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alternative alphabet

Language is the subject typography notates.

“Speech is a river of breath, bent into hisses and hums by the soft flesh of the mouth and throat.� Steven Pinker, linguistics expert.

Alternative alphabet is a proposed new alphabet designed to reconnect spoken language with written text through specifically designed characters that are based on the mouth shapes and acoustical qualities of the English alphabet when spoken.



























The origins of written language and its offspring, typography, lie in the spoken word. The alphabetic principle is the use of letters and combinations of letters as symbols to represent the speech sounds of a language based on systematic and predictable relationships between written letters, symbols and spoken words.

The speech system, called phonetics, can be divided into three principal elements: articulatory phonetics, the way we create sound; acoustic phonetics, the physical properties of sound; and auditory phonetics, our perception of sound.

We produce speech when we breathe out. Exhaled air travels from the lungs to the larynx. The larynx comprises a variable aperture and vocal cords that vibrate, creating sound waves. The initial position and movement of the tongue create variations in the sound wave. These are then amplified by the shape of the mouth and finally refined through the position of the lips. It is the sequential control of the vocal cords, tongue movement in relation to teeth and lip formation, creates the phonemes of speech. Phonemes themselves have no meaning, but are combined in endless patterns to represent objects and ideas. When we speak we blur the separate phonemes of a word into one another. Speech presents language as a continuum; it is our brain that separates it into individual words.

Diagram showing the position of the tongue, lips and throat when pronoucing phonomes.

“When I speak, I seem to be truely myself. My spoken words seem to come from me, my true or real being. Writing does not seem to be so direct, so natural or sincere. Compared with speech writing seems mechanical, second hand, a transcript of speech. Writing can be seen as deriving from speech because it is thought of as a purely phonetic transcription.� Jacques Derrida, french philsopher.

Illustration of development of character A.

The Latin alphabet dates from the Imperial Roman times. The Romans acquired and adapted the Greek alphabet so that the 22 characters notated the phonemes of Latin. As the Roman Empire grew, the Roman alphabet was appropriated by conquered nations to record their native languages. Adaptions had to be made, as the number of letters available in this alpha-bet did not reflect the variety of sounds within the different spoken languages. In English extra phonemes are represented by a combination of letters. The modern letter ‘A’ was originally a pictogram of ox’s head, but as Phoenicians wrote from right to left, the symbol was turned on its side. Under the Greek civilisation this character was turned around again as the Greeks generally wrote from left to right. Finally the Romans the character full-circle, giving it the form we recognise.

While letters of the alphabet are phonetic symbols philosopher Jacques Derrida noted that the written and typographic arrangements demonstrate ideographic principles. And it can be argued that there is not phonetic relationship between punctuation marks, upper and lower case, italics, bold and extended forms, expressive flourishes and rules, or even the white space between words. These ideas, and the whole paraphernalia or the typographer’s palate, are ideographic symbols.

Typography today needs to reflect the richness of the way we speak. By identifying the previously ignored features of the oral tradition and devising strategies for their notation and expression, typography will improve it’s description of language.

Diagram showing the process of developing the new character for the letter A.


wide open mouth shape

Through documenting the mouth when pronouncing each letter of the english alphabet I was able to analyse the shapes and positions of the lips to design letter forms that represent the physical prononciation of english.

Diagram of all alternative alphabet characters placed with the mouth shapes produced when pronouncing the alphabet.

Alternative challenges our perception of language and identifies the current discon-nect between text and language in the English alphabet. Speech is natural and occurs without thought, where written lang-uage can appear second hand and it is something we have to continually learn and refine. Alternative proposes to unite these two areas,changing how we can view and use text.

Alternative alphabet