Ever since Tolkien, it seems like every fantasy setting to come along feels obligated to feature its own spoken language or writing system — and honestly, why wouldn’t they? It seems like a great way to add depth and believability to an imaginary world, but unfortunately the effort fails completely in the vast majority of cases, and the fact is that most people just don’t put much thought into this kind of thing. With that in mind, I want to go over some of the common pitfalls that it’s easy to fall into when designing a writing system for a fictional setting.
Copying the letters of the English alphabet
This one is the most common by far, and is totally avoidable without even adding any information to the system. The English alphabet contains letters that are entirely redundant, and others whose sounds can be replicated by combinations of existing letters.
- C, K, and Q all serve the same purpose. Only one is necessary, and K is usually chosen as it has the least ambiguity when placed by other letters.
- QU can be written KW.
- X can be written KS.
- J can be written DSH (or, ideally, DEzh, but I’m assuming thus far that no additional letters will be added).
While arguments can be made for most of the above, there’s simply no reason for a fantasy lettering system to include a glyph for X. Not every language should correspond exactly to English unless it’s supposed to be based on English, as in a future civilization.
In addition, try to think of other sounds that English has no representation for, and add those into your system. I mentioned Ezh above; it’s the buzzing sound made by the S in “treasure”. There’s also the guttural R, found in many French words, or the hard KH sound found in many Indian names, along with far too many to list here. Be inventive! When designing a fictional language English will only hold you back.
Grouping symbols based on the order of their counterparts in English
This one depends on how you present your writing system to the reader. If it’s in the form of a lexicon or reader’s guide, laying out your glyphs in the same order as the English alphabet is perfectly acceptable. If, however, the presentation is within the context of the fiction, the symbols should be arranged in a way that makes sense from a linguistic perspective. How about keeping all the vowels together, or grouping sounds by the part of the mouth that forms them?
Another thing to be careful of is that adjacent letters not look too similar unless they sound alike. In the Hylian alphabet from the Legend of Zelda series, the symbols for K and L are nearly identical, despite the fact that there’s nothing linking them but their adjacency.
Using symbols that would be tedious or impossible to write by hand
Unless your language is used by people who can think words onto paper, or invented the printing press before they came up with a lettering system, the glyphs need to be able to be written quickly and consistently by hand. Stargate SG1’s Language of the Ancients and Artemis Fowl’s Gnommish alphabet both fail in this respect; the former is clearly designed to be displayed on computer monitors, and the latter contains glyphs that are so full of little details that each one would take seconds to reproduce.
It’s easy to get carried away when designing a system that will ultimately be typed out in a custom font, but try to remember that you’re trying to sell the idea that the people in your world are using it in everyday life, writing with pens or brushes.
Using symbols that aren’t easily distinguishable at a glance
If you’ve been reading for any amount of time, you probably interpret most words simply by looking at their shapes, rather than the individual letters that compose them. Reading words that are correctly capitalized is much easier on the eyes than text in all caps for this exact reason. Your writing system should reflect this by containing letters that are distinct from each other while still having a common visual style. If you have to study each letter of each word in order to read it, you’ve done something wrong. See Tengwar for a good example of how to do this, and Matoran for a poor one.
Using strange textual direction for the sake of being different.
Text layout in modern languages is incredibly varied across different languages. Latin- and Germanic-based languages tend to arrange text in horizontal rows of text read left-to-right, while Chinese characters are written in vertical columns and are read right-to-left. Text layout can be an interesting way of making your writing system seem strange and foreign, but there reaches a point where it ceases to make any sense. In Artemis Fowl, for example, Gnommish is written in a spiral, with the first letter of the first word positioned in the center of the page. The counter-intuitiveness of this system is later handwaved; due to the original method causing migraines, most “modern” Gnommish is written in horizontal lines.
It’s important to bear in mind that no system will survive if it’s overly difficult to read. Try to strike a balance and find an inventive way of laying out text without going overboard. Try out boustrophedon, or a format where the lines on each page begin at the spine of the book and extend towards the edge of the page. Just make sure to run your eyes over your text afterwards and see if it gives you a headache.
I’ve only scratched the surface of all that fictional writing systems can get wrong, and I’m not even a linguist — I don’t even play one on TV. At this point, though, I’d like to turn around and give a few tips on what you can do to make your alphabet interesting and unique, while still avoiding the hazards I’ve mentioned above.
Use your writing system to tell a story about the culture it belongs to
The Disney movie Atlantis features its own writing system which does a couple of interesting things, despite essentially being a substitution cipher for English. Something I found fascinating is that the symbol for A is a tiny map of the city of Atlantis, including a marker for the ancient treasure hidden in the center. I love this! It tells a story about the people who invented the language, as well as tying it into the culture and civilization as a whole. More systems should do this.
Obviously I’m not saying that every writing system should go to such lengths, but it’s good to keep in mind that your culture and its written language should inform each other. Tolkien’s Dwarves use runes made up of hard lines because of all the text that they carve into stone, while the Tengwar is graceful and elegant, just like the Elves who use it. Try to make your writing system reflect the people who use it.
Experiment with ideograms and rebuses
Ideograms are symbols that represent an idea; for example, a red circle with a strike through it is universally understood to mean something is banned, as in a “No smoking” sign. Adding a select few ideograms to your writing system can be a great way to show what concepts are important to your culture.
Rebuses are a bit different, as they involve the combination of existing words to create a new meaning. In many cases, this involves using the name of a letter (U) to represent a word (You), or an image to represent a sound.
While it can be easy to go overboard and end up with an entire hieroglyphic writing system, adding a few ideograms and rebuses can help to bring your world to life.
Make digraphs into first-class citizens
This really leads back to my first point, but it’s different enough that it’s worth pointing out. Just because English uses combinations of existing letters to represent the TH, SH, and CH sounds doesn’t mean your language has to. Old-English had two separate symbols for the two different sounds of TH; Ð for the sound in “then”, and Þ for the sound in “thin”. On the other hand, I’ve always thought DH would be a much better fit for the hard TH sound. Why not add a few letters of your own, or come up with new digraphs?
Thanks for reading this far! I hope I managed to make my points in a helpful way. If this post helped you out in any way, or if you found something I got wrong, please leave a comment and let me know!