Orthography - Making Your Own Alphabet

This is Part One, Part Two, Part Three
The idea of making up my own alphabet was probably the first thing that attracted me to conlanging. After I learned Bulgarian, I made up a code that was based on Cirth and Bulgarian. I sent my brother the code and would mail him letters using it, just for fun. I started thinking about developing a new alphabet later, when I was playing the Myst games, and I saw the flowing script of D'Ni (D'Ni is a conlang Cyan/Richard Watson developed for their games and books).

First things to consider as you start developing your alphabet - What do you want?
  • a phonetic alphabet
  • a non-phonetic alphabet (like English)
  • or a syllable-based alphabet (meaning one character per syllable, like po, kee, ot, or kel, would be represented by one character/Tibetan is syllabic)
  • or an abjad, which would be a consonant-only-alphabet, and all vowels would be represented by diacritic marks (Hebrew and Arabic are examples)
A little research on Omniglot will get you acquainted with these concepts, and show you how these alphabet systems work and look.

Two main principles guided me as I began developing my alphabet: as I had been studying phonology, I realized that Tolkien designed and arranged the Cirth runes so that sounds that came from different regions of the mouth looked different, and sounds that came from a certain place in the mouth resembled each other. Meaning, the P and B are similar, B just has an extra stroke, which seems natural because B is P but voiced. And P and M are similar, because they are both bilabial consonants. Personally, I just thought there was something cool about that. The other principle I wanted to integrate into my alphabet was something I found while researching D'Ni: the letters seemed to be made up of simple strokes, combined in different ways. And the D'Ni numbers, which look so different from the letters, also appeared to be rooted in the same simple strokes.

So, I wanted to create an alphabet that would correspond in some way to the IPA chart, where simple strokes could be substituted for 'bilabial,' 'dental,' 'velar,' etc. and another set of strokes for 'plosive,' 'nasal,' 'fricative,' etc. so that if you knew what strokes meant what, you could tell how a letter should sound, just by looking at it.

After learning about aUi, I toyed with the idea of giving runic meaning to each letter, so that just by putting a certain vowel or consonant in a word, you knew it had something to do with sound, or motion, or movement. I still toy with this idea, but for now, I think it restricts me on word creation more than I would like. But I still find the ideas of multiple layers of meaning built into the language to be delicious... Mmm... :)

So I had pretty clear design principles. But what sort of look did I want for the letters? I wanted something that could first be drawn with sticks in the dirt, that looked runic enough to be carved into wood and stone, but which had the potential to later become a beautiful flowing script like D'Ni. I spent a lot of time on Omniglot.com, studying all sorts of alphabets there. I found myself looking at Tibetan over and over. I liked the shapes and curves in the letters, but not the complexity. I didn't want letters that had so many strokes it took a long time to write anything. The other alphabet I started looking at a lot was Georgian. It was probably modelled after the Greek alphabet (as is our English alphabet), but the Asomtavruli version looked different in a way I liked. Thats really the only way to describe it.

Despite knowing the design principles I wanted, and having a resource like Omniglot.com at my fingertips, it was a long time before I discovered the letter shapes I would ultimately use for my conlang.

Continue to part two!


baalak said...

It is a bizarre feeling, seeing your thoughts and feeling written by another's hand. You and I come from a very, very similar place when it comes to Orthography.

I've been interested in making my own alphabets since I was a small child and I realized that it was possible. Many of the stories and series I've enjoyed the most have contained such alphabet-cyphers. It wasn't until I realized that they were, in fact, nothing but cyphers, that I became disillusioned with the concept. It was no longer fulfilling until I had a new language to record.

You and I share a great deal of our design document as well, it seems. I, too, would like a phonetic alphabet, where each letter tells you by its shape where in the mouth you should pronounce it. The thought of the characters calling out to be spoken is enticing to me.

I have also thought of giving each phoneme its own semantic meaning, but like you found that this limited my capacity to form words far too much.

I found Omniglot, and inspiration in the Tibetan script, but also in the Mongolian alphabet. I love the way each character flows into the next, how the letters vary depending on where in the word they appear, the vertical approach, etc.

Though it took you a long time to find your script, mine is still nebulous. Existing only in the unreachable parts of my imagination. If you're interested in my initial iterations for my Glaubaal script, you can find them on my blag.

- Baalak Nalzar-aung.

Lovi said...

It's nice I'm not alone!

I know this post is really old, but I just thought I'd mention that you could do something like aUi with your own letters, sort of like Japanese kanji. For example, "tsuki" is written as a rectangle (tall) with a line through the middle (across). "Tsuki" means moon, but it is used to write the word for month, even though they're not the same word, even in Japanese.

