Inventing New Scripts

Tim Brookes is the founder and executive director of the Endangered Alphabets Project and the author of Endangered Alphabets, the Endangered Alphabets Word Search Book and the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets at www.


As you read this, someone, somewhere (statistically, most likely in India) is inventing an alphabet.

We’re not talking about alphabets created for sci-fi novels, TV or movies, which are challenging enough. We’re talking about a single person, usually male, often startlingly young, always with a strong sense of devotion to his community and its needs, sometimes divinely inspired, listening carefully to and analyzing the sounds of his own language well enough to understand its internal geography, devising a set of easily written and learned symbols that are visually congruent with the aesthetic of his culture — and then the real work starts. Teaching the script, convincing people to use it, producing content of value, overcoming the inevitable resistance of people who don’t want to learn something new and prefer the old way of writing — it would be an understatement to call this a herculean task.

Yet we know of more than 110 scripts that have been intentionally developed for their language community and used to some extent. Of these, roughly half have been created within the last 75 years. Several have emerged as recently as the last decade. Why would someone go to such lengths, against such odds? Why wouldn’t they want to — and here you need to imagine I’m speaking in the tones of a 19th-century British colonial administrator, or a 21st-century American businessman — just write like us?

The first and most important thing to know is that the only reason we might ask that question is because our alphabet is, for now, on top. We can’t imagine inventing a new script because, well, we don’t need to. 

Our alphabet has been protected for 2,000 years by some of the world’s most powerful armies. It has, in effect, been the bully alphabet, imposing itself on other cultures, even exterminating their scripts. In 1562, as part of his campaign to eradicate pagan rites, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered Spanish colonists to destroy all the Maya writing they found. As a result, only four Maya codices are known to have survived the conquistadors, and the Mayan writing system was functionally extinct within 50 years. History is written by the winners — and thus, in the alphabet of the winners.

In many instances, in fact, new scripts have been created precisely in response to this act of colonial bullying, as a means of giving a language community a form of writing that asserts their own identity. 

This is especially clear in the case of several West African scripts that emerged in the 19th century, but the tradition continues. In 1961, on the first anniversary of Senegal’s independence from France, the president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, went on the radio and called on all Africans in general, and Senegalese in particular, to “gather stones and build this new country.” Assane Faye’s response was to create the Garay script for the Wolof language.

Kefa Ombewa invented the Luo Lakeside Script in 2009 for the Dholuo language of Kenya explicitly as a way to oppose the colonial Latin alphabet — not only in Kenya but throughout Africa. “I wanted to make it an African script,” Ombewa said. “I envision an Africa that is delatinized all the way from West Africa to East Africa.”

There are also solid linguistic reasons for wanting to replace a colonial script with a new domestic one. When Ibrahima and Abdoulaye Barry were growing up in Guinea, their father was the village letter-reader. People who had received letters would bring them to his shop in the marketplace, and he would read them. This was a challenge common in colonized countries where a local language is written in a script originally developed for a very different language, far away—in this case, Arabic. The Arabic script suited the Fulani language no better than the Latin alphabet fits, say, the Osage language, and the boys’ father constantly struggled to guess at the writer’s meaning. A new, indigenously-created script was called for, and the boys invented it. They called it Adlam, an acrostic of the first four letters of the alphabet (A, D, L, M) which represent the phrase Alkule Dandaydhe Leñol Mulugol: “the alphabet which protects the people from vanishing.

Minority cultures in Southeast Asia have also felt the lack, or loss, of their own writing system. In the 1820s, Karen villagers in Myanmar explained that in the distant past God had given them writing, but they lost it. 

“We have been an ignorant people, without books, without a king, without a government of our own, subject to other kings and other governments, we have been a nation of slaves, despised and kicked about, trodden under foot by everybody like dogs,” they lamented. 

