Inventing an alphabet, real or pretend

It seems like an obvious idea, but it took 1,000 years to occur to anyone

"Dear Hugh," began Ronald's note. "This is just to wish you a happy Christmas." There was nothing special about the message - except that it was written first in a dwarf alphabet, and then in an Elvish one.

As a boy, Ronald loved words. As a teen, he made up a language and wrote it with an alphabet he invented. Even after he became an English professor, Ronald went on inventing. But what good is a language no one writes or speaks? To create a world where his languages would be spoken and written, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wrote famous fantasy books: "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."

'Picture writing' came first

Who invented our alphabet? Using an alphabet to write words seems obvious: One letter equals one sound. The letters are put together in various ways to make different sounds. Yet writing was around at least 1,000 years before anyone thought of alphabets.

The first writing was probably "picture writing." When a picture equals a word (or words), it is called a "pictograph." You could write, "I hunt rabbits" by drawing a picture of yourself pointing a bow and arrow at a rabbit. But how would you write, "I will hunt rabbits tomorrow"? How do you draw "tomorrow"?

Writing began to include special symbols called "logograms." A logogram equals a word, but it is not a "picture." For example, you might make a logogram for "tomorrow" that is a square with a dot in it. But writing gets very complex very quickly if you need a different logogram for all the ideas that can't be drawn easily.

Because writing started out with pictographs and logograms, some of the earliest writing was also the most complex. Egyptian writing - hieroglyphics - used pictographs and logograms. Some Egyptian hieroglyphics could also be used as an alphabet. A picture of an owl, for example, could mean either "owl" or the "m" sound. No wonder scholars had a hard time reading them!

Why letters are better

Alphabets are simple. You can say anything you want to in English using just 26 symbols (letters). Because there are so few letters to learn, even young children can read and write.

Why didn't the ancient Egyptians just use their hieroglyphic alphabet? The Egyptians may have thought an alphabet was too simple. Perhaps Egyptian scribes believed only very complicated writing was good enough for a pharaoh.

An alphabet may not have been fancy enough for King Tut, but the idea of writing with an alphabet began to spread, first from Egypt through the Middle East, and then to the rest of the world.

The Phoenicians (foh-NEE-shans) were a seafaring people from the Middle East who used an alphabet. The Greeks traded with the Phoenicians and learned their alphabet. They used it to create a Greek alphabet. The Romans, in turn, made some changes to the Greek alphabet. The words you're reading right now are written in an alphabet very similar to the Roman one.

Today, almost all languages use alphabets, even if they don't use the same letters we do. The Solomon Islands alphabet is the smallest alphabet, with only 11 letters. The Khmer alphabet in Cambodia is the largest, with 74 letters.

But not every language uses an alphabet today. China has a writing system more than 3,000 years old. It uses mostly logograms. Ancient Chinese writing had nearly 50,000 logograms. Modern Chinese uses several thousand. But Japanese writing gets the prize for "most complex" in the world today. A Japanese child must learn not only 2,000 Chinese characters, but also two Japanese alphabets!

Even though we use an alphabet to write English, pictographs and logograms are still very helpful. (See the ones at the top of the next page.) And you already know such logograms as: &, $, +, and =.

New alphabets keep cropping up. Some are invented for practical reasons, and some just for fun. About 500 years ago, Korean was written using Chinese characters. But King Sejong of Korea (1397-1450) wanted more of his people to be able to read. He invented a 24-letter alphabet still used today.

New alphabet inventions

Alphabets have been invented in America, too. A Cherokee Indian named Sequoyah (1776-1843) didn't know how to read, but he did know that white people used marks on paper to show sounds. In 1821, Sequoyah invented an alphabet for the Cherokee language. Many of his people learned to read and write very quickly.

Filmmakers know that make-believe worlds seem more real when they have their own languages and writing. Linguist Mark Okrand invented a language for the third "Star Trek" movie ("The Search for Spock," 1985). He even published a Klingon dictionary. With its sharp, slashing letters, Klingon looks like a warrior alphabet.

More recently, Dr. Okrand made up a language for the Disney movie "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." The movie's creators invented a special alphabet for it.

When J.R.R. Tolkien wrote "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings," he was only trying to entertain himself. He loved his Elvish language and alphabet. Tolkien once told a friend that he'd wanted to write his books in Elvish!

Some of Tolkien's characters are dwarfs. In "The Hobbit," the dwarfs follow an ancient treasure map with instructions in dwarf runes. Runes are the letters of an alphabet used hundreds of years ago by Vikings and others. They look a bit like our ABCs, but they have very straight lines. (Tolkien's "moon runes," above, are very close to Anglo-Saxon runes.) In old times, rune letters were often carved into stone or wood. If you've ever tried to carve letters into wood, you know how much easier it is to carve straight lines than it is to carve curvy ones.

Tolkien also created a beautiful, curvy alphabet for Elvish. When a young boy, Hugh Brogan, wrote to tell Tolkien how much he enjoyed learning about hobbits, dwarfs, and elves, Tolkien used sharp dwarf runes and curvy Elvish letters to send Hugh a special Christmas greeting.

Next month, a new movie version of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" will open. Keep an eye out for dwarf runes!

Create your own secret alphabet

The simplest way to invent a secret alphabet is to make up new symbols to replace our 26 letters. You could also:

Make up new symbols for some combined sounds, like 'th,' 'ch,' and 'str.' Or invent different letters for the long and short sounds of vowels, so that the 'a' in 'cat' and the 'a' in 'cake' would be different letters.

Play letter 'switcheroo.' A becomes B, B becomes C, and so on. 'CAT' would be spelled 'DBU.'

Get rid of vowels altogether. (When Tolkien wrote Elvish, he added marks to the consonants to indicate vowel sounds.) An 'm' with a dot over it could be 'ma.' An 'm' with three dots could be 'mi.'

Use phonetic spelling in your alphabet, as in: 'uz fonetik speling in yr alfabet.'

Write the words up and down, or right to left - even back and forth (first line left to right, second line right to left, and so on).

Use one of the invented alphabets we've printed here. Teach the alphabet to your friends, and you'll have a secret code!

Tolkien greets a young fan

Author J.R.R. Tolkien (of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" fame) wrote this Christmas greeting (below) to schoolboy Hugh Brogan in 1948, using different styles of Tolkien's made-up Elvish alphabets.

It reads: "dear hugh: this iz just to wish you a very happy christmas in two styles of elvish script: i am sending some explanations, and I hope you wont find them too complicated."

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