On Creating Fantasy Alphabets
Thinking about creating a fantasy alphabet? Fairly new to it? Here are a few basics on how different writing systems can potentially work.
Different Alphabet Types
There are many different types of alphabets, all of which work in vastly different ways. Here's a sample of how some alphabets function.
- In some writing systems, a single character may represent a syllable. For example, in the kanas of Japanese, there are separate symbols for Hi, Ki, Shi (pronounced 'hee', 'kee', and 'shee', respectively). There are also separate vowel sounds that can be used at the beginning of words or when two vowels are together, but there are no separate consonants.
- In some cases, a single symbol represents a word or idea. Two or more these symbols can be put together to make other words and symbols - often with meanings similar to that of the component symbols.
- Some alphabets don't write down vowels, while some write down only long or beginning vowels. (Ths wld actully wrk in Englsh. Srta.)
- In some writing systems, words are written exactly or almost exactly how they sound. The Japanese kanas are a good example of this. In English, however... well, let's just say that short vowels are practically worthless. Consider the word "cabbage" - the two A's sound completely different. The first a sounds like the a in "cat," but the second A sounds like an "uh."
- Many writing systems that use the Roman alphabet often put two or more characters together to make a completely different sound - ie, "sh" and "ch," "ee" and "oo." And don't forget how final E's affect vowels in the middle of words in English - "run" vs "rune," etc. In other languages, however, vowels don't do that. For example, if you were to pronounce "rune" following the rules of the German phonetics, you'd have something akin to "roon-eh."
Sounds and Things
You've probably realized by now that the writing system used for English doesn't actually support a large number of sounds. For example, English lacks the sound represented in German by the CH, or in French by the R. Similarly, German doesn't have the the sound represented in English by the letter J. (As in "jam.") Germans approximate this sound with a four-letter dipthong: the word "genie" is approximated as "dschinni."
If you're making an alphabet to go along with an SF language, make a list of what sounds your language uses. Don't give into the urge to use every sound out there - using only certain sounds will give your language a unique "flavor" (Consider how different German and Spanish sound from each other.)
Voiced sounds are sounds that are created while using your voice. For example, we make the sound "S" (as in "super") without actually using our vocal cords until the next letter. If you use your voice while pronouncing "S", you'll have the "Z" sound.
Creating the Letters
So, you need to create some letters. First of all, try considering where your SF people got the ideas for their letters. Did they just come up with random squiggles, or did they try to represent something familiar to them?
The letter "A" actually started its illustrious career representing, of all things, an ox. Now, it may not look much like an ox to you, but if you write it how the Phoenicians used to write it, it looks a whole lot more oxy.
Moo! It's an ox!
Eventually, the A (and most of the letters in the alphabet) were flipped upside down. Over the course of time, they were refined and polished until acheiving their modern form, which you see today.
Here are some tips for inventing letters:
- Draw random squiggles and shapes until you get something you like.
- Look at the shape of objects around you. Draw something loosely based off of these shapes.
- Look at other alphabets.
Unless you want to spend a full minute writing a single letter, keep it simple. And by simple, I mean no more than three and maybe occasionally four pen or brushstrokes per symbol. (Imagine how your homework would be if, to write the word "pen," you had to draw a detailed picture of a flower, a dog, and a tree. It'd take forever.)
Most letters in our own alphabet can be written in one or two strokes, and sometimes in three. Many can be written without ever lifting your pencil from the paper even once. For example, "K" requires three strokes and lifting your pencil once. (Or twice, depending on how picky you are.)
Do try to keep your alphabet's style consistant. In other words, don't make some of your symbols angular, some squiggly, and others obviously looking like flowers or animals.
NOTE: Many alphabets started out being pictographic (more or less) but ended up being so stylized as to be unrecognizable. (No matter how I squint, I still can't see a camel in the letter "G.") How old is the alphabet you're trying to invent supposed to be?
I happen to be left-handed, so I enjoy creating alphabets that are written right-to-left.
How's it going to look on paper?
Which way is your alphabet going to write? Many alphabets are written left-to-right (like this one), but some are right-to-left (Hebrew and Arabic, for example), others go top-to-bottom (Chinese), and some can be written virtually any way you want. (Egyptian heiroglyphs go left-to-right, right-to-left, and up-to-down.)
Here are some examples of how you could write things:
The first one reads "vowels could be written like this." The second one reads "chat with the sheep."
The number of unique symbols in your alphabet depends on your personal preference. For example, rather than create two completely different symbols for "D" (as in dog) and the voiced "Th" (as in "the"), you could simply take the symbol representing D and add a mark to it to indicate that it was pronounced differently. "Dog" could become "Ðog." (Thog.)
Of course, you can put two symbols together to make new sounds, just as S and H create the "Sh" sound.
All in all, it's up to you.
"Xerxes, you punctuated my moment beautifully."
Some alphabets use no spaces or punctuation. Everythingiswrittenlikethiskindofdisconcertingifyouaskme.
Some use spaces but no punctuation. Some have limited punctuation - sometimes to determine the end of a sentence. In English, we put marks like ! and ? on the right end of a sentance only. In Spanish, the marks are placed on both ends (the beginning one written upside-down). I'm rather fond of the Spanish method myself - you can tell right away what kind of sentance you're reading. Not so in other systems.
The Sikh alphabet uses vertical lines to separate sentances | Use your imagination, and you can come up with something suitable | Remember, it should match the style of your alphabet |