09 September 2017

I love Typography: “Endangered Alphabets”

Non-Latin-based writing systems are in many ways much more conscientious in phonetically representing the spoken word but that also makes them less suitable for certain word games. The northern Thai script called Lanna faithfully represents a far wider range of vowel sounds than we hear and use, but to do so it uses a cluster of glyphs to represent every sound. Consequently, it is far less flexible for the gamer, and the game designer. Imagine yourself playing Scrabble in Lanna: you’d need a tray of maybe 20 tiles to have a hope of creating a single word, and you’d have to stack tiles on top of each other to represent sound combinations. It could be all kinds of fun, but it certainly wouldn’t be easy.

Yet another challenge arises when you consider a word game in Mongolian. Not simply because Mongolian is a vertical script — that’s just a ninety-degree change of alignment. No, one of the delightful features of Mongolian is that it is inherently calligraphic. Every word begins with a certain set of flourishes and ends with another set of flourishes, and to achieve this graphic embellishment individual letters have different shapes depending on whether they are at the beginning or end of the word (in which case they are distinctly elaborate) or in the middle (in which case they are simple, straightforward and efficient). Perhaps this accounts for the fact that there is currently a resurgence of Mongolian calligraphy, but not of Mongolian Boggle!

Tim Brookes

Wonderful initiative to preserve writing systems from across the world and the unique cultures they enable. That Mongolian calligraphy especially looks exquisite!

Endangered alphabets
Endangered alphabets; from left to right: Mongolian, Manchu, and Baybayin

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