The Arbdot Spelling System

Alan Beale

August 30, 2005

Arbdot is an internationally-oriented spelling system.  This makes it more complicated than a system like Bobdot which is designed for a single homogeneous dialect.  (See here for a comparison of Arbdot and Bobdot.)  My strategy for describing Arbdot is first to describe it as though the international elements did not exist, and then to discuss the international complications.


The consonants of Arbdot are for the most part unsurprising.  The digraphs ch, sh, tþ, th, wh and zh are used for the initial sounds of chip, ship, thick, this, whip and the medial sound of <vision>.  The spelling wh is used even by those who pronounce the words <which> and <witch> identically.  Occasionally, a digraph may form "accidentally", as in the words mïshäp, côrthous and dâkshunt.  This is unfortunate, but is infrequent enough that it is not a concern.  Sh happens.

The k sound is spelled in Arbdot with the letter c before an a, o or u, and with k anywhere else.  However, words derived from words ending in k retain the k, even when followed by an a, o or u, as in myúzikal or wêrkout.

The sound of ng, as in <ring>, is written ng in the final syllable of a word, and as ñ elsewhere.  Examples: ring, strengtþ, añzíetè, fiñger.  A general rule of Arbdot is that spelling does not change when one word is derived from another and the pronunciation does not change.  For this reason, the words <singer> and <wrongly> are spelled singer and rônglè, not siñer and rôñlè as you might expect.  The sequence ñc/ñk, as in the words añcor and puñkchur, is spelled as nk, omitting the tilde, in the last syllable of a word, as in tþink and jinks.

Long and short vowels and stress

For most vowels, the Arbdot spelling indicates whether the vowel is stressed (either primarily or secondarily) or unstressed.  There are three exceptions.  Vowels with a circumflex may be either stressed or unstressed (but are usually stressed).  As will be seen, often when the first vowel of a word is both short and stressed, the accent is omitted.  And finally, in a compound word, stress is shown for the components, not the word as a whole.  This makes it possible to easily spell a compound word even if the compounding changes the stress of one of its components.

In Arbdot, a stressed short vowel is indicated by a dieresis, a stressed long vowel by an acute accent, and an unstressed long vowel by a grave accent.  A vowel without an accent is either an unstressed short vowel or a schwa.  However, because it is not possible for the first two syllables of a word to both be unstressed, the dieresis is omitted from the first vowel of a word if the second vowel is visibly unstressed (unmarked or marked with a grave accent).  Similarly, the dieresis is left out in a one-syllable word containing a short vowel.

The schwa is spelled with the same vowel as in the traditional spelling of a word, or with a u if there is no such vowel.  If the corresponding vowel is a digraph, one of the letters is chosen.

pat, pet, pit, pot, pup
aläs, ahëd, akïn, adöpt, abüv
metal, rivet, devil, lemon, letus, ratul, fôren, vishus
bát, bét, bít, bót, bút
rélà, rúbè, rabì, rínò, tófù

There are a few other unstressed sounds besides the schwa that need attention.  The "indistinct i" sound is a sound which varies between the schwa and the short i.  Like the schwa, it is spelled with the same vowel as in the traditional spelling, as in goblin, kíndnes and menas.  Additionally, when a distinct, unstressed i sound is traditionally spelled with an e, the e is retained in Arbdot, as in desíd and egzäkt.

The letter è is used for the sound of ending -y, as in hapè and slólè.  See International issues for further discussion.

Note that the word "I" is a sight word, spelled without a diacritic: I.  This special case is simply to mimic Bobdot.

Other vowels

The diphthongs of <how> and <joy> are spelled ou/ow and oi/oy in Arbdot.  The ou and oi forms are used before a consonant, and the ow and oy forms are used at the end of a word or before a vowel.  Examples: houl, how, coward, boil, boy, voyij.  In words derived from a word ending in ow or oy, the spelling is kept even if followed by a consonant, as in cowboy and joyfûl.  These diphthongs are marked as stressed in the same way as short vowels, with a dieresis over the o, as in anöyans or devöut.

Arbdot also uses the letters â, ê, ô and û.  ô and û are the vowels of <law> and <push> respectively.  êr represents the stressed vowel of <bird>.  (Note that an unstressed -er sound may be spelled with any vowel letter, as in bêrglar, mêrder, mârtir, kêrsor and mêrmur.)  â is the "broad a", discussed later when international aspects are considered.  Note that the circumflexed letters are used whether or not the vowel is stressed, but that unstressed cases are rare.

