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Alphabet soup

I once started to learn Russian, and everyone said: “It’s so difficult with this strange alphabet!” I don’t remember how terrified I was by the Cyrillic alphabet (АаБбВвГгДдЕеЖжЗзИиЙйКкЛл…), but I do remember that the alphabet was the least of the obstacles I encountered when learning Russian. 

Published 12/19/2016

The number of genders, cases and various word forms, combined with certain almost unpronounceable sounds (ы), presented much bigger challenges.

The human brain loves making and breaking codes

Since the earliest of times, people have thought about how to convey information by means other than speech – by visual communication. Everything from notches on trees to show the best route, to more intricate systems. This has its advantages when leaving messages, sending information across great distances, communicating under challenging conditions, and so on.

Ancient written forms such as cuneiform kilskrift.png , hieroglyphs hyro.png and the earliest Chinese characters kina.png were the first steps towards more effective alphabets. The Norse runic letters run.png may not be quite as old, but are still part of this development. But you might not have thought much about alphabets that have been created for other purposes or to work under other conditions. I find these just as fascinating. Here are a few examples…

The phonetic alphabet

One type of alphabet that those who work with languages will be familiar with is phonetic alphabets fon1.jpg fon2.jpg  – and we’ve all seen them in dictionaries. But you may not have realised that there are lots of different phonetic alphabets, and that many people have worked over the years on devising new ones, including Benjamin Franklin (see Smithsonian or Omniglot) and George Bernard Shaw (see Scriptsource or Omniglot). In actual fact, it wasn’t Shaw himself who invented the alphabet named after him, but he was so dissatisfied with British English spelling that he left money in his will for a competition to devise a new and better system, which was won by Kingsley Read. Read later created an improved version, which he called Quikscript.

Here in Sweden we normally use the International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA (find out more here).

Spelling alphabets

Another type of alphabet that most of us have used is spelling alphabets, also – and confusingly – known as phonetic alphabets. There are local national versions and a common international version. If you’ve ever watched an action film with even a vaguely military theme, you’ll probably have heard the characters using the international version: Tango-Alfa-Kilo-Echo, Lima-Echo-Foxtrot-Tango = take left.

The same message using the Swedish version would be:
Tore-Adam-Kalle-Erik, Ludvig-Erik-Filip-Tore = take left.

There have been many other versions, but the international standard that we now use has been in use since 1969. The need for a spelling alphabet arose when having to spell things out clearly despite poor sound quality, background noise and different pronunciations. The current version was therefore tested on 31 different nationalities to find words that work clearly. The Swedish version was created according to the same principles, but adapted for Swedish pronunciation.

You can find the full Swedish spelling alphabet here, together with links to the international, German, Spanish, Finnish, French, Italian, Dutch and Norwegian equivalents.


Yerkish is an artificial symbol language developed in 1971 to see whether gorillas, orang-utans and chimpanzees could learn to communicate. The alphabet is based on symbols that can be put together to make sentences, for example:


The experiment was a success, and a chimpanzee called Lana learnt not only how to communicate basic messages but also how to construct new messages of her own. Find out more here.

Klingon pIqaD

Another perhaps better known artificial language with its own alphabet is Klingon, klingo.png , used in the Star Trek TV series and films. The alphabet is called pIqaD. There are said to be over a thousand speakers in more than 30 countries, but only around 20 can be said to be fluent. Find out more at the Klingon Language Institute.

Signal flags

One of the most attractive ways of communicating across long distances is to use signal flags.

These flags represent letters, but a number of flag combinations can also be used to communicate standard messages, as spelling these out letter by letter would take too long. For example, ZL just means ZL when used in a word containing these letters, but this combination of letters also means Your signal has been received but not understood. Find out more here.

One of the most famous messages to be sent using signal flags was sent by Lord Nelson from the Battle of Trafalgar: 
England expects that every man will do his duty. 

Optical telegraph or semaphore line

Another alternative if the recipient remains within sight is to use an optical telegraph or semaphore line. This involves communicating from one tower to the next, with a clear line of sight being required between each pair.

The simplest message is off or on (e.g. the intention to board signal at certain steamer quays, bus stops or train stations), while more advanced optical telegraphs can be used to send complex messages using, for example, shutters which can be opened or closed to create signals.

Optical telegraph at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm, with the Kaknäs Tower in the background.
This telegraph stood in Gärdet between 1995 and 2014, before being re-erected in Grisslehamn:


Semaphore messages can also be signalled using flags: 


Polhem’s mechanical alphabet

Perhaps the most unusual and exciting alphabet is Christopher Polhem’s mechanical alphabet