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Speedwords pronunciation is complicated

The rules of Speedwords pronunciation can be found by clicking here. On this page I will merely call attention to those features which I was troubled by when I learnt the language in the 1950s and still do not like. It will be convenient to treat this under three headings: The letter Y; Vowels; Consonants.

The Letter Y

This letter cannot be treated solely under the heading 'Vowels' or 'Consonants' since Dutton, following the practice of English, uses it both as a vowel (his more common use) and as a consonant. Some of the "naturalistic" constructed IALs behave likewise. But most constructed IALs do not, preferring the regular rule that a letter (or digraph) denotes only one phoneme.

The use of 'consonantal y' is not simply "it is a consonant if it comes immediately before a vowel". In fact, more often than not, it is still a vowel in that position, e.g. yam [ai̯'am] "loved [past tense]"; yif [ai̯'ɪf] "informed" etc.

The consonant 'y' [j] occurs only twice: in root word: ye [jeː] "yes", and as the past tense of the verb e "to be".

Having decided that, for whatever reason, the past tense of "to be" will be denoted by 'y' = [j], the single consonant needs to be given a vowel to make it pronounceable. Dutton decided, quite arbitrarily as far as I can see, that it should be pronounced [joː].

When I first met this rule I was really puzzled by it and I still am puzzled more thhan half-a-century later. If the simple past tense of almost all verbs* is formed by prefixing y- pronounced [ai̯], why when it is used alone with the meaning "was", is it pronounced [joː]? This exception seemed perverse to me. What is the reason for it?


* It is interesting that this language, intended to be used an an IAL, has the verbs "to be" and "to have" with irregular past tenses, i.e.

  • e [eː] "is, are, am" ~ y [joː] "was, were"
  • h [hiː] "has, have" ~ hy [hai̯] "had")

In short, we have a letter which is normally pronounced [ai̯], with only two exceptions:

  1. the word ye "yes" where it is pronounced [j]
  2. the word y "was, were" where it is pronounced [joː]

Both exceptions are certainly unnecessary, and surely should have been avoided in a language intended for use as an IAL. It was this aspect of Speedwords, more than anything else, that dissatisfied me, namely: the language has too many exceptions to rules. Such exceptions could and, in my opnion, should have been avoided.



It is also rather surprising that a language intended as an IAL distinguishes between long and short vowels. Not even Volapük, for all its oddities, does this, nor does Esperanto, Ido, Novial, Interlingua inter alia. This is for a very good reason: such a phonemic distinction is unknown in many languages, e.g. Spanish, Italian, Russian, Indonesian/Malay and very many others.

The rules for pronouncing vowels of root words given by Dutton in paragraphs 362 to 366 of 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' (1943) can be sumarized thus:

  1. all vowels, except the two diphthongs, are:
    • short if the syllable is blocked by a final consonant (e.g. ad "add", vok "cry, voice")
    • long if the syllable is unblocked (e.g. ce "receive", di "day", gu "good")
  2. there are only two diphthongs: [au̯] written as 'au'; [ai̯] written as 'y' (except, of course, in the two words y and ye). In all other two-vowel combinations the vowels are pronounced separately according to the rules for single vowels (e.g. aut [au̯t] "authority", ly [lai̯] "long-and-thin"; but:
    • eis ['eːɪs] "ice", oil ['oːɪl] "oil"
    • dio ['diːoː] "god", feu ['feːuː] "fire", miu ['miːuː] "minute [time]", ui ['uːiː] "musical instument"

The two-vowel rules run counter to the speech habits of many peoples. Most southern European speakers, for example, will have problems mastering Dutton's pronunciation rules for them.

From the rules above, the distinction between long and short vowels appears not to be phonemic but merely Dutton unnecessarily carrying across into Speedwords his own speech habits from English. However, we find that some suffixes will shorten the final vowel of a root word and that some do not, thus giving rise to two classes of suffix. It also gives rise to words in which vowel length is phonemic, e.g.

