The Shavian alphabet


The Shavian alphabet, named after the Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, is an alternative writing system for the English language. Shaw, a proponent of a more phonetic and economical English writing system did not develop this alphabet himself but he funded its development posthumously through his will.

In 1962 the first book written in the new script (along with the same text in Latin script), Shaw’s play Androcles and the Lion (·𐑨𐑯𐑛𐑮𐑩𐑴𐑒𐑤𐑰𐑟 𐑯 𐑞 𐑤𐑲𐑩𐑯) was published, but the Shavian alphabet did not really caught on and little was published in it for decades, no doubt partly because of the prohibitive costs of printing works in Shavian with the technology of the time.

However, Shavian was added to Unicode version 4.0, released in 2003, and several free font files that supported Shavian became available on the Internet, and it is nowadays much easier to create and publish material written in this script.

Learning the Shavian alphabet


This tutorial assumes knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or at least familiarity with those IPA characters that are used to represent the sounds of English in broad transcription—that is, a transcription that ignores small differences between related sounds that are not important for the meanings of words, such as the difference between the sound [p] in “pin” and the sound [pʰ] in “spin”. If you are not familiar with the IPA symbols for the sounds of English, you are advised to study this table of English phonemes before trying to learn the Shavian alphabet.

The Shavian alphabet is meant to write English as it is spoken, and since there is no generally accepted standard for English pronunciation, it means that many words can be written in more than one way. However, not all differences in pronunciation cause differences in spelling. One important division of English dialects is the one between rhotic and non‐rhotic dialects. In non‐rhotic dialects the r‐sound can only appear immediately before a vowel sound, so “card” is pronounced without an r‐sound and so is “car” unless it is followed by a word starting with a vowel. In rhotic dialects the r-sound is either fully pronounced when it is followed by a consonant (as in Scottish English) or it changes the preceding vowel into what phoneticians call an r‐coloured vowel. When writing English in the Shavian alphabet all words are written as they would be in a rhotic variant of English, meaning that it is not an entirely phonemic script with regard to non‐rhotic English.

On the other hand, the Shavian alphabet was designed mainly with the pronunciation of English as spoken in England in mind (the so‐called “Received Pronunciation”), even though that variant is non‐rhotic, so we advise users to write words as they are pronounced in that dialect (which still often allows more than one spelling of the same word), and write for example the words “Mary” (𐑥𐑼𐑦), “marry” (𐑥𐑨𐑮𐑦) and “merry” (𐑥𐑧𐑮𐑦 differently even if they pronounce them the same in their own dialects (as customary in North American English). In any case, that seems advisable if your texts are intended for an international audience and it is what I do (I am not a native speaker of English by the way).

Upper and lower case

The Shavian alphabet is a caseless script, meaning there are no capital letters in it, though it is customary to put a raised dot (·) before proper names such as “America” and before deriviations of proper names such as “American”. However, it is not customary to start a new sentence with a raised dot, unless the first word is a proper name.

Compound words

In the traditional English orthography the parts of compound words can be separated with a space or joined together with or without a hyphen, and which method to use is often up to the author. Perhaps it is not a bad idea to write compound words more consistently in the Shavian script and join all parts together, as is usual in other Germanic languages. So “anti‐aircraft artillery” would then for instance become 𐑨𐑯𐑑𐑦𐑺𐑒𐑮𐑸𐑓𐑑𐑸𐑑𐑦𐑤𐑼𐑦.

The Shavian letters

NameCharacterSound (IPA)

If you study the table of consonantal letters above, you will notice that they come in pairs, and that the second letter of a pair can be created by turning the first one 180° and shifting its position relative to the baseline downwards a bit. With the exception of the last two pairs the first letter of a pair indicates an unvoiced consonant (made without vibrating the vocal chords) and the second indicates a voiced consonant (made with vibrating the vocal chords). The sounds represented by the members of the last two pairs on the other hand do not have much in common with each other, except that /j/ and /w/ are both semivowels. It looks like the last four letters were grouped in pairs this way because of lack of a more suitable partner.

NameCharacterSound (IPA)

Note that the Shavian letters in the second table are shorter than the ones in the first, which is important to remember when you are handwriting. The letter 𐑐 for /p/ should for instance have a distinctly longer tail than the letter 𐑪 for /ɒ/.

You will probably have noticed that here too there are letters with the same shape but with a different orientation, such as 𐑫 and 𐑵, and that the members of such a pair have a somewhat similar sound.

NameCharacterSound (IPA)

The letters in the last table mostly represent vowels or diphthongs followed by an r‐sound, which as mentioned earlier, is only pronounced in non‐rhotic English when followed by a vowel. You can recognize the shape of the letter 𐑮 in the right part of those letters. Furthermore there is a separate letter for /ɪə/ and one for /juː/. Actually, “Ian” can be pronounced as /ɪən/ and as /iːən/ so there is some ambiɡuity here, but since /ɪə/ is far more common in Enɡlish than /iːə/, we shall assume that that is the canonical sound of the letter 𐑾, and also because the first part of the letter looks like the letter 𐑦.

Note that 𐑿 is only used for the sequence /juː/ not for /jʊ/ with a short vowel, as in the second syllable of “ululant” (𐑿𐑘𐑫𐑤𐑩𐑯𐑑); that sound is written with two Shavian letters. However, also note that in some words both /juː/ and /jʊ/ are considered acceptable pronunciations.

Missing letters

In some varieties of English the words “which” and “witch” are pronounced with different w‐sounds; in the first case it is a sound that is written in the IPA as /ʍ/ or /hw/. If you want to maintain that difference when writing text in the Shavian alphabet, we recommend using the combination 𐑣𐑢 for /ʍ/. So “which” would be written 𐑣𐑢𐑦𐑗 and “witch” 𐑢𐑦𐑗.

In Scottish English there exists a phoneme /x/ as in “loch” for which there is not a Shavian letter either. Since it is generally pronounced as /k/ in most other varieties and because it is not a common phoneme, we recommend in this case to write it as 𐑒. That means that for example “lock” and “loch” are both written as 𐑤𐑪𐑒. The same phoneme also occurs in South African English, but in that case the alternative phoneme is /g/, so we would write the word “gogga” (pronounced /ˈxɒxə/) as 𐑜𐑪𐑜𐑩.

Some French loanwords in English are pronounced with a nasalized vowel, for instance “genre” as /ˈʒɑ̃ːɹə/. We recommend to indicate this nasalization when necessary by writing the letter 𐑯 after the vowel, so this particular pronunciation of “genre” would be rendered as 𐑠𐑭𐑯𐑮𐑩.

Abbreviated words

Four very common monosyllabic words are usually abbreviated to a single letter. They are:

But note that this is only permitted if the words are unstressed (which they usually are). If they are stressed, they must not be abbreviated, and they should also be written as they are actually pronounced when stressed, for example, the vowel of 𐑞 should not be written as 𐑩 but as 𐑰.

Weak and strong forms

Many short English words have “weak forms” that are often used in unstressed positions. For example, “you” is often pronounced /jʊ/ or even /jə/ when unstressed instead of /juː/. In order to not make things unnecessarily complex the “strong forms” of such words are normally written even in unstressed positions. The only exception to this rule is the article “a” because it is rarely stressed and if it is, it is for proper understanding important to show that it is stressed (in Latin script we would probably write it in italics to show that, as in “You got my note!” — “Well, I got a note”). So, weak “a” is 𐑩 and strong “a” is 𐑱.

Free books transliterated into the Shavian alphabet