Shavian alphabet

The Shavian alphabet is an alternative alphabet created for the writing of English. (See also: English spelling reform). It was created in 1962 by Ronald Kingsley Read, as the winning entry in a contest held in honour of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw (for whom the alphabet is named), who had been a lifelong advocate of a more coherent way of spelling English. Shavian is strictly phonemic, with one letter per English phoneme (plus compound letters for diphthongs).

The alphabet consists of 48 letters: 24 consonant letters, and 24 vowel letters. Of the vowel letters, 16 of them are “normal” letters and eight of them are compounds (used for writing diphthongs). Like the letters of the standard Latin alphabet, letters can come in three heights: there are 20 short letters (the height of x), 10 tall letters (like h or d), and 10 deep letters (like p or g). The tall and the deep letters are all consonants, and “twins” – each tall letter represents a voiceless phoneme, and can be flipped into a deep letter representing the voiced equivalent. Many of the short letters also have a “twin” consisting of a similar sound. The design principles of Shavian remind me a little of Hangeul, which (as I understand it) also has phon­et­ic­ally-similar letters looking similar.

The system was designed as a cross-dialectical system for writing English. Insofar as there is a standard spelling, it is the “Androcles and the Lion” standard, based on the spellings used in the play transliterated by Peter Mac­Carthy in 1962. This standard sought to bridge the gap between Received Pronunciation (and the closely related Southern Hemisphere and southern English accents) and North American rhotic accents, so it’s basically a “rhotic RP”. The best way to think of it is that each vowel letter, at least, represents a lexical set (see: IPA for English), rather than the phoneme itself. So, even though many North Americans merge the thought and lot sets into palm, and even though RP et al. merge the start set into palm, there are distinct letters used for all of thought, lot, start and palm. The main dialectical variation that Shavian’s pioneers permitted had to do with the bath set, which they stated should be spelled with either the trap vowel or the palm one depending on the native dialect of the writer.

The full chart of Shavian letters is as follows:

Table of Letters

Shavian Letter IPA Transcription Example Shavian Letter IPA Transcription Example
𐑐 p pen 𐑚 b bath
𐑓 f fan 𐑝 v vice
𐑑 t tan 𐑛 d dog
𐑒 k can 𐑜 g goat
𐑔 θ think 𐑞 ð this
𐑕 s see 𐑟 z zoo
𐑖 ʃ shore 𐑠 ʒ pleasure
𐑗 chase 𐑡 just
𐑘 j you 𐑢 w wet
𐑙 ŋ bang 𐑣 h help
𐑤 l law 𐑮 r rise
𐑥 m make 𐑯 n name
𐑦 ɪ~i kiss 𐑰 meet
𐑨 æ cat 𐑲 fly
𐑧 ɛ pet 𐑱 gain
𐑩 ə appear 𐑳 ʌ cut
𐑪 ɒ cot 𐑴 grow
𐑫 ʊ look 𐑵 flew
𐑭 ɑː father 𐑷 ɔː awful
𐑬 cow 𐑶 ɔɪ toy
𐑸 ɑːr car 𐑹 ɔːr form
𐑺 eər pair 𐑻 ɜːr nurse
𐑽 iər peer 𐑼 ər maker
𐑾 Ian 𐑿 juː unity

There are also a small number of short, common words that are generally written with only a single Shavian letter. These include:

  • the: 𐑞
  • of: 𐑝
  • and: 𐑯
  • to: 𐑑
  • for: 𐑓

Furthermore, a/an are always spelt 𐑩/𐑩𐑯 (i.e. the vowel is schwa), never with 𐑨 as in “cat”. In all other cases, though, one-syllable words are spelt as if fully stressed (for example, them is always 𐑞𐑧𐑥 /ðɛm/ and never 𐑞𐑩𐑥 /ðəm/).