  • pad[paːd] (pa + d) "paid [passive participle]" ~ pad [pad] "pad";
  • sud [suːd] (su + d) "improved [passive participle]" ~ sud [sʊd] "sudden".

One wonders why Dutton brought this complication into his language. The cynic might answer that it was in order to have a rule about suffixes to which exceptions could then be created . I feel sure that was not Dutton's intention; however, that is the effect of this distinction which, in my opinion, is unnecessary and is certainly foreign to the speech habits of millions of the earth's inhabitants.



The range of consonants is much the same as in most occidentally created IALs. But in a language that is supposed to be, to use Bob Petry's phrase, a "Word-Compression System", one wonders why the single sound [ʃ] is represented by two letters, namely 'sh' - another anglicism, I guess. Yet it is not necessary. Dutton could have followed the practice of conlangs such as Ro and Lojban and used 'c' to represent the sound; certainly, French speakers would surely prefer this to [ʧ] which Dutton gives to the letter. But if he wished to keep 'c' = [ʧ], he still had the letter 'x' which is used to represent [ʃ] in Maltese, and often in Catalan and Portuguese and old Spanish.

In a briefscript, one cannot object to the use of 'q' = [kw]. But to have two root words ku "contain, enclose, hold" and qu "that [relative], which" should have been avoided. Many speakers will have difficulty pronouncing the two differently. But I guess contexts will distinguish the two (near) homophones.

The points above, however, are fairly trivial compared to the complications Dutton introduced with single consonant morphemes. "Why, oh why", I thought in my teens, "couldn't there be just one or two simple rules?" Indeed, as far as I can see, there is no reason why there could not have been. Yet, what do we find?

For a start, it depends whether the single consonant morpheme is written as a separate word, or as an suffix.

Single consonant words

These are given a fairly simple rule: the consonant has its normal sound followed [ə] before a consonant or [i] before a vowel. Dutton normally indicates the schwa by -e(r) in his 'imitated pronunciations'. In paragraph 9 of "Dutton World Speedwords", he says that when such words are "followed by a Speedword consisting of or commencing with a vowel it is pronounced with a very short ee sound for the sake of euphony", i.e. these words behave just like the [ðə] ~ [ði] in standard English of mid 20th century. This variation is clearly allophonic, conditioned by phonological environment, and not phonemic. Just as we would normally write the phonemically as /ðə/ so it is logical to write the Speedword phonemes similarly. i.e. s is phonemically /sə/ with allophones [sə]~[si].

But this simple rule is furnished with 8 exceptions. One can understand why 'x' might be an exception: [ksə] is awkward. But why the other seven? Two are given the pronunciation of complete English words in their northern British pronunciations, i.e. b = 'but', n = 'not', one that of a German word, i.e. m = 'mit', and the other four are just plain abitrary:

  • f [froː] "for"
  • h [hiː] "have, has"
  • y [joː] "was, were"
  • z [zuː] "as"

[froː] seems very odd for a word meaning "for". The archaic English word 'fro' (surviving now only in the phase 'to and fro') means "from", as does the Scots 'frae' and the Danish and Norwegian 'fra'. There is, as far as I know, no a posteriori reason for Dutton's pronunciation of 'f' = "froh".

Why does 'z' = "as" have to be pronounced like English "zoo"? I couldn't understand it then, and half-a-century later I am still just as puzzled.

Single consonant suffixes

Two are given special rules of their own:

  • -c is always pronounced [tʃoː].
  • -n is always [ʊn] after consonants and [jʊn] after vowels.

For the other single consonant suffixes, for we have to know whether:

  1. if the root word ends in a vowel, whether the vowel is shortened or not;
  2. if the root ends in a consonant, whether a vowel is to be inserted between the root final and the suffix and, if it is, what the vowel will be.


