds in English and any other language. There is no easily applied or consistent way to represent English pronunciation to ASL students other than through pictures or films of a cross-section of the human head, showing the body parts that produce a certain sound. HPA does this. With HPA letters, a speaker (deaf or hearing) can see how to pronounce them.
C.7. Second language learning
HPA facilitates learning of a language by non-native speakers, in particular those whose original languages were not written in any alphabet. HPA allows them to compare the set of sounds used in their native language with those of the target language they are learning. This enables more accurate pronunciation. For example, in ESL, students often have no reference point at all for pronouncing the Roman alphabet as used in English. And the wide irregularity of English spelling impedes their ability to learn pronunciation. HPA solves this problem.
C.8. Culturally neutral
HPA is totally culture neutral. HPA is based on science, not on the organically evolved orthography of the Roman alphabet or any other existing alphabet.
C.9. Single case letters
HPA letters are single case letters. They have only one form, with no majuscule or minuscule forms. That is to say, HPA has no separate upper- or lower-case letter forms, no capital or small letters, but only one form. Having letters with only one form makes HPA easier to learn.
C.10. Human body as decryption key
The decryption or decoding key for Physioalphabet is the human body itself. Every person on the planet carries with them at all times the decoding key for converting Physioalphabet letters into sounds. Each letter encodes the speech-producing body parts and body actions for the corresponding sound. As a result, the PA system allows anyone at any point in time, whether in the present or some distant future, to decode the sound of any language.
C.11. Alternative to the International Phonetic Alphabet*
HPA is an alternative to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). HPA can represent all the same sounds as the IPA, in any human language. IPA does not share many of the HPA features listed above, and therefore has the same handicaps as other existing alphabets. Most importantly, there is no underlying unifying principle of letter design in IPA as there is in HPA. IPA letters do not show how the letters relate to one another physiologically and phonologically. They give a speaker no information to aid in pronouncing the letters.
Unlike in HPA, almost all IPA letters are based on the Roman alphabet. The IPA uses graphic gymnastics to amplify the Roman alphabet so that it has enough characters for all IPA letters. For example, the IPA:
a. adds to Roman letters tails curling forward and backwards,
b. uses capital and small letters, and
c. reverses and even inverts letters.
Compared with HPA, the IPA is an unhelpful and uninformative system of symbols for sounds. HPA is a far superior alphabet.
D. HPA letters
As mentioned above, HPA letters representing consonants are an assembly of symbols called elements.
D.1.a. Consonant elements
D.1.a.(1) Coding parameters
An "element" is a graphic symbol, or pictogram, that represents a body part or body action. HPA elements code for 2 parameters:
D.1.a.(1).(a) Body parts used to produce speech. (Many elements represent body parts that the tongue approaches or contacts when pronouncing a consonant.)
i. nasal cavity
ii. vocal cords
iii. all other body parts: throat, mouth, tongue, teeth, lips
D.1.a.(1).(b) Body actions to control air flow.
D.1.a.(2) Table of elements
Because the elements are abstractions of the body parts they represent, they are extremely easy to learn and remember. Here is a table of all elements that can be assembled into HPA consonant letters. This table represents the uppermost row and leftmost column of the HPA consonant chart. The format of the HPA consonant chart is almost identical to that of the IPA. The uppermost row lists and shows the elements representing the individual body parts used to produce speech. The leftmost column lists and shows the elements representing the individual body actions.
D.1.a.(2).(a) Body parts
D.1.a.(2).(b) Body actions
Body parts and their corresponding elements:
D.1.b. Consonant letters
D.1.b.(1) Coding parameters
HPA consonants are combinations of elements, assembled spatially in a very specific order. The sound of any HPA consonant comes from integrating the all the information communicated by the elements that comprise the letter.
D.1.b.(2) Table of consonants
Here is a table of all HPA consonants.
Each HPA letter is constructed in a rectangular area called a “letter field.” The ideal proportions of a letter field are 4 wide by 12 high. Consonants are assembled from elements. The elements are arranged spatially in the letter field to reflect their relative locations to one another in the body, i.e., in the head and neck. Assembly occurs from top to bottom, and right to left.
The nasal cavity is above the mouth and can only appear at the top of the field.
Just below comes the throat and mouth cavity, which occupy the wide middle area of the field, from top to bottom. In this area, from right to left, the glottis comes before the epiglottis, the soft palate comes before the hard palate, which comes before the alveolar ridge. Next come the teeth and the lips.
The vocal cords lie below them all, and can only occur at the very bottom of the field. The vocal cords are represented by a single horizontal line segment.