International issues

It is intended that Arbdot be useful for spelling either British or American English.  In most cases, the same spelling is used for both varieties of English - since there are more vowels in British English than in American, this necessitates some non-phonemic spellings.  For some words for which identical spellings are not practical, the spellings will differ only in diacritics.  For instance, there are many words like <bath> and <cross>, spelled batþ and krôs in American Arbdot, but bâtþ and kros in British Arbdot.  There are, of course, words whose pronunciations are different enough that there is no choice but to have two spellings, such as <schedule> and <lieutenant>: skejùl and lùtënant for Americans, shedyùl and leftënant for Britons.

The following chart is an easy-to-read summary of the rules discussed after it.  Note that the chart is a generalization, and that some Americans and Britons will use substantially different pronunciations from the ones shown.

TS rule of thumb
spelled a
spelled o (or a after w, qu)
spelled er or err
ar or arr
spelled air, ar, ear or eir
spelled ir, irr or yr
spelled ear, eer, er or ier
fôrest (Am), forest (Br)
None (ôr when final
or before a consonant)
None (ûr is uncommon)
spelled urr or our
others (also blurry, furry)
Spelled -y (at word end)
or i (before vowel)

â versus o

For Americans, the words <father> and <bother> rhyme.  For Britons, they do not.  Arbdot uses the letter â for the sound of <father> (the "broad a") and o for the sound of <bother>.  Americans should use the letter â when the corresponding British sound is the broad a and otherwise o.  In most cases, the following rule can be used.  Spell using the same letter as the traditional spelling, except when a follows a w (or qu), in which case the o spelling is used.  Thus: fâther, bother, drâma, Dona, bârk, borò, Woshiñton, skwosh.

The r vowels

The most difficult area in devising a spelling system which is workable for both British and American use is the handling of the consonant r, and the vowels which precede it.

The first area of difficulty is the fact that most speakers of British English are non-rhotic, that is, they do not pronounce many of the r's in traditional spelling, particularly preceding a consonant, or at the ends of words.  This is a problem which current English spelling solves quite well - r's which are not pronounced are included in the spelling, and the rules for when they are silent are so regular that this gives the average British reader little trouble.  The same solution is adopted by Arbdot.

More serious is the fact that RP, the prestige British dialect, uses three diphthongs before r which do not occur in American English, and makes other distinctions in vowels before r that Americans tend to find surprising.

A quick summary of the difficulties is as follows:

  1. The combination -or- before a vowel is often pronounced with a short o rather than with the aw sound that is almost always used in American English.  <forest> and <sorest> do not rhyme in RP.

  2. The words <furry> and <hurry> do not rhyme in RP.  <hurry> is pronounced with the short u sound of <pup>, a sound which does not occur before r in most Americans' English.

  3. The words <clearer> and <mirror> do not rhyme in RP.

  4. The first vowels of <courier> and <curious> are different in RP.  Most words with the <courier> sound in American English use the <curious> diphthong in RP.  Words like <courier> and <guru>, which Americans and Britons pronounce the same (except for the final r of <courier>), are exceptional.

  5. Each of the names <Mary>, <Larry> and <Jerry> has a different first vowel in RP.  This occurs in American English as well, but the majority of Americans pronounce all three with the same vowel.

Here is how these situations are handled in Arbdot.

  1. This case is no different from words like <cross>, spelled krôs by Americans and kros by Britons.  <forest> and <sorest> will be fôrest and sôrest in American Arbdot, but forest and sôrest in British Arbdot.

  2. Since there is already a symbol in Arbdot for the short u, this case presents no problems.  The Arbdot spelling -ur- is used for words like <hurry> which are pronounced with ur in RP.  In general, these are words traditionally spelled with -urr- (except for <furry> and <blurry>), and words spelled with -our- where the American pronunciation is êr, like <nourish> and <courage> (Arbdot nurish and curaj).

  3. <clearer> and <mirror> are spelled as klérer and miror respectively, in both American and British Arbdot.  The vowel of <clear> in RP is represented as a long e, even though technically it is a diphthong rather than a pure sound.  This is easy to master for current English readers - this sound is spelled ir/ïr in Arbdot when the traditional spelling is ir or irr, and ér/èr when the traditional spelling is ear, eer, er or ier.

  4. The situation with <courier> and <curious> is very similar to the above.  <courier> is spelled cûrèer, while <curious> is spelled as kyúrèus, representing the RP diphthong as a long u.  The úr/ùr spelling is the usual one, as there are only a handful of words with the other pronunciation.

