Carla Unseth

Sounds and Symbols

One aspect of my job that always intrigues people is writing alphabets. In fact, I’ll soon be headed to a conference which is all about “orthography development” – or in other words, developing writing systems for people who don’t have it. It will be a great time for me to learn more. Whenever I mention this trip, people are curious to learn more themselves!

I think what fascinates people is thinking about how to create letters. How do you make up symbols to represent the various sounds? I recently heard a story about two boys, Abdoulaye and Ibrahima who were Fula speakers in West Africa. Their language didn’t have its own alphabet, so people used a version of Arabic script to write in Fula. But it wasn’t perfect because Arabic script didn’t have letters for some sounds in their language. So, in 1986, the boys sat down and made up their own symbols for each sound in their language. The result is an alphabet called Adlam, which is still used today in Fula communities for everything from education to texting!

Truly, today most linguists don’t have to do what those boys did. There is actually a set of symbols called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) which has letters for every sound that it is possible for the human mouth to make. Usually, nowadays, linguists who work with alphabets do more of figuring out which sounds appear in the language and then matching those sounds to the appropriate IPA symbols. The resulting alphabet is called a Roman script because the IPA is based on the classical Latin alphabet. The picture above shows how the Latin alphabet developed.

But, you may be thinking, not every alphabet uses the same symbols! Why do some alphabets look completely different? Well, there are other scripts (not just alphabets – those are based on having one symbol per sound, but some scripts have one symbol per syllable, or one symbol per word) that don’t use IPA symbols. Most of these developed either before IPA, or independently from a linguist, like in the case of Adlam. Some examples of these “non-Roman” scripts are Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, and Cyrillic. There are cases where a linguist might make a writing system based on one of these scripts – mostly because people in the region are already familiar with that script. In Western Europe it might be better to have an alphabet based on Cyrillic. In the Middle East it might be better to have an alphabet based on Arabic. In these cases, a linguist would face problems similar to the problems that caused Abdoulaye and Ibrahima to create Adlam – the Arabic script didn’t have symbols for every sound in their language. So a linguist would have to decide how to deal with this problem. In this case, it would be possible to add another symbol, though it would most likely be an IPA symbol! A second way to solve this problem is to combine two letters that already exist. Think of English – though it is a Roman script, it was developed before IPA and there was no symbol for the sound “sh”. So two letters were combined to represent this sound (but there is an IPA symbol for this sound, which is ʃ ). A third solution would be to add a “diacritic” or a small symbol or accent over the letter to mark when it is pronounced differently. Some languages use the symbol š to represent “sh”.

There are lots of things to consider when developing a writing system for a language. Drawing new symbols isn’t one of them, but it is still a process which takes a good deal of thought. A linguist considers which script to use, which sounds need to be represented, and which symbol matches with that sound. If needed, they consider what to do when there isn’t already a symbol for a particular sound.

Once they are written, alphabets are a powerful tool! It gives the speakers of the language the respect of saying, “Your language is worth recording. Your knowledge is worth preserving.” And for those of us who do translation, it says, “God speaks YOUR language.” What a gift!