This modular assembly of letters from graphic elements is what makes HPA so easy to learn and remember. For example, the HPA letter for the M sound contains 3 elements, indicating that pronunciation of the M sound is nasal, bilabial, and voiced. The 3 elements are assembled into a single letter, itself a pictogram, that codes for the M sound.
The HPA letters for vowels, while they clearly differ from one another, do look a lot alike. They do not share the visual variety of the consonants, since the parts of each symbol are not pictograms that reflect body parts. Vowel letters are therefore more difficult to learn than consonant letters and must be learned outright. However, in doing so, one learns how each vowel is pronounced and how all vowels relate to each other phonologically.
D.1.c. Order of HPA consonants
HPA consonants are recited in an order from bottom to top and from back to front. Here are the English consonants with their HPA counterparts in HPA order.
D.2.a. Coding parameters
HPA vowel symbols code for 5 bits of information:
2. tongue height in mouth
3. tongue forwardness/backness in mouth
4. lip roundedness
D.2.b. Table of vowels
Here is a chart vowels. Rounded vowels are shown to the right of the bullets, and unrounded vowels to the left. The chart orientation is with the head facing left.
D.2.c.(1) The Midline
Vowel letters are comprised of a vertical line, known as the “midline”, with straight or curved projections in three possible positions: right of the midline, straddling the midline, or left of the midline. The midline represents the horizontal midpoint of the tongue in the mouth cavity when viewed from the side, and marks the highest elevation of the tongue when pronouncing central vowels. The midline is the same as the central line in the IPA vowel chart. Central vowels occur up and down the midline. The midline also serves as a reference point for frontness/backness of the tongue in the mouth. Note that the orientation of the HPA vowel chart is the same as in the IPA: the left side of the chart represents frontal vowels, and the right side, back vowels.
D.2.c.(2) Tongue openness/elevation
For any vowel, the vertical distance of a projection from the bottom of the midline indicates the tongue’s elevation within the mouth. The lower the tongue's elevation in the mouth, the larger the mouth cavity and the more open the pronunciation. Projections can occur on one of four main elevations, from 0-3 (indicating low to high). Elevation 0 is called open, 1 is mid-open, 2 is mid-closed and 3 is closed.
Example of vowels with main elevation projections:
There are also three subelevations that occur halfway between each of the elevations 0-3. They are numbered 0.5, 1.5, and 2.5. The subelevations are indicated by a short line segment drawn below the elevation projection just above it.
Examples of vowels with subelevation segments are:
Altogether, this system allows notation of 7 levels in all.
D.2.c.(3) Tongue frontness/backness
Backness is represented by the projection appearing right, middle or left from the midline. This indicates whether the sound is a frontal, central or back vowel, respectively. Central vowels have projections that straddle the midline.
Examples of vowels front , mid and back:
D.2.c.(4) Lip roundedness
Just as vowels can be unrounded or rounded, a projection can have two shapes: straight (not rounded) or rounded. The straight projection represents unrounded vowels, and the rounded shape, rounded vowels.
Examples of vowels front , mid and back:
D.2.d. Short forms of HPA vowels
HPA vowels also have “short forms”, as shown in the vowel chart above. These are called "short" because they are shorter versions of the full forms. They have only one-third the height of the full forms. Yet they convey exactly the same information as the full forms. In short forms, only the upper or lower one-third of the full form is shown. This is the one-third that contains the information about tongue forwardness/backness and roundedness. As a result of eliminating the upper or lower midline we have eliminated part of the character that helps convey information about tongue height. However, just as with the full form, the short form’s elevation on the page line represents tongue height.
Some upper and lower short forms are identical. In order to eliminate any possible reader confusion about whether the symbol is upper or lower, for the upper form we can add a dot below, and for the lower form, a dot above.
D.2.e. Order of HPA vowels
HPA vowels are ordered by position in the mouth: bottom to top, back to front. HPA vowels are ordered from the left bottom corner, up to the left top corner, to the midline bottom, up to the midline top, to the right bottom corner, up to the right top corner. Here are the English vowels with their HPA counterparts in HPA order.
E. Examples of HPA
Here is the first sentence of Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in English and HPA:
All human beings are
born free and equal
in dignity and
F. Earlier featural alphabets
There are several other constructed alphabets that were designed to be featural like HPA. (Remember that in a featural alphabet, letters encode the phonological features of the phonemes they represent.) The two most famous examples are Hangul, the Korean alphabet, first published in 1446 and still in use today, and Visible Speech, created by Alexander Melville Bell about 1864. Both alphabets used separate systems for representing vowels and consonants. The vowel systems in both used a system of vertical and/or horizontal lines.
