Letters are fascinating. Why shouldn’t we find them so? Their shapes afford us a sense of order if not actual orthodoxy and by them – along with the sounds they represent – we attempt to make ourselves known. Letters are even how we identify ourselves.
As writing systems are essential to our having a recorded history, letters are as old as time. In his last fable, Hyginus states, “The Parcae – Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters.”
The novel I’ve set in mythological Greece won’t be written in Ancient or Modern Greek but I have been making an effort to get the character names and certain terms correct. Effort at being thorough and accurate has often taken me to the area where fascinating letters become tricky things — in combination they invite pronunciation, spelling, and meaning.
During my formal education the pronunciation key in any dictionary made use of diacritical marks. Later the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) became the key of choice. Though there is an online English-to-IPA translator, I’ve yet to find one that works in reverse. I still have to compare IPA vowels to a diacritical chart.
In addition to the story of Teiresias, another novel in development takes place chiefly in WWII-era Great Britain. This setting brings up an entirely new set of permutations of expression and a few slightly different vowels.
While on his third visit to England and attempting, among other things, to have Pennsylvania made a Royal Colony rather than a proprietary province, Benjamin Franklin devised A Scheme for a new Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling.
The premise of any phonetic structure – beyond illustrating pronunciation – is that knowing how a word sounds is the same as knowing how to spell it. Dr. Franklin removed c, j, q, w, x, and y. Six new letters were introduced. The rules are not included here but many websites provide them.
It seems unlikely that Franklin’s scheme could have replaced the alphabet; it would have meant having to relearn to read and write for those who already knew. Dr. Franklin did give permission to another to try.
“As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard…” — Noah Webster
Both men became more involved with The American War of Independence. Spelling and use of certain words were deliberately – and apparently irrevocably – changed. The British-import alphabet thankfully remained.
When not writing or involved with other arts and history, I sometimes explore the world of conlanging – a documentary about which was directed by a friend of mine – Britton Watkins. Conlanging is the pursuit of developing new languages and/or alphabets, usually for the sake of fiction.
Examples include languages of Tolkien’s elves and of Roddenberry’s aliens (developers include Dorothy Jones Heydt, Mark R. Gardner, and Marc Okrand). Mr. Watkins has also produced a very thorough and beautiful font for writing in Vulcan. The best-known real world conlang may be Esperanto, created by L. L. Zamenhof and offered with high hopes as “an easy-to-learn, politically neutral language”.
I hesitate to say that most conlangers use the IPA while developing their new languages but many do. This is particularly true of most of the dozen or so who’ve attempted a Circular Gallifreyan font. Exceptions include the systems by Loren Sherman and Rachel Sutherland, respectively. Their alphabets are the most commonly used by fandom.
All this to say — we may not have been looking at the symbols of the Time Lords from quite the right vantage point. Every letter – real or imaginary – is two-dimensional. Given time and relative dimensions in space, Gallifreyan letters may not be flat shapes; I don’t think it’s Circular at all. For the sake of art and of curiosity, I am developing a new system and will likely produce a font and/or Photoshop Brush Set. The guide will include IPA and diacritical alike.