Suggested Activities: Inventing Your Own Writing & Letters

Exploring Creative Possibilities in Script Design

ACTIVITY A: Invent your own writing

In this activity, you're going to design a new way to write your own language. Nogt to make up a language—to make up a way of writing a language. It could be your own everyday language like English or French or Catalan. Or if you happen to have made up a language, you could use that. You can see lots of examples of made-up writing and conscripts. It's an activity that you can certainly do on your own. But it involves making certain choices and thinking things through, so it might be helpful or more fun to work with a partner or in a group. Your call.This is an activity that you can do in different ways.

If you like, you can simply say, “All right, I'm going to take the letters that I know the symbols that we call ABC, the Latin alphabet, and I'm going to come up with a new symbol of my own for each of those.”  

And you can certainly do that and you can have fun doing that. You are going to want to think about a couple of things, though.

  1. One is, if you make your symbols all really alike, it might be difficult for people reading them to tell them apart.
  2. On the other hand, if they look really, really different, they may not look like a set.

They may look like a bunch of random symbols, which actually might make them harder to learn and to read.

You may want to ask yourself:

  • Are they all going to be roughly the same size?
  • Or are some going to be bigger or smaller?
  • Are they going to be cursive? In other words, are they going to join up with each other or are they all just going to stand separate?
  • And give them a test-drive: if you try writing a word or even a sentence, how easy is it to write the symbols? Do they need to be tweaked, or simplified?

It's really important that there aren't any right or wrong answers here. There are many different ways of writing used all over the world and they really use very, very different techniques, and the people who use them seem to get on just fine.

You're doing this to have fun, and to make something all your own, and also to have the opportunity to ask yourself some of these questions—and in doing so to learn a little bit more about writing.

ACTIVITY B: The letter, the tool, and the medium

You could also try something a bit more demanding and a bit more creative. You could ask yourself, “Are the letters of my alphabet, the ABC, are they really what I want to use as the basis for what I’m inventing?”

Let me give you a couple of examples of how you might want to do things differently. There are many sounds in many languages that don't have their own letter. In English for example, we have to use a T H together or C H together in order to make certain sounds. Do you want to do that, or do you want the TH sound to have its very own letter-symbol? And then there are also letters that can be pronounced in different ways. If we write RAG, the G is hard, but if we write RAGE it changes and is pronounced more like a J. But to show we want it to be said like a J, we have to add another letter, the E at the end, which isn’t pronounced at all! This is the kind of thing that makes English so notoriously difficult for non-English-speakers to learn!You may decide you want to fix that, and have some kind of symbol for every sound in the language, which is much harder work and much more ambitious, but also in its own way, much more satisfying. And it's actually much more like the way many forms of writing around the world go about doing their business.

The Lepcha or Rong script: more letters, less ambiguity

They use more letters, but it’s clearer how those letters should be pronounced.

Whichever of these two approaches you take, you’ll want to ask yourself some other questions.

  • Do I want to make the letters clean and clear and unmistakable, for example?
  • Or do I want them to be beautiful, or elaborate?

If they're clean and clear and unmistakable, then people are going to know right away what it is that you've written. But it might look kind of mechanical and dull. If it's too elaborate and beautiful, you might love the way it looks, but people might have difficulty understanding what you've actually written. These are all great questions to be asking yourself as you do this.You could even go crazy and add things called tone markers, which show where you voice goes up or down, or faster and slower, like musical notation. There are alphabets around the world that do that, and it definitely adds a dimension we don’t have.

Activity C: Symbols for Your Language

Then there's an entirely different approach you could try that is different from creating symbols that sound like the sounds of your spoken language.  What you can do instead is you can design symbols that get a point across or an idea across, but aren't necessarily standing for very specific words.You see these all the time for example, on signs. If you look at the door of a public restroom, it will have probably one of two, three, or maybe four signs on it to let you know if it’s a men's room, a women's room, if it’s wheelchair accessible, if it’s gender neutral. And the great thing about using these signs, which are called ideograms because they’re pictures of ideas, is that as long as they’re done well they can be understood by people who speak all kinds of different languages.

They aren’t letters that have to be put together to make words, so if three different people look at one of those symbols, one might think “women,” one might think “ladies,” and one might think “girls.” It’s not about a particular word it's about a particular idea or point.

Now, if you like drawing or you like art or you like being visually creative, you might want to have a go at inventing ideograms. But this way also has its own challenges, because you have to make you have to design a symbol so that immediately it's clear what it means. And we don't have a lot of practice at that. We have a lot more practice at writing letters!

In the country of Ghana in West Africa they use an entire set of these symbols, called Adinkra. But they don’t just give a simple piece of information. Most of them are actually visual proverbs. There’s one symbol that is two fish biting each other’s tails, which means something like, “What do we gain by fighting or competing with each other? We just end up hurting someone and ourselves. Why don’t we cooperate instead?”

And along the same lines, when we draw a heart symbol we don’t just mean “heart,” we mean “I love you.”

This symbol is intended to say something like "Your anxieties will pass. All will be well."

If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can try some pretty sophisticated things with ideograms.

I recently had a medical emergency in a country where I didn’t speak the language, and I was so aware of people’s kindness at such a tough time, and so grateful, I decided to make a set of ideograms that I can carve in wood and post around a hospital as a kind of blessing, or reassurance for anxious patients like I had been.

I haven’t yet tested them to know how well they express what I want to express, but you can see what I’m trying to do—and you may be able to do it better!

Activity D: Punctuation

One last invention you could try if you like, but it sounds pretty wacky: beautiful punctuation. You may not have stopped to think about it this way, but we tend to write as if we want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, as if it were a chore. (No wander people want AI to do their writing for them!) But in many traditional cultures, writing is more like art, more something to take pride in, to do as elegantly or expressively as you can.In the traditional writing on the island of Java, for example, instead of little quotation mark commas, they wrote or drew this amazing flower at each end of the quote.

When people in the West draw a heart or a flower in place of the dot above the i, they have the same thing in mind, but people often make fun of them as if they’re not being serious and grown-up.Other places use two vertical lines like daggers where we use a period, and even insert little paintings when they change from one subject to another instead of just starting a new paragraph.So that’s my last suggestion: try inventing some beautiful punctuation and put it into a short piece of your writing. See how it makes you feel when you put that much thought and effort and creativity into what you write.

Whichever you try, post the result to your favorite social medium with the hashtag #WEWD2024.

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