Designing a Writing System

Mitla Ruina

Most Mexican Indian languages now have an established written form, or practical orthography. Have you ever wondered how a writing system is designed for a language that has never been written before?

There are many phonetic symbols that linguists have invented so they can write the sounds in any spoken language. However, the phonetic alphabets that linguists use are not good for practical orthographies; they involve too many symbols that are difficult to type. For example, the English word ‘shrimp’ might be written phonetically as follows:

phonetic shrimp

That wouldn’t make for a very ‘practical’ orthography!

Instead, most of the languages of Mexico use the same letters as in Spanish. Besides making typing much easier, it means that whatever people learn about reading their own language will make it easier for them to learn to read Spanish, and vice versa. This doesn’t mean they follow Spanish spelling exactly, however. In recent years many language communities in Mexico have preferred to use k rather than c and qu like Spanish does.

Another challenge in developing a practical orthography is that most languages have many fine details of pronunciation that do not need to be written. Why not? They don’t distinguish one word from another. For example, the raised h at the end of the phonetic spelling of shrimp (above) represents a slight puff of air that English speakers often make when they say this word. However, whether they make this puff or not, it makes no difference in meaning. Most English speakers are not even aware that it is there! So, in the English practical orthography, this sound is not written. By contrast, in some languages of India, the puff of air would have to be written, because whether it is there or not can turn one word into an entirely different one. By analyzing how different sounds are used in a language, linguists determine which details need to be represented and which do not.

Are you ready to give it a try? How would you write the Tzeltal phrase that means ‘it’s hot out’?      TzeltalHot

Go on to the next page to find out how it is actually written.