Monday, December 3, 2007

Military Misnomer

Met yet another person from the Canadian Militia. That makes three now. Three more than would be expected from my sort of social circle. On the topic of Canadian Navy conventions and such, we got to talking about the army alphabet. (Or, what he called "the phonetic alphabet".)

S: "Oh? ... ... In linguistics, 'phonetic alphabet' is something pretty different..."
X: "Well, it's 'cause it's an alphabet that says how the letters sound."
S: "..."

Having just met the man, I wasn't inclined to launch into a 3~7 minute discussion on the ways in which he was wrong. But I can here in my blog. Mwahaha.

Firstly, it's not an alphabet. An alphabet is an ordered, complete set of letters that are used in a given language. In English, that would make 26 letters. A list of words, however, is NOT and alphabet; it's a list of words that correspond to the alphabet. But I am willing to make a concession on this point, if only because I've been calling it the "army alphabet". (As a side-note, writing systems that have the vowels embedded with the consonants are called syllabaries, and complex writing systems are logograms. Thus, to use an Asian example, Modern Viet and Korean have alphabets; Japanese has two syllabaries and Chinese uses logograms. The two most famous logographic orthographies would be Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs.)

Secondly, it's not phonetic because as any literate English-speaking person knows, most letters have at least two corresponding sounds. Vowels especially are quite versatile in the sounds that they can represent (12 "pure" vowel sounds in English, but only 5 vowel letters -- hardly something that can be described as phonetic).

Thirdly, the [International] Phonetic Alphabet is already a registered term to denote an actual alphabet, in which each letter is designed to correspond to a single sound. Thus, each of the twelve English vowel sounds are represented by a unique letter in the IPA.

I sometimes wonder about how much thought people put behind naming things. The military "phonetic alphabet", or corporate "human resources". Unless, of course, we're supposed to view employees as cattle... ... or slaves. Oh wait, what's that about the Human Charter of Rights?

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