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 into the deep future
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. PA letters
(1) Coding parameters
(2) Table of elements
b. Consonant letters
(1) Coding parameters
(2) Table of consonant letters
c. Order of PA 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 PA vowels
E. Examples of PA
F. Earlier featural alphabets
1. Korean Hangul
2. Bell Visible Speech
G. Applications of PA
Physioalphabet (PA), also known as the Human Physiological Alphabet, is a universal featural alphabet* based on the human physiology used to produce speech. Speech pronunciation is the product of human physiology. PA is 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 PA, one for consonants and one for vowels. Each "letter" is comprised of smaller “elements.” For consonants, there are two levels of design. 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 each letter. For vowels, each letter is comprised of different elements that may communicate up to 4 bits of information: tongue height, tongue frontness/backness, lip roundedness and nasality. These unique features make PA 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.
PA 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. PA was conceived as a tool to help language learners more easily learn to pronounce and speak any language on Earth. Despite it original design purpose, PA has many features and advantages that make it superior to other alphabets for many other 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 own 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 adopted for easier reference, and "PA" will be used throughout this article.
C. Features and advantages of PA
C.1. Universal application into the deep future
PA is based solely on human physiology, in particular the body structures that all human beings use to produce speech. Those structures do not change or evolve over time. This means that PA applies universally to all languages: past, present and into the deep future. PA 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 common bond in a world of cultural and linguistic diversity. One world, one alphabet.
C.2. Easy to understand, learn and use
PA is extremely easy to teach, learn, remember and use (reading, writing and speaking). This is because PA 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 PA accomplishes this with letters that are both graphic and modular. Each PA letter is an assembly of modular elements. As a result, PA 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 PA 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 PA 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 PA are dumb; they tell us nothing.
Letters in PA are “self-instructional.” PA allows a speaker to translate the information communicated by the letters themselves into correct pronunciation. PA 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 PA as a teaching tool to help students learn how to correctly pronounce sounds in English and any other language.
C.6. Deaf education
PA 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. PA does this. With PA letters, a speaker (deaf or hearing) can see how to pronounce them.
C.7. Second language learning
PA facilitates learning of a language by non-native speakers, in particular those whose original languages were not written in any alphabet. PA 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. PA solves this problem.
C.8. Culturally neutral
PA is totally culture neutral. PA is a constructed script based on science, and therefore it is completely unrelated to any national or cultural group. It did not evolve organically over time as did almost all writing systems on Earth, past or present.
C.9. Single case letters
PA letters are single case letters. They have only one form, with no majuscule or minuscule forms. That is to say, PA 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 PA easier to learn.
C.10. Human body as decryption key
The decryption or decoding key for PA is the human body itself. Every person on the planet carries with them at all times the decoding key for converting PA 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**
PA is an alternative to the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). PA can represent all the same sounds as the IPA, in any human language. IPA does not share many of the PA 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 PA. 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 PA, 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 PA, the IPA is an unhelpful and uninformative system of symbols for sounds. PA is a far superior alphabet.
D. PA letters
As mentioned above, PA 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. PA 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 PA consonant letters. This table represents the uppermost row and leftmost column of the PA consonant chart. The format of the PA 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
PA consonants are combinations of elements, assembled spatially in a very specific order. The sound of any PA 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 PA consonants.
Each PA 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 PA so easy to learn and remember. For example, the PA 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 PA 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 PA consonants
PA consonants are recited in an order from bottom to top and from back to front. Here are the English consonants with their PA counterparts in PA order.
D.2.a. Coding parameters
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. An element can be added to indicate nasality. HPA vowel symbols may code for 4 bits of information:
2. tongue height in mouth
3. tongue forwardness/backness in mouth
4. lip roundedness
Remember that all vowels are voiced, so there is no separate element for voicing with vowels.
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 PA 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 PA vowels
PA 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
PA vowels are ordered by position in the mouth: bottom to top, back to front. PA 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 PA counterparts in PA order.
E. Examples of PA
Here is the first sentence of Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in English and PA:
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 PA. (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 in Korea, 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 of the alphabet. 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 PA.
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 PA, 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 PA have little in common. PA was created independently and without knowledge of VS, and it shows. VS and PA 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. PA took the opposite approach by representing the various mouthparts with which the tongue articulates in producing speech. PA consonants, in contrast to those in VS, vary greatly in form, making them easier to distinguish and learn. For vowels, VS and PA 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 PA
PA 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: maps, 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. PA allows all of humanity to share a common medium for understanding one another, from now into the deep future.
Physioalphabet is a creation that allows for ultimate flexibility and convenience in understanding, learning, speaking, reading and writing any language.
* PA is uniquely featural on four different levels:
1. The elements that comprise each letter encode phonological features of the phonemes that the letters represent.
2. The elements encode the body parts used to produce those phonological features. The elements are abstract graphic representations of those body parts, from the reference point of a head facing left.
3. The spatial arrangement of the elements within each letter encode the physical location of the body parts relative to each other within the head and neck. Just as the nose is above the mouth, which is above the throat, the nasal element is above the mouth elements, which are above the throat elements.
4. The letters encode, and display, the phonological relationships between the phonemes that the different letters represent. For example, the letters F and V in the Roman alphabet look nothing alike and convey no information about any relationship between the phonemes they represent. In contrast, the PA letters representing the phonemes /f/ and /v/ clearly reveal the phonemic relationship between the two letters. The letters look identical except for the addition of the base line showing that /v/ is voiced.
** 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.