 After a vowelAfter a consonant
-d Does not shorten vowel. 1 [ɛd] after voiceless consonants and -d,
and [d] elsewhere.
-f Shortens the vowel. 2 Not used after consonants; the allomorph -y is used instead
-m Shortens the vowel. 3 Always pronounced [ɔm]
Shortens the vowel. 4 "When the ... suffixes -b, -g, -k, -l, -p, -s and -t follow a previous consonant the single letter is added if it can be it can be articulated without difficulty; if not the full syllable -ib, -ig, -ik, -il, -ep, -is or -et is added, but it should be noted that although -s can be articulated after 'g' and 'k' it is always necessary to add the full syllable -is to avoid confusion with the suffix -x, which, of course, has the sound of 'ks'."
[Dutton Double-Speed Words, paragraph 374] 6
-r Does not shorten vowel. 3 Always pronounced [ər]
-v Shortens the vowel. 5 Not used after consonants; the allomorph -i is used instead
-xShortens the vowel. 5 Not used after consonants; the allomorph -o is used instead
-z Does not shorten vowel. Always pronounced [əz]
The consonants -h, -h, -j, -q do not occur as suffixes.
  1. This, as we saw above, leads to words being spelled the same but pronounced differently, eg.
    • pad[paːd] (pa + d) "paid [passive participle]" ~ pad [pad] "pad";
    • sud [suːd] (su + d) "improved [passive participle]" ~ sud [sʊd] "sudden".
  2. As f and y are clearly abbreviations of the full word fy "to cause, make, render", I assumed if one added -f to a word ending in a vowel which was identical to another word, one would then, following the rule that says one must write and maer ['maːjɛr] "maker" to avoid confusion with mar "marry", keep the vowel long and add -fy;
    but, apparently this was assumed by some to be a typo (it was not) and, treating the allomorphs f and y just like the allomorphs x and o assumed that just as Dutton has ao [aː'joː] "away" to avoid confusion with ax "ask" so one would keep the vowel long and add -y [jai̯].
    As no such instances appear in Dutton's published material, we cannot be certain what he would have done.
  3. We saw paragraph 372 of "Dutton Double-Speed Words Companion to Text-Book" that we must add the full word er "person" to ju "to deem, judge" and ma "to make" to avoid confusion with the root words jur "law, legal" and mar "marriage", so we can be fairly confident that if, by adding -m to a word ending in a vowel, we get a homonym with an existing root word, we should keep the vowel long and add om "article, thing, object", with [j] between long vowel and [ɔm].
  4. As ib "possible", ig "general", ik "property, quality", il "particular, (e)special", ep "location, place, position, put, set", is "complement" and et "little, small" are all actual Speedwords root words, it follows from 3 above that if, e.g. we wish to avoid "noticeable" being homophonous with "honour, repute" we would have *noib ['noːjɪb] for the former and nob [nɔb] for the latter.
  5. In Paragraph 49 of "Dutton World Speedwords" we are told that "away" as an opposite of directional a "to" is ao [aː'joː] as *ax would be homophonous with ax "ask." It is therefore reasonable to suppose that Dutton would always have added -o to a word ending in a vowel if, by adding -x we would have had a homophone with another Speedwords word, and that Dutton would have treated the allomorphs -v and -i in a similar way; but nowhere does he actually state this.
  6. The wording in 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' paragraph 374 is rather vague and it seems to left to individuals as to whether a certain combination "can be articulated without difficulty."
    Also, recalling that 's' is always pronounce [s] in Speedwords, his saying that it is necessary to add the full syllable in order that gs does not sound like x, which has the sound 'ks', suggests that we have regressive assimilation in Speedwords. So is libs "free, liberty, rid" (the 'complement' of lib "deliver, discharge, free, liberate, release") to be pronounced [lɪps]? There is nothing elsewhere in Dutton's writings that suggests this. Or should we deem [b]+[s] to awkward to pronounce, giving each consonant its proper sound, and pronounce libs as ['lɪbɪs]?
    The only way -l could be pronounced as a single sound after any consonant except [r] is as syllabic [l̩]. Does Dutton mean that? Or will -l to be generally pronounced [ɪl], except after [r]?
    This leaves me (as it left me some 60 years ago) wondering if he had really thought his pronunciation rules through.