ABCD Notation

Alan Beale
September 3, 2007

What is ABCD?

ABCD is an English pronunciation dictionary of an unusual sort.  The name is an acronym for Alan's Basic Codes with Diacritics.  A typical online pronunciation dictionary will use a relatively simple phonemic notation.  If this sounds like what you are looking for, please follow this link to CAAPR - ABCD is something different.

I have called the ABCD notation a blend of spelling and pronunciation.  The ABCD spelling of a word is a spelling in an extended alphabet from which both the pronuciation and the regular spelling can be derived, and which is in most cases very similar to the regular spelling.  A typical example is the word advise, spelled advíZe in ABCD.  The í indicates a long i, and the Z an s pronounced as z.  Almost all of the units of ABCD notation work in this way, indicating both a pronunciation and a spelling.

The word advise illustrates one other important property of ABCD, one that is easy to see as a negative.  It is ambiguous about certain aspects of pronunciation.  It does not indicate stress - which means you can't tell from looking at advíZe whether the stress is on the first or second syllable.  A side-effect of this ambiguity is that in general you cannot distinguish the schwa from an ordinary short vowel.  The word advise is pronounced either with a short a and with a schwa in the first syllable.  The spelling advíZe describes either pronunciation equally well.  (This was a choice I made in the design of ABCD - it improves the resemblance of ABCD to regular spelling at what seems to me a small cost.)

ABCD is highly systematized.  There are about 200 symbols and symbol combinations with defined meanings in ABCD, exploiting both capital letters and diacritics.  This would be too complex to use and remember without the twin aids of ABCD's resemblance to regular spelling, and the consistent way in which the diacritics are used.  For instance, vowels with the acute accent are all long vowels.  All the conventions are described in detail in the ABCD documentation.

Here are a few more examples of ABCD in action, to give you a better idea of how it works.  The italics are the regular spelling of the selected words and the boldface the ABCD spelling.

abundant: abundant
alienate: álîenáte
charisma: KHariZma
handsome: han(d)som(e)
awareness: aWâre+nêss
: a^ccòrdîon
demoralization: dem~Öral~Ízátion
laugh: l[au:~À][gh:f]

is a word spelled entirely according to English patterns, and requiring no markings for vowel sounds.  alienate also conforms to patterns, but requires some vowels be marked with diacritics to clarify the pronunciation. Note that no special marking is required for a final silent e following a long vowel. The word charisma also conforms to high-frequency patterns, but both the ch and the s need to be altered to correspond to the pronunciation.  (The spelling KH is used rather than CH, because CH is equally plausible as a spelling for the ch of machine.)  handsome has two silent letters, and, in contrast to alienate, the e is marked as silent since the previous vowel is not long.  Finally, the word awareness shows some ABCD techniques for resolving some of the subtler ambiguities of regular spelling.  The W in awareness is capitalized to show that aw is not to be interpreted as a single vowel sound (as in law), while the + sign after aWâre shows that the first e is not pronounced as a short e or a schwa, but instead is silent, because it ends the root word aware.

Unlike the words above it, the word accordion does not conform to basic English patterns, because the double c follows a vowel representing a schwa.  The ^ flags this situation.  The word demoralization displays a different difficulty - the British and American pronunciations differ.  The ~ flags a code which is interpreted differently for the two varieties of English.  And finally, the word laugh is completely defiant of standard English patterns, and so the ABCD representation simply shows how the letter combinations map to sounds.

Why Is ABCD?

The normal reaction to ABCD is, of course, to ask, "What is it good for?"  I'm not sure I have a satisfactory answer for that question.  Here is my best shot.  English spelling is widely regarded as capricious and arbitrary, and in many ways it is.  But at the same time, it is strongly patterned.  Most words are spelled in ways that conform to those patterns.  The difficulties are, first, that some words, including some very common words, do not conform to those patterns at all and, second, it is very hard to predict which patterns any particular word will match.  Only memorization will tell you that skate is not spelled ?scate? or ?skait? or even ?schaight?.  ABCD makes the patterns that underlie English spelling visible, and reveals the ways in which those patterns fail.  If this sounds either interesting or useful to you, then perhaps you ought to give ABCD a look.

The ABCD dictionary together with complete documentation can be downloaded here.  (The package also includes documentation for my CAAPR notation, because aspects of ABCD are most easily explained in terms of CAAPR.)  This version of ABCD was revised September 3, 2007.  Those using an earlier version may want to download the latest version.

Note: The dictionary is in the Windows-1252 character set.  Users of non-Windows systems should not have difficulty using it - the only representation used which is not in ISO Latin-1 is the 0x9f character, the capital form of ÿ (y dieresis).

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