In addition to the thing about the bath lexical set I mentioned above, yods are another point of difference between North American accents and RP et al.. With these, the original standard said that where coalescence occurs in both RP and General American (e.g. in fortune), it should be spelled with the coalesced sound (i.e. 𐑗 for /tʃ/ in fortune’s case), but where General American has dropped the yod, regardless of whether RP has coalesced it (e.g. aptitude), British and Southern Hemisphere people should spell it with the preceding consonant plus yod, (i.e. 𐑨𐑐𐑑𐑦𐑑𐑿𐑛 /æptɪtjuːd/). Apparently Americans are permitted to omit the yod entirely, i.e. 𐑨𐑐𐑑𐑦𐑑𐑵𐑛 /æptɪtuːd/.

Some other spelling things to watch out for, at least if you want to follow the Androcles standard:

  • The cure vowel is spelt 𐑫𐑼 /ʊər/, even though in RP and most Australian accents it’s pronounced with the north/force vowel.
  • The salt set is spelt with the 𐑷 /ɔː/ of RP, rather than the 𐑪 /ɒ/ of General Australian.
  • Some words that are homophonous in actual English speech, like your/you’re, have different spellings in Shavian (your 𐑘𐑹 /jɔː/, you’re 𐑘𐑫𐑼 /jʊər/).
  • The word our is spelt 𐑬𐑼 /aʊər/, the same as hour, even though in Australian English these are not homophonous (our is /æʊ/, hour is /æʊə/).
  • Even though happy-tensing is almost universal in English accents now, the happY vowel is still spelt 𐑦, to distinguish it from the more emphatic /iː/ at the ends of words like payee or attendee.
  • Syllabic consonants are spelt 𐑩 + the consonant, as in prism 𐑐𐑮𐑦𐑟𐑩𐑥 /prɪzəm/.

Shavianists do generally tolerate some deviations from the Androcles standard to fit people’s own accents (e.g. Americans spelling what with the strut vowel instead of lot, or probably also if I spell salt with lot and cure with north/force). What they’re generally a lot less fine with is people outright ignoring the pan-dialectical spirit of Shavian (e.g. Americans who can’t be arsed making the distinction between father-bother or cot-caught, or if a speaker of a non-rhotic accent decided to not use any of the rhotic letters, although I’ve never seen that happen). I mean, in personal notes to yourself it’s whatever, and probably in poetry or for some reasons in prose (e.g. to quickly show that a character has a different accent from the other characters) it’d also be fine. But not just in general messages that you actually want other Shavianists to understand.

There are some extended characters that aren’t included in the standard Shavian alphabet, and not supported by Unicode. These include characters for /eə/ and /ɜː/ (as in yeah and oeuvre1), /ʍ/ as in “whine” for those few dialects that don’t have the wine/whine merger, /ɬ/ as in “Llewelyn” or “Umhlanga”, /χ/ as in “loch”, and /ɣ/ as in the Dutch pronunciation of “Van Gogh”. The Inter Alia font(external link) includes support for these characters via use of the Unicode “variation selector 1” character. See this Reddit discussion(external link) for more info on how to use that font.

The Shavian alphabet has been further adapted a few times. For example, there is an adaption to Esperanto, the Ŝava alfabeto, although it changed the meanings of some of the symbols pretty drastically. For example, 𐑫 and 𐑵 come to mean /m/ and /n/ instead of /ʊ/ and /uː/. For English, Shavian’s creator Ronald Kingsley Read came out with another proposal in 1966, Quikscript, which was designed to be better for cursive handwriting.

The Brevian alphabet, designed in 2021, is another phonetic alphabet for English that took inspiration from Shavian.

See Also / References

  1. My initial Australian-brained reaction was, “wtf is the difference between those and ‘air’ and ’err’,” until I read on and was reminded that North Americans pronounce an /r/ at the end of those vowels 🤦🏻‍♀️ ↩︎

Did you know? I’ve posted other content tagged ‘Shavian alphabet’! If you want to see what else I’ve written on this topic, you can do so here.