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.

It is a cross-dialectical system for writing English. That means that ideally, speakers of each dialect spell English in the same way in Shavian. Even though speakers with non-rhotic accents don’t distinguish, for example, between /ɑː/ and /ɑːr/, these have different Shavian letters (𐑭 and 𐑸). And even though many North Americans don’t distinguish between /ɒ/ and /oː/, these also have different Shavian letters (𐑪 and 𐑷). The major exception is words like BATH, which in Shavian are spelt either /æ/ or /ɑː/ depending on the speaker’s native accent. Still, the idea is that an English speaker should be able to read a Shavian text aloud perfectly, rather than that, say, a young child should be able to write their own utterances down perfectly without knowing how words are pronounced in other accents besides their own. This hypothetical young child would still be able to learn Shavian much quicker than the standard English alphabet!

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/).

There was also an adaption of the Shavian alphabet to Esperanto (in which it’s known as the Ŝava alfabeto), but 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/.

See Also / References

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.