This week, Language Insight spoke to Jaber Jabbour – the man behind the new universal phonetic alphabet SaypYu. The project launched just a few months ago and has already caused quite a stir, featuring in The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian.

Over the years there have been numerous attempts to bridge language divides, such as through the creation of universal languages like Esperanto. However, one man has come to the conclusion that rather than expect people to learn a whole new language, the key to overcoming these barriers is to equip them with the tools they need to communicate with one another.

Jaber Jabbour believes he has come up with the perfect tool for this; a phonetic alphabet called the Spell As You Pronounce Universal Alphabet (or SaypYu). Language Insight spoke to him about his brainchild, how it could assist people wishing to learn a new language and how he believes it will help translators and interpreters.

Jabbour first had the idea of creating a new phonetic alphabet while getting a plane from Lisbon to London. Idly glancing at the front cover of the safety instructions, he realised that he could learn three new words in Portuguese – INSTRUÇÕES DE SEGURANÇA – as the English translation was written below it. However, not being a native Portuguese speaker, working out how to pronounce the words would be another matter. “I concluded that it would be useful if foreign words were spelled phonetically using a simplified phonetic alphabet,” he explains.

About SaypYu

SaypYu (pronounced “Sipe-You”) is an on-going effort to compile word lists in every language and convert them into easy-to-pronounce simplified text using the phonetic alphabet. It consists of 24 letters taken from the standard Roman alphabet, with C, Q and X removed. One new letter, ɘ – which represents the “schwa” sound and can also be represented with an asterisk (*) – has been added. There are currently 33 languages available and, to date, it has received “overwhelmingly positive” feedback, particularly from non-English speakers.

Crowdsourcing played an integral role in the creation of the new alphabet. SaypYu launched just a few months ago and the project relies on contributors adding, voting on, correcting and commenting on the spelling of the words that have been suggested so far. This means the spelling can be made more accurate. Public opinion will continue to be invited, as Jabbour notes it is impossible to represent every phoneme in every language. As a result, visitors to the site are urged to help decide what the best approximations should be to allow a person who doesn’t speak a particular language to pronounce the words in a way a native speaker would understand.

The words listed on the website are not set in stone, but suggestions. Users are able to correct spellings or offer their own opinions on making them more accurate.

There is already a universal phonetic alphabet – the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). Jabbour calls the IPA an “extremely useful tool” for linguists, but adds that the fact it consists of more than 100 letters and over 50 diacritics means it takes a long time to learn. Because of this, it is not the most practical tool for anyone who is not an expert in languages. Working out how to pronounce words written in IPA could also be confusing.

“We think that there is room for another simplified phonetic alphabet with a much fewer number of letters that could be easily typed on a standard keyboard, and whose purpose is not accuracy but comprehension,” Jabbour explains. He adds that SaypYu is also effective when used on languages written in a script not based on the Roman alphabet. Multiple letters could be used to form a phoneme that doesn’t naturally fit within the SaypYu alphabet.

SaypYu is simple to learn, unlike IPA or Esperanto – a constructed international auxiliary language created to transcend national boundaries, be politically neutral and allow people from every nation to communicate with each other, thereby encouraging peace. In fact, Jabbour claims it takes just a few minutes to learn it if the student is already familiar with the phonetic version of the Roman alphabet. He also recommends dedicating time to practicing this in order to read it fluently.

Embracing diversity

Jabbour says he admires the motive for creating Esperanto but feels people would see learning it as an “onerous” task. “In addition, we believe that we should treasure the diversity of the cultural heritages and languages of all parts of the world, rather than impose one single language,” he adds. One of Jabbour and his team’s hopes is that by improving the accessibility of languages the project will help to preserve them.

Another benefit Jabbour sees in SaypYu is that it could help people learn a new language. Using the tool will make it easier to pronounce words correctly and therefore improve vocabulary in that language. This will be especially useful when travelling abroad, particularly as it has previously been suggested being able to pronounce words correctly is the key to conquering a new language, rather than mastering the accent.

Jabbour believes the tool will work particularly well on smartphones and other digital devices that people carry with them while travelling. In the future, he thinks it could be used on Google Glass; the new brainchild of the search engine giant. Google Glass is an innovative computer that takes the form of a headset and pair of eye glasses, which can be operated hands-free by using voice commands.

Professional translators and interpreters could also find SaypYu a useful resource to have at their disposal. “Currently, when translating a document or reporting news about people or cities that have foreign names, these names are transliterated using official systems, which may render the pronunciation of the transliterated word incorrect,” Jabbour says. He adds: “If translators rely on a simplified phonetic alphabet, the readers of the translation would be able to learn the correct pronunciation of the names that were translated.”

Looking to the future

Considering the future of his universal alphabet, Jabbour says he hopes it will enable “people from all countries and nations [to] spend more time and effort learning and speaking foreign languages and appreciating other cultures”.

Language Insight took SaypYu for a test drive by translating one of its favourite idioms: ‘It’s raining cats and dogs.’ This was the result:

“It ‘ s reyning kats and dogz.”

Why not try it out for yourself?

What do you think of SaypYu? Do you think it will be useful for translators and interpreters? What about encouraging language learning? Share your thoughts below.