F.1. Korean Hangul
Hangul is the Korean alphabet commissioned by King Sejong of Korea, created by a scholarly committee, and published in 1446. It replaced the use of Chinese logograms in writing Korean. Hangul is still used today in the two Koreas, though each country uses a slightly different form. Its system for representing vowels is very logical and easy to learn and write. The system for representing consonants is physiologically based, and also fairly easy to learn and write. However, Hangul lacks the insights of modern linguistics and human physiology, and it lacks the applied scientific rigor of HPA.
In Hangul the basic consonant shapes represent the the body parts used in pronouncing consonants, and include the tongue, lips, teeth, and throat. A horizontal line may represent aspiration or unvoicedness. The letters for G and K represent the back of the tongue raised and articulating with the velum, or soft palate. The letters for N, D and T represent the tip of the tongue raised and articulating with the alveolar ridge. The letter for M, a square, represents two closed lips. This same symbol is also incorporated into the letters for B and P. The letter for S looks like a wishbone and represents teeth. This symbol is included in the letters for J and CH.
In HPA, on the other hand, the letters for consonants are comprised of elements that each represent a specific body part used in speech. The elements are assembled vertically in the same spatial order as the corresponding body parts occur with respect to one another. Each element is written in one of three zones within a letter: the nasal cavity, mouth, and vocal cords. The symbol for the nasal cavity is written above the mouth zone, and the symbol for the vocal cords is written below the mouth zone. All other consonant elements are written within the mouth zone, and connect the nasal element to the voiced element.
F.2. Bell Visible Speech
Visible Speech (VS) was created by Alexander Melville Bell (Alexander Graham Bell’s father) in about 1864. Bell was a speech teacher who was trying to help the deaf learn to speak by creating a system for visualizing the body parts used to produce sounds. For all consonants, some form of a three-quarter circle represented the tongue and its direction of articulation in the mouth. So all consonant letters had the same general circular shape and looked very much alike. This made them difficult to distinguish from one another, remember and learn. Furthermore, elements were added to the three-quarter circles. VS had six elements, though Bell did not call them by that name. They represented voice, nasality, lips, and the three sides of the tongue (back, top, or tip). The three tongue elements comprised the three-quarter circle. Other than the not-always-exact orientation of the three-quarter circle, VS elements in a letter did not have the same spatial orientation to one another as the body parts they represented. All of this made VS difficult to read, even more difficult to write, and ultimately too cumbersome to learn. While VS in its conception and design had the benefit of the science of physiology, it lacked the benefit of full knowledge of modern linguistics.
In design, VS and HPA have little in common. HPA was created independently and without knowledge of VS, and it shows. VS and HPA took directly opposite approaches in their central concept for letter design. For consonants, VS is tongue-centric, focusing on showing the tongue as it orients toward point of articulation with other parts of the mouth. HPA took the opposite approach by representing the various mouthparts with which the tongue articulates in producing speech. HPA consonants, in contrast to those in VS, vary greatly in form, making them easier to distinguish and learn. For vowels, VS and HPA both code for the same three parameters: tongue height, tongue backness, and lip roundedness. VS also coded for a parameter it called width. The design of VS vowels is unintuitive, clumsy and difficult to use. Overall, VS is not particularly user-friendly.
G. Applications of HPA
HPA has several useful applications, actual and potential:
1. It can help students learn to pronounce new languages, which facilitates language learning overall. Languages can be learned faster and more easily.
2. It can help students understand the physiology of how language sounds are produced and letters pronounced. Further, students learn how sounds relate to one another.
3. It can be used to help deaf people learn to pronounce any language more correctly.
4. It can be used by speech therapists to help people learn to speak correctly.
5. It can be used worldwide in parallel with local scripts to allow people who do not speak or read the local language to read and pronounce designated text. Examples: street signs, store product labels.
6. It can serve as the alphabet for all languages on Earth that currently have no alphabet.
7. It can serve as an international phonetic alphabet for all organic scripts on Earth.
8. HPA allows all of humanity to share a common point for understanding one another.
The Human Physiological Alphabet is a creation that allows for ultimate flexibility and convenience in understanding, learning, speaking, reading and writing any language.
* The International Phonetic Alphabet chart and all its subparts are copyright 2005 by the International Phonetic Association. As of July 2012, they are made freely available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License (CC-BY-SA).
Copyright © Geoffrey Graham Tudor 1995-2019. All rights reserved.