[CQ-Contest] The Theory of Phonetics

John W xnewyorka at hotmail.com
Fri Nov 4 01:30:14 EST 2005

Given the huge amount of bandwidth (pun intended, read on) given to the 
phonetics issue, I thought it would be interesting to examine the underlying 
communication theory:  In the spoken word, the vowels carry the sound, but 
the consonants carry the meaning.  (read that sentence again!)

The Vowel sounds:  iy (as in eye or I), ee, ih, ay, eh, aah, ahhh, oh, ooo, 
uuh (as in "good"), uhh (as in Above).  (Linguists, let's leave out the 
The Consonants:  all the rest.
(the above are not standard phoneme spellings or symbols, they are just 
"common sense" spellings for a general and international audience).

Vowels are the LOW frequency component of our speech - the fundamental 
frequency. (They are the note you sing when you are singing. You can find 
the note on the piano, because it has a pitch.) Vowels survive quite nicely 
even through QRM, QRN, poor S/N ratios, reduced bandwith (such as SSB as 
opposed to AM or FM) and even the over-processing and DSP damage that is all 
too common these days.

Consonants, on the other hand, are the HIGH frequency component of speech - 
including various clicks and clacks and fricatives and stops etc. Their 
pitch is well above the range of the piano unless it is a "voiced" 
consonant, in which you hum a vowel pitch while producing the consonant 
(such as "V", as opposed to "F", which is the same consonant as "V" except 
it is unvoiced). They survive very poorly, sometimes not all, through the 
above list of harms.

Let's take a plain English sentence and perform an experiment. Here is the 
sentence first with the vowels only, using the above easy phoneme spellings. 
  Each set of vowels represents one word - try reading this out loud:

ay-ee-oh   ahh-eh-ih   ih   iy  ay-oh-ih   ahh-ee

Did you understand it?  Probably not.  Now let's try the same sentence with 
just the consonants:

rd  cntstng  z  -  fvrt  hb

Perhaps that was a little easier to copy?  Still perhaps slightly tricky, 
but much easier.

Putting the vowels and consonants together makes it quite easy to copy:
"Radio contesting is my favorite hobby."

You can take pretty much any sentence and speak it to someone without the 
consonants and they won't get it. But strip out the vowels and it's still 
not too tough to comprehend. Even doing it in writing makes it easy to see 
the difference:  "aio oei i y aoie oy"  vs. "rd cntstng s m fvrt hbb"

So what does this have to do with phonetics?  The ideal set of phonetics 
would consist of a set of words that, with all consonants removed, contained 
NO DUPLICATES (or even "near" duplicates).  This is why ALPHA sounds like 
DELTA.  Because  aah-uhh   and  eh-uhh are very close to one another.  (Note 
that I listed all of the vowel sounds above in a specific order - - the 
vowels next to each other in the list sound the most similar, because the 
tongue position is changed only slightly to go from one sound to the next. 
With some practice, you can start at "eee" and end up at "uhh" by making 
just a single continuous sound, and lowering the back of your tongue through 
its entire range, starting at the roof of your mouth (with "eee") and ending 
up all the way at the bottom of your jaw (with "uhh".)

So the folks who claim that "America" is a good phonetic are telling the 
truth, and it's because uhh-EH-ih-uhh   doesn't appear in many other common 
words or any of the standard phonetics.  Tokyo was also mentioned as good. 
It's nearest homonym from the phonetic alphabet is Romeo (same vowel 
sounds), which is still fairly easily distinguishable from Tokyo because the 
"m" is voiced (i.e. it contains a "pitch" or an underlying hummed vowel) 
while Tokyo contains no such thing.  I think if the official and familiar 
"R" phonetic was Rodeo instead of Romeo, then Tokyo might get mistaken for 
Rodeo often (because the D is unvoiced, just like the K.)

So if you are finding this interesting and are still reading (or at least 
still awake), and you have a burning desire to make a valuable contribution 
to amateur radio and voice communicators the world over for centuries to 
come (or at least until all communication is digital and the spoken word 
goes the way of dah-di-dah-dit  di-dah-dah), you will do some analysis and 
come up with a new phonetic alphabet that adheres to the following rules:   
1. all phonetics are internationally recognizable words for which the 
spelling (i.e. first letter) will be obvious or easily learned by persons of 
any native tongue;  2. all phonetics are clearly pronouncable by persons of 
any native tongue or accent;  3. the "vowels-only" versions of each letter 
are unique, or at least substantially different from all other letters by 
using either highly dissimilar vowels or distinct intermediate consonants as 
differentiators (such as Romeo vs. Tokyo); and 4. (a wish list item, but a 
must for contesting) all phonetics use a small number of syllables (e.g. 
"Mississippi", although it's nice and unique, is not as desirable as "Mike" 
due to the length.)

I have often thought of going through this exercise, but have never taken 
the time. So I extend the invitation to you - just give me credit for having 
the idea.  ;-)

Oh - one other thing, which should now be obvious: The reason we need 
phonetics is that QRM, QRN, processing, etc. etc., and even SSB itself, rob 
our speech of precious bandwidth, and thus the high frequency component (the 
consonants) are suppressed or even lost. If we only used AM/FM and never had 
interference, available bandwith would be plenty adequate to carry all the 
consonants and only people afflicted with high frequency hearing loss would 
require phonetics at all.

I hope someone has the time and inclination to take this challenge - it will 
be interesting to see what you can come up with!

p.s. My hunch is that due to the variety of accents in the world, different 
ops might find different sets of phonetics to be the best for themselves. 
i.e. what's best in Japan might not be best in Scotland or Texas. (what a 
surprise that would be!)


John, W2ID  (and yes, experiments have shown that Italy Denmark is 
significantly better than India Delta, and this coming from someone who 
would *prefer* to use standard phonetics.)
ex-WA2GO  ("Way To Go" - does that qualify as phonetics?  ;-)
ex-ex-WA2STM (a/k/a Star Trek Movie, with thanks to Andy, Number 2 Number 

More information about the CQ-Contest mailing list