Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I remember thinking, when I was first learning the alphabet, that p and b represented similar sounds, and p and b were similar symbols, but t and d also represented similar sounds — similar in the same way as p and b, in fact — and they were not similar symbols. Why wasn’t the t sound represented by a flipped d, like a q?

Similarly, why weren’t k and g flipped versions of one another, more like ? and g? And why weren’t f and v flipped versions of one another, like f and ?, or ? and v?

At least the letters s and z were clearly related, even if they weren’t flipped versions of one another.

I was looking for the logic behind a not-so-logical, evolved system of writing, and it wasn’t there.

The quality I recognized, by the way, was voiceless versus voiced articulation. The sounds p, t, k, and f are voiceless — the larynx does not vibrate — while the sounds b, d, g, and v are voiced — the larynx does vibrate.

It’s actually pretty straightforward to sort the consonants by whether they’re made with both lips (bilabials like p and b), teeth and lip (labiodentals like f and v), teeth (dentals like t and d), or back of the roof of the mouth (velars like k and g).

Once you put the consonants into an organized table like that, you can’t help but think that the symbols should reflect the nature of each sound and how it’s made — which is what Alexander Graham Bell’s father effectively did, with his visible speech alphabet for the deaf:

When I first mentioned the visible speech alphabet, I noted that you could easily imagine it as some obscure elven written language from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Tolkien’s tengwar alphabet is also a logically laid out system:

In tengwar, similar sounds have similar symbols. It all would have made so much more sense to my four-year-old self than our own Latin alphabet.

(For geeky fun, you might enjoy this tengwar transcriber, by the way.)

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