This sense of inherited cultural loss and shame can be a terribly powerful force. Like several peoples in the region, the Karen responded by inventing their own local scripts — as many as four. The Chin created at least two. The Hmong, likewise dispossessed and even more widely scattered, may have invented as many as nine.

Figure 1: The Garay alphabet, as created by Assane Faye, is the most widely spoken language of Senegal and one of many African writing systems invented as a response to colonialism. 

The importance of a new script in a culture’s sense of self-respect can be so powerful that it becomes a multifaceted act of self-reinvention. The Phauj Hauj syllabary created by Shong Lue Yang gave the Hmong people in Southeast Asia their own writing system that stood at the heart of a dramatic cultural rebirth. It was a spiritual, social, and political force, stirring and uniting the Hmong to such an extent, in fact, that the Lao government sent soldiers to assassinate its author.

A remarkable number of scripts have been created in response to a dream, a vision, a command from a deity — for example, the Sora Sompeng script used to write the Sora language of eastern India. In 1936, a Sora called Mallia had a dream showing him where to find a special Sora script magically inscribed on a mountaintop. In the dream, each of the 24 sonums, or resident spirits, who populated and made up the Sora spirit world changed into the letter that began the sonum’s name. 

These inspired scripts have a quality we in the secular West find hard to grasp: Using them is not just a way of passing or recording information, but is in itself a form of communion with the spiritual world, each letter being charged and numinous.

One of the many reasons to preserve and support new scripts, in fact, is that many of them extend or even shatter our assumptions about what writing is, what it should look like, or what it might achieve.

From a purely graphic point of view, several African scripts leave our Latin alphabet looking narrow, mechanical, anemic. The Ditema tsa Dinoko script of southern Africa is partly based on IsiNdebele murals, vivid and often geometrical designs using colored clay and cow dung that often decorate Ndebele homes. Its characters, which also serve as a visual pronunciation guide, seem both ancient and hypermodern – so much so that they have been used to paint a BMW for the company’s Art Car series, and the tail of a British Airways jumbo jet.

From a learning point of view, we have much to envy in scripts whose letterforms are visual mnemonics. For the Wancho language of northeastern India, its creator Banwang Losu devised letters based on visible local shapes, such as human postures, birds, trees, tattoos, rivers, fruits, and insects.

Whether newly-created scripts catch on and spread, as Adlam has done, is often more an issue of politics than linguistics: without the buy-in of community leaders, it can be a tough and lonely row to hoe. 

Herman Mongrain Lookout, deviser of the Osage script, acknowledged to me that the tribal council’s support was the most important factor in overcoming the understandable resistance among some tribe members to learning a new script.

When that resistance is not individual but institutional, and the local or national government enforces a one-language, one-script policy, it can become difficult to promote and teach a new script. But this challenge can result in heroic labors. The Barry brothers wrote out entire books by hand. Several script authors are teaching their scripts themselves with blackboard and chalk or via Facebook group. 

It is hardly surprising, then, that very few scripts survive more than a generation or two. The Ol Chiki script, invented by Pandit Raghunath Murmu between 1925 and 1939 to write Santali, a language spoken in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh is now digitized and enjoys official status, yet its success is an anomaly when it comes to such invented scripts.

Finally, some bad news and some good news. 

The bad news is this: Even if you create a script that is widely adopted among members of your indigenous or minority culture, its long-term success is not guaranteed. The very forces that were marginalizing your people may not be so happy to see people gleefully adopting a script that unifies minority groups and gives them a stronger sense of identity and history.

Script creators have been harassed, arrested, and at least three other people, like Shong Lue Yang, have been killed for the subversive act of script creation. I’ve written a blog post on the subject:

But let’s end on the good news. In the middle of 2021, in the middle of the night, I got a message from one of my spies in India. With its myriad of languages and their struggle for official status and recognition, India is currently the world center for script creation. 

He sent me a photo of a mother-language school in Jharjhand, India where a newly-invented script, Tolong Siki, for the Kurukh language, is now being taught. The accompanying message read: We can take it from here.