  5. The situation with <Mary>, <Larry> and <Jerry> is the most complicated, as there are three sounds involved.  These names are spelled Márè, Larè and Jerè respectively in Arbdot.  Parallel to the handling of the diphthongs of items 3 and 4 above, the diphthong of the RP <Mary> is represented as a long a, even though it is not strictly the same sound.  The sound of <Larry> is a short a followed by an r, and is thus represented that way, and similarly, the vowel of <Jerry> is a short e, and so represented.  As with <clearer>/<mirror>, there is a simple traditional spelling rule for the <Mary> and <Jerry> sounds: if the spelling is er or err, the sound is that of <Jerry>, and if the spelling is air, ear or eir, the sound is that of <Mary>.  Also, the spelling arr represents the <Larry> sound.  The problem is the combination ar, which can represent either the <Mary> sound or the <Larry> sound (as in <mascara>).  I have found no useful rule for dealing with this case (other than that the suffix <-arity> is usually the <Larry> sound). The only alternative here for Americans who do not make this distinction seems to be memorizing the words that contain the <Larry> sound.

ú versus yú versus eú

A final distinction between British and American English is found in many words containing a long u.  In both varieties of English, many words, like <few>, precede the vowel sound with a y (Arbdot spelling fyú), while many other words, such as crew (Arbdot spelling krú) do not.  However, there is a third class of words, of which <new> is an example, in which the y occurs in British English, but not in majority American English.

It would of course be possible to spell such words differently in British and American Arbdot (nyú and ), but this does not have the simple appeal that the two spellings of <bath> (batþ and bâtþ) have.  My solution is instead to use the combination eú/eù for this particular situation, so that <new> is spelled neú.  This solution favors neither British nor American English - the eú words are exceptions for both varieties.

This notation of a leading e can also be used before the vowels û and u (when it represents a schwa), as in penïnseula and teûbêrkyulósis.

Spelling -y

The pronunciation of the final -y of <happy> varies considerably between English dialects.  For most Americans, it is clearly a brief form of long e /i/, while for most RP speakers it is closer to short i /I/.  As David Barrow has explained on the Saundspel group, in British English, there is a true length distinction between the two vowels of <needy>, whereas for an American, only the stress is different.  This vowel appears at the ends of words, where it is spelled y (or sometimes ie, as in <cookie>), or before other vowels, where it is generally i (or sometimes e, as in <video>).  Arbdot represents this vowel with è, according to the American pronunciation.  There are a few cases where this can lead to confusion, as with <booty> and <bootee>, which are pronounced differently in RP, but both likely to be spelled bútè in Arbdot.  Unfortunately, spelling this sound with i is no better, as then the distinct words <candid> and <candied> both end up spelled candid.  I've been debating for some time now whether and how Arbdot should be changed to better represent the y vowel.  Here are the three options that I've considered.  I am still not 100 % satisfied with my current decision here.

  1. The first option is simply to keep using è for the y sound.  The advantage of doing so is to preserve the resemblance to Bobdot, which I consider to be of some importance.  David Barrow (one of the Saundspel regulars) says he believes the notation is not intolerable to RP speakers, but suggests certain minor changes which are discussed below.

  2. The second option is to use the letter y with a diacritic for the y vowel.  The ý and ÿ forms would represent stressed vowels, and so are clearly unsuitable.  The form ỳ, which implies a long vowel sound, would work for American English, but not for RP.  And thus we are led inexorably to ŷ as the appropriate form: hapŷ, rádŷò.  This would be the standout choice, but for one problem.  The ŷ is not in the Latin-1 character set, which makes it difficult to input, or to read using popular E-mail programs.  Your browser can (probably) handle it, but not all human communication takes place on the Web (at least, not yet!).

  3. A final possibility here is to mimic traditional spelling, by using an unmarked y where it is unambiguous, at the end of a word or before a consonant, or an unmarked i before a vowel.  This gives us the comfortable spellings hapy and rádiò.  Having two spellings for the same sound is not ideal, but nothing new, as using c as well as k for the k sound is an established part of Bobdot/Arbdot.

Here is a brief sample of text spelled in each of the three ways.  (The text is the chorus of the Bob Dylan song "Too Much of Nothing".)

Sá helò tu Valerè,
Sá helò tu Vivèan.
Send them ôl mì salarè
On the wôterz ov oblïvèon.
Sà helò tu Valerŷ,
Sá helò tu Vivŷan.
Send them ôl mì salarŷ
On the wôterz ov oblïvŷon.
Sá helò tu Valery,
Sá helò tu Vivian.
Send them ôl mì salary
On the wôterz ov oblïvion.

For the moment, I'm sticking with option 1.  There are a few cases where this causes trouble for RP speakers.  One is the pair of <booty/bootee>, mentioned above.  Other problems are the words <babies> and <bases> (plural of <basis>), or <Harvey> and <larvae>, which rhyme in American English, but not in RP.  David has suggested that Arbdot should use é rather than è for the occasional words like <bootie> and <bases> where an unstressed long e is used in RP, in essence reserving è for the y sound.  This seems reasonable to me: using an slightly unphonemic spelling for búté and báséz and lârvé and 20 or so other words of the same sort seems to me to be a small price to pay for RP compatability, and one Americans can easily live with.


Here are my usual two text examples in Arbdot.  First is the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells' "The Star".  A Bobdot version for comparison can be found on my page of Star transcriptions.

It wuz on the fêrst dá ov the neú yér that the anöunsment wuz mád, ôlmóst símultánèuslè frum tþré obzêrvatôrèz, that the móshon ov the planet Nëpteún, the outermóst ov ôl the planetz that whél aböut the Sun, had becüm verè erätik. A rétârdáshon in its velösitè had bin suspëkted in Desëmber. Then, a fánt, remót spek ov lít wuz discüverd in the réjon ov the pertêrbd planet. At fêrst this did not côz enè verè grát eksítment. Síentïfik pépul, however, found the intëlijens remârkabul enüf, éven befôr it becám nón that the neú bodè wuz rapidlè gróing lârjer and bríter, and that its móshon wuz kwít diferent frum the ôrderlè progres ov the planetz.

The above represents American Arbdot.  A British version would differ in a few words, notably woz rather than wuz, obzêrvatrèz rather than obzêrvatôrèz, bén rather than bin, and prógres rather than progres.

My other favorite example, the lyrics of the Dire Straits song "Industrial Disease" (words and music by Mark Knopfler), is represented in Arbdot as follows.  (Dire Straits was a British group, so this is British Arbdot, to the best of my ability.  The differences from American Arbdot are quite unobtrusive.  Except for the spellings of woz and yôr, they are rather hard to notice.)

Wôrning lítz âr flashing doun at Kwolitè Contról
Sumbodè tþrú a spaner and thá tþrú him in the hól
Thár'z rúmorz in the lóding bá and añger in the toun
Sumbodè blú a whisul and the wôlz cám doun
Thár'z a méting in the bôrdrúm, the'r tríing tu trás the smel
Thár'z léking in the woshrúm, thár'z a snék in Pêrsonël
Sumwhár in the coridor, sumwun woz hêrd tu snéz
"Gûdnes mé, cûd this bé Indüstrèal Dizéz?"

The cártáker woz krúsifíd fôr sléping at hiz póst
Refyúzing tu bé pasifíd, it'z him thá blám the móst
The wochdog got rábèz, the fôrman'z got the fléz
Evrèwun'z consêrnd aböut Indüstrèal Dizéz
Thár'z panik on the swichbôrd, tungz âr tíd in notz
Sum cum out in simpatþè, sum cum out in spotz
Sum blám the manijment, sum the emplöyèz
And evrèbödè nóz it'z the Indüstrèal Dizéz

The wêrk fôrs iz disgüsted, dounz túlz, wôkz
Inosens iz injurd, ekspérèens just tôkz
Evrèwun sékz damijez, evrèwun agréz
"Théz âr klasik simptomz ov a monetárè skwéz"
On ITV and BBC thá tôk aböut the kêrs
Filösofè iz yúsles, tþèölojè iz wêrs
Historè boilz óver, thár'z an econömiks fréz
Sóshèölojistz invënt wêrdz that mén Indüstrèal Dizéz

Doktor Pârkinson deklárd "I'm not surprízd tu sé yú hér
Yú'v got smóker'z cof frum smóking, brúer'z drúp frum drinking bér
I dón't nó how yú cám tu get the Betè Dávis néz
But wêrst ov ôl yung man yú'v got Indüstrèal Dizéz
Hé rót mé a preskrïpshon, hé sed "Yú âr deprësd
I'm glad yú cám tu sé mé tu get this of yôr chest
Cum bak and sé mé láter, nekst páshent pléz
Send in anuther viktim ov Indüstrèal Dizéz"

I gó doun tu Spéker'z Côrner, I'm tþunderstruk
Thá got fré spéch, túristz, polés in trukz
Tú men sá thá'r Jézus, wun ov them must bé rong
Thá got a prótëst singer, hé'z singing a prótëst song
Hé sez "Thá wont tu hav a wôr só thá can kép us on our néz
Thá wont tu hav a wôr só thá can kép thár faktorèz
Thá wont tu hav a wôr tu stop us bíing Japanéz
Thá wont tu hav a wôr tu stop Indüstrèal Dizéz
Thá'r pointing out the enemè tu kép yú def and blínd
Thá wont tu sap yôr enerjè, incârserát yôr mínd
Giv yú Rúl Britänya, gasè bér, páj tþré
Tú wékz in Espänya and Sundá strip téz"
Ménwhíl, the fêrst Jézus sez, "I'l kyúr it sún
Abölish Mundà môrning and Frídà âfternún"
The uther wun'z out on huñger strík, hé'z díing bí degréz
How cum Jézus getz Indüstrèal Dizéz?

To comment on this page, e-mail Alan at

Go to home page
Go to spelling system roster