Jens Wilkinson wrote,     Sun, 12 Mar 2006 20:53:57 -

> It seems a bit odd because the proposals for IALs seem
> to have a fairly good consensus on vowels (five
> vowels), and it's easy to agree with because (a) the
> vowels all seem easy to pronounce for people of
> different language backgrounds and (b) they are easy
> to recognize by the listener. But with consonants,
> things are a lot more complicated. It seems that
> proposals mainly take into consideration the ease of
> making the sounds, but I don't know how well listening
> comprehension is taken into account. I do know that in
> language learning, listening comprehension is one of
> the most difficult issues (at least for me, and for
> many of my students). 

> So what I was thinking was, wouldn't it make sense for
> an IAL to adopt sounds that are distinctive? For
> example, having two different bilabial sounds (/p/ and
> /b/) along with a closely related sound (/f/) seems
> just to be asking for confusion when different
> languages deal with the distinctions differently, for
> example aspiration and voicing. 

> So if one were to take a really radical approach,
> wouldn't it make sense to adopt some consonants that
> are really distinctive? The ones that come to mind are
> the glottal stop, uvular fricative, trill, and click
> consonants. The question, of course, is whether people
> can actually produce these sounds. I'm not an expert
> on phonology, so I can't really say for sure, but it
> seems that people should be able to make at least one
> click sound. Of course, another issue is whether
> people would accept it. I think many people who are
> not raised in a language that uses the uvular
> fricative find it distasteful, and probably most of us
> who don't use clicks in our native tongue find it
> weird. But thinking logically, it is a unique sound
> that is hard to confuse with anything else, and I
> don't think it's that hard to make. 

> Along the same lines, some African and Asian languages
> will place a /N/ at the beginning of a word. It seems
> odd to those of us who aren't brought up in such a
> linguistic environment, but I don't think personally
> that it's so difficult to make that sound, and it is
> distinctive. 

> Would it be crazy to pursue this kind of idea?

I can see where you’re coming from, Jens, and don’t think it’s a crazy idea at all. As you say, 
though, a lot of people(s) don’t care for certain sounds - even though they might be distinctive. 
And as you implied, many would have difficulty articulating such sounds correctly, since they don’t 
already exist within the mother tongue. 

Perhaps a related question arises here - are these sounds distinctive because they are relatively 
difficult to articulate? If so, they may be even more difficult to articulate correctly. That’s a 
potential problem, I think: we don’t want a universal language containing too many shibboleths at 
the entry level; nor do we want the IAL becoming more about status connected with correct 
articulation than about communication.

Alternatively, if there were too many of these “distinctive” sounds, would the rarity value that 
makes them easy to differentiate be lost - even as an outsider would be hard-pressed to 
distinguish all the different clicks that a Khoisan might make? I suspect that rarity value - phonetic 
isolation, phonemic distance - is the primary mark of distinction here, and that it would be 
difficult to argue that such sounds are inherently easier to differentiate - both phonetically and 
acoustically - than those more typical of the majority of languages. 

Also, it must be said that these sounds aren’t exactly culturallly neutral. They aren’t a priori 
confections; they come from existing speech. It follows, then, that whichever combination of 
distinctive sounds were chosen would tend to favour certain nationalities. Thus a significant 
minority - mostly living in SE Asia and Southern Africa - would benefit if the IAL went for a high 
proportion of uvular sounds, fricatives, aspirates and clicks.

In fact, I suspect that the main operant criterion is nothing but familiarity: i.e., those who don’t 
already hear and use a speech sound in their native tongue are likely to have difficulty 
differentiating and articulating it in the IAL. Let me quote a passage from “Lango Phonology” I 
wrote ten years ago

”...although most children may well develop an inherent capacity to differentiate and articulate 
phonemes, so that by a certain age they have the theoretical ability to speak any language with an 
extensive range of difficult speech sounds, the capability is gradually lost through childhood as 
the process of ethnic acculturation reinforces some phonemes but entirely neglects others. New 
speech sounds are not normally heard, i.e. distinguished from familiar phonemes, except by those 
who have learned to say them; but when the speech sounds corresponding to the "missing" 
phonemes are seldom if ever heard, the child's confidence and ability to say them tends to 
atrophy, as does eventually the capacity to even hear them.”

So the essential point is that most children worldwide would find it difficult to master the sort of 
phonemes you have in mind. They might learn them at school, given intensive coaching, but the 
lack of positive reinforcement through hearing similar speechs sounds at home and in the 
community would prevent then articulating these sounds with confidence. Under normal 
circumstances the capacity to hear and say these phonemes would then gradually be lost. 

It might be claimed that the IAL would be different in this regard. However, the absence of 
international contacts and dealings in the lives of most children would probably cause them to see 
the IAL - at least initially - as no more relevant than the foreign languages they already learn at 
school in tems of extraneity to, and utility within, their everyday lives. A corresponding paucity of 
international fraternisation within the adult population - again, at least initially - would do 
nothing to redeem the situation.

I remember a boy in my French class at school who simply couldn’t pronounce the “French J”, 
despite the best efforts of the teacher - the nearest he could get was the “English J”. I don’t know 
what happened to this boy (I can still remember his name and the fact that he had been adopted) 
but would consider it pretty certain that his aspirations didn’t include living and working in 

Similarly, there is going to be a significant proportion of pupils who are never going to use the IAL 
much in practice, even if it is their only “foreign” language. The schools have to try to provide 
equality of opportunity, but any sane person knows that there is never going to be equality if 
outcome. Realistically, it would be impractical to insist upon an IAL, the phonology of which all 
students in all countries could easily master, so as to cater for all the “phonetically challenged” 
with no desire or motivation to learn it. In practice we would end up with a toy IAL similar to Toki 
Pona. The initial IAL should be simple and easy, but not to such an extent that it could not be 
taken seriously.

Following on from such considerations, I think the only generally acceptable scientific basis for the 
core IAL phonology would be majority preference, which means in effect something on the 
“Western” model. The UPSID list of the 20 commonest consonants in 317 languages is probably 
not too far off the mark here, and would be less so if political correctness (presumably) hadn’t 
caused it to exclude English.

That’s all very well for Westerers, one might say, but how about Easterners? Well, as I have 
suggested here many times before, I think the only realistic answer can be a compromise, with a 
Western “English / Romance” bias in the phonology and core vocabulary - such as already exists in 
the majority of languages - and an Eastern “Chinese” bias in the grammar - such as most 
languages have experienced anyway in the course of historical and individual cognitive 
development. The authors of many post-Esperanto IALs (Unish, Noxilo, Gilo, Tceqli, Vorlin etc.) 
would evidently agree - and not least yourself as the creator of "Patwa", eh Jens? Such would also 
be the ideal theoretical ingredients of a potential pidgin on the historic model but a global scale. 

OK - a pat solution, but it still doesn't really address your fundamental point, which is that a lot of 
students are going to find differentiating and articulating unfamiliar speech sounds a real 
challenge. Well, I suspect that we get to an irreducible minimum, and from then on a certain 
amount of pain and mutual incomprehension will be inevitable. Obviously this should be shared 
out as equitably as possible around the world, but beyond that I can't see any alternative to simply 
overlooking the fact that someone has mispronouned a word or made a grammatical mistake. 
Usually the context allows one to easily disregard such errors anyway, since the intended meaning 
is obvious. Also, I would expect that the culture of the IAL will be mainly about international 
friendship and communication; those who wish to score linguistic points and exclude outsiders 
will tend to use their mother tongues, as they always have.

Antony Alexander