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Speedwords pronunciation is complicated

The complicated rules of Speedwords pronunciation can be found on Richard Kennaway's Conlang web-page 'Dutton Speedwords Pronunciation' * and I will not repeat them here. I will merely call attention to those features which I was troubled by when I learnt the language and still do not like. It will be convenient to treat this under three headings:The letter Y; Vowels; Consonants.


* There is, however, one omission I made when I compiled that information for Richard. I had forgotten the 'possessive case', as Dutton termed it, which is shown by suffixing an apostrophe. His examples are:

  • l ont'ka "the boy's head"
  • u femtz'ryu "a girls' school"

The apostrophe was pronounced [zai̯], according to paragraph 324 of 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' , 3rd edition 1946. However, in 1951 Dutton made his last revision of the Speedwords vocabulary, changing some of the earlier root words and adding one or two new ones, including 'zy' [zai̯] = "disease". This revision appears in the 4th edition of 'Speedwords Dictionary' published in September 1951.

Either Dutton had dropped this method of showing posession by this time or he had invested the apostrophe with a new pronunciation. The 1951 Dictionary is silent on these matters; and, as far as I know, neither 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' nor any other of his earlier books were republished with the 1951 revisions.

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 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, in my opnion, could and 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 by [i] if the next word begins with a vowel, or by [ə] in any other position. (The distinction between [i] and [ə] is merely another anglicism, reflecting the treatment of English "the" among educated British speakers in Dutton's day.)

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, the vowel is shortened or not and whether adding the consonant give a form identical to another root word;
  2. if the root ends in a consonant, 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;
added whether or not the resultant word is written the same as a root word.
(it will not, however, be not pronounced the same)
[ɛd] after voiceless consonants and -d,
and [d] elsewhere.
-f Shortens the vowel;
- but if result is same as a root word, add the full word fy without shortening the preceding vowel.
Not used after consonants; the allomorph -y is used instead
-m Shortens the vowel;
- but if result is same as a root word, add the full word om which, as a suffix. is pronounced [jɔm] without shortening the preceding vowel.
Always pronounced [ɔm]
Shortens the vowel;
- but if result is same as a root word, add the full word ib, ig, ik, il, ep, is or et respectively. These are pronounced in the normal way; the final vowel of the root morpheme remains long, but [j] is inserted between the root morpheme and the suiffix.
"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, -k, -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] *
-r Does not shorten vowel;
- but if result is same as a root word, add the full word er which, as a suffix, is pronounced [jɛr].
Always pronounced [ər]
-v Shortens the vowel
- but if result is same as a root word, add the allomorph -i and pronounced it [jiː] without shortening the preceding vowel.
Not used after consonants; the allomorph -i is used instead
-xShortens the vowel;
- but if result is same as a root word, add the allomorph -o and pronounced it [joː] without shortening the preceding vowel
Not used after consonants; the allomorph -o is used instead
-z Does not shorten vowel
(Adding the suffix wlll not produce any words which are the same as another root word)
Always pronounced [əz]
The consonants -h, -h, -j, -q do not occur as suffixes.

* The wording in 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' paragraph 374 is rather misleading; it sounds as though we are talking about writing, adding either a single letter or a two-letter representation of a closed syllable. But the list of examples that Dutton gives at the end of the paragraph makes it abundantly clear (as, indeed, do all the examples in all his books) that we always add a single letter (except, of course, in exceptional cases like noib). What Dutton obviously means is that the single letter is pronounced as a single consonant sound "if it can be it can be articulated without difficulty" or else the single letter must be given a syllabic sound.

But Dutton leaves us wondering exactly what "if it can be it can be articulated without difficulty" means. It is clear from the paragraph quoted above that he considers /gs/ to be articulated without difficulty and that it is pronounced the same as /ks/, i.e. [ks]. Now that is in full agreement with "s is always 'hard' as in 'less', and never 'soft' as in 'boys'" [Dutton World Speedwords, page 14]. Thus it would appear that when a voiced and voiceless obstruent occur together we have regressive assimilation as, for example, in Russian.

But, alas, paragraph 370 of 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' implies, surely, that there is no regressive (or progressive) assimilation:
"-d follows naturally after the 'soft' consonants b, g, v, l, m, n and r, so that, for example, the words lobd, egd, savd, fuld, amd, gend and gard are pronounced exactly as they are spelt.
"But after the 'hard' consonants c, f, k, p, s, t and x, as well as d itself, it is difficult to articulate 'd' clearly and therefore the full syllable 'edd' is added as ib acd - 'achedd', ofd - 'offedd'....................."

Now, which is it? Is there or is there not regressive assimilation when voiced and voiceless obstruents occur together? I suppose the only logical conclusion we can draw from paragraphs 370 and 374 of 'Dutton Double-Speed Words' is:

  • regressive assimilation occurs if a voiced obstruent is followed by a voiceless one;
  • no assimilation occurs if a voiceless obstruent is followed by a voiced one, both obstruents keeping their own sounds with the aid of an anaptyctic vowel.

But Dutton does not explicitly state any such rule and this leaves me (as it left me 50 years ago) wondering if he had really thought his pronunciation rules through.