Written languages have generally been optimized for the most meaningful elements of speech, so sometimes strange workarounds are required to capture certain subtleties: e.g. capital letters for YELLING, alternating capitalization for “thE spEaKer is VEry StUpid,” ellipses for a stilted-last-gasps sort of speech (“tell… them… the… killer… was…”), or the HTML-inspired “/s” for “please interpret the former sentence sarcastically.”
Unfortunately, although the workarounds above are generally sufficient for human languages, they fail for non-human sounds: for example, a dog barking or a bird chirping.
If we want to write down bird songs or distinguish between different dog barks, our vocabulary is limited to various stereotyped sounds (e.g. “bark,” “woof,” “yip,” “growl”), as shown in Figure 1.
These words have very little relationship to the actual sounds that the animals are making, however!
Fig. 1: Latin letters do not allow the expression of more than a few types of dog barks. Outrageous!
So if we want to write down exactly a very specific dog bark, we are out of luck.
Out of luck until now, that is! What we need is a special dog-bark alphabet (Figure 2) that can capture both the range of dog sounds and their pitch.
Fig. 2: What we need is a new set of letters specifically for representing dog sounds.
In this case, the new alphabet works as follows:
It is a fully-featured alphabet, with each sound corresponding to one of the perhaps few-hundred basic dog vocalizations. As an upper bound, it’s probably reasonable to assume that we will need no more than 250 letters.
- The vertical position of the letters will indicate higher or lower pitch, just like musical notes on a staff.
Figure 3 shows an example of a hypothesized candidate alphabet, where the dog noises from Figure 1 have been converted into a new sound-and-pitch-based alphabet.
- Fig. 3: This poorly-documented alphabet nevertheless conveys the basic idea that 1) vertical position is pitch and 2) that dog noises are drawn from a fixed set of symbols (e.g. the “Ѱ”-like character being used for the start of a growl).
Once this is successful, it will open up new jobs for linguists in creating bird alphabets, cat alphabets, and whale alphabets.
This expanded-alphabet idea can also be applied for humans, allowing us to represent common sounds that still have no adequate textual approximation, like the sound of a sneeze or yawn.
PROS: Strategic addition of new dog-sound-related words could legitimize a few new and useful Scrabble words (possible candidate dog sounds: “RR,” “GR,” “RF”).
CONS: Possibly would be substantially more effort to learn than just learning 10 synonyms for “bark,” which is the current status quo.