Obviously kanji gets complicated and also uses hiragana (and katakana for foreign words), but it's similar and wouldn't restrict your word creation.

Well, you may have thought of this already, now I think on it....

BræuwnBreefs said...

Like, OMG!
JK, but seriously.
Reading this was a huge surprise.
You said you use(d) and spent a lot of time on omniglot, looked a lot at tibetan and georigan script, wanted to make an alphabet that you could tell how a letter is pronounced just by looking at it,pointed out that you wanted to develop a "look" for your letters, and you wanted to start with a simple-looking alphabet that had potential to become a "beatuful flowing script". All of this I did/considered/thought/etc. before so it was sort of like reading my thought on another person's website

henrik.lundahl said...

A few years ago I created my own alphabet. I don't really know how I came up with the idea, or the design, but I took some inspiration from the Cyrillic (mostly for sounds). Later on I erased and added letters, and now I have about 50 letters, and evert time i see or write them I just love them!

I wanted to have a round alphabet, like the Georgian. But without knowing it the were the opposite. When they are created in a way that they can be written "rounded" or like you say, in a Runic way, so you can carve them in wood.

henrik.lundahl said...

Sorry for my bad writing, I just couldn't make up my mind how I wanted to express myself :b

I just wanted to add that I also have created numbers, 9-0 and each 10s, like the Chinese. The numbers are very rounded though :)

julian said...

tevin campbell (r&b artist) released a 1993 cd entitled I'm Ready and there was a basic 'futuristic' alphabet on the cover. it got me thinking and 17 years later i'm mashing together esperanto/braille/and a tevin campbell version of letters.

Allen said...

I love making alphabets/writing systems too, but i think really rounded ones like arabic or tibetan are ugly (ESPECIALLY the Hindi script!!!!). There really is no writing system that i like for a long period of time (more than a month :D), so i create a new writing system really often, and then hate it in a couple of days/weeks. What i want to make is a system that is completely unique, unlike anything else, and something that doesnt look at all like writing, but strange drawings instead. and the system i have now is really close to what i imagine!!! It's written like this=
Letters are sorted into 'groups', either with one vowel alone, 1 consonant and 1 vowel, 2 consonants and 1 vowel, (basically you can have as many consonants as you like, so long as they have a vowel, so no consonant-only words)
It works because the vowels are shapes, like a is a triange (but a soft triangle, no harsh edges), o is a square, e is an upside down U, and so on. Then the consonants are simple little shapes that are written inside the vowel shapes (i was really excited when the concept of writing consonants inside of vowels struck me!!!), with words like cramp or sent, where there's only 1 vowel surrounded by consonants, there's a shape that has no sound. (also, there's a consonant symbol that has no phonetic value, but makes the reader know that the vowel has to be read first, since you usually real the blocks from inside-bottom, up and out) The word 'renting' would be grouped like this= re-nti-ng :)
Sorry for the rambling and explaining, i got carried away :D
Anyway, really interesting post, thanks!

Allen said...

Oh and also, each vowel has a singular form in case there's 2 vowels, plus, in my language, sounds like 'ao' 'eo' and 'au' count as single vowels

Anonymous said...

I've always been told my obsession with languages and making alphabets is odd, but finally I know that there are otherpeople with my interests. I've created an alphabet that is related to the English alphabet, but like many European languages it uses diavtitics to show different forms of vowels, and consonants always have the same sound, so you don't have to memorize stuff like c sounding like s before i/e and k otherwise. Also one person commented saying that month and moon have the same kanjI in Japanese, but they're unrelated, but I think that is wrong. In Japan, the months are decided by the full moon, or lunar calendar. Sorry about the long comment.

Miss Coconut said...

Anon: I didn't say the months and the Moon were unrelated. On the contrary, even in English the word 'month' comes from 'moon' for the cycle of the Moon.

Anonymous said...

I love writting. Whenever I felt alone or wanted to talk about my feelings I would take a notebook and a pen and write all my pain or hapiness.
Of course everyone always tried to get my notebooks because they knew I write everything about everything and everyone so I ended up having to destroy everything I wrote.

When I was 13 years old, I was reading a book and all of a sudden thought; the only way I could keep a diary is if I write in a language no one could understand... So with a pencil I wrote an alphabet in the border of that book. And ever since I write everything with that alphabet.

Reading this shows me I am not alone, I always though only I would think of writting in a way that no one other than me understands.

(Forgive my english, my native languages are spanish and french not english)

Anonymous said...

I once made an alphabet, lost the piece of paper it was on, as well as a piece of paper with the Latin and Greek based writing adapted for the alphabet. while making the alphabet, I realized that severalvowels actually didn't exist,such as ae(as in snake) was actually eh+ee, I ah+ee, w is a short "oo" before a following vowel. som consanants, like x, are more obvios.
Now, I'm working on a runic-inspired alphabet, and i'm making a simple language for it; a concept is modified into a word by a prefix or suffix. For example, instead of having seperate words for good and bad, you have is-good and not-good.
I only googled, 'my own made up alphabet today, and lots of people have similar ideas.

Ngmun/Ellenvaik OckultFont said...

Anonymous: I also had the same idea when I created my alphabet! I would be able to write in an alphabet that nobody could understand :)

But with this idea, I first started with learning Greek (written their alphabet with english actually,) and then after a while I was interested by the Hindi writing, so I extended lines above each character and changed their natures, but still with the motions of the Greek letters. Then, I took it one step farther, and I made it an Abjad, and made little circles around the consonants in the place which would give them unique vowel sounds.... this is all very interesting to me! I wish you all good luck in creating your own alphabets.

BerieksaanJ said...

Omg! I always found myself staring at Tibetan too! and Tibetan would inspire my scripts a lot!,

Anonymous said...

An alphabet that can choose a letter from the alphabet to create
the alphabet using your computer

Cy said...

I also invented my own alphabet when i was very young. Phonetic and gets rid of C,Z,V,J,Q,X and adds th, sh, and ch.

Anonymous said...

I was 16 when I scratched together my first alphabet, and within another 2 years I had refined it and there were three variants of the original.

I now have a settled system that I use for my own purposes; it's particularly useful for writing down passwords and the like because nobody else knows of its existence.

Henrik L.u. said...

Here is a link to my old version of my alphabet: http://i1085.photobucket.com/albums/j437/Ngdawa/AlfabetTachot-Kyrylliska-Latingamla_zps23f3393c-1-1.jpg

And here is a link to my new version of my alphabet: http://i1085.photobucket.com/albums/j437/Ngdawa/AlfabetTachot-Kyrylliska-Latinnya_zps118f4414-1.jpg

Sine Nomine said...

I am a chronic scriptmaker. I've been at it since I was in middle school, where I invented my own alphabet on the inside front cover of a composition notebook. I mostly used it to gripe about how bored I was. I experimented a bit in high school, where I taught myself the Greek alphabet to protect things I didn't want others to know. In college, I learned the Cyrillic alphabet in order to write more secret messages, mostly used for the purpose of being a smartass. The last script I learned was the Georgian alphabet, because it just looks awesome and nobody else around me can decipher it. And it just looks cool.

I have created several kinds of scripts and conlangs with an array of aesthetics and traits.

I generate a few new scripts every week. The most interesting one was a conlang where the consonants stood for one root with its meaning and the vowels stood for another root and its meaning, and the meaning of the word was a combination of the two. The consonants were for the thing and the vowels were for the action, so I ended up with something that combined parts of speech into single words. The orthography I invented to go with it used angular/perpendicular lines for the consonants and curvy/diagonal lines for the vowels. And because every single letter had an inherent meaning, the language could be logically built to describe anything and entire words could be written simultaneously ideographically and phonetically. Too bad it was so mindbending to use on account of the alien mindset required to use it, and the limits of word structure and phonetics meant that things got very constrained very quickly, leading to huge numbers of minimal pairs and homophones.

As of late, my pet project has been to make a script which is easy to read, easy to write, easy to learn, can be written quickly, has a very high information density, can be written flexibly, condenses dipthongs into single characters, and can match the English alphabet in efficiency. It has been very hard to do, but the current solution I've cooked up is a cursive script visually similar to Arabic. The script is an abugida where the vowels can be written either as diacritics or as equals to vowels. There are no special positional forms and the standalone forms of vowels are identical to their diacritical forms. It goes from top to bottom and left to right. Capitalization is handled by circling the character in question, but it is usually written unicase. All the characters can be written with just one single stroke and entire words come together as one line. Thanks to its cursive design, multiple characters can share strokes. Entire words can be written in the space of one English character.

There are drawbacks. The first one is the extremely limited array of letter shapes. The second is how the script can vertically run away with certain letter combinations. Thirdly, the information density means every little stroke and detail counts. Fourthly, so many characters are very similar. Fifth, some letter combinations simply do not mesh well. Sixthly, the great degree of flexibility built into the script makes it hard to adopt a single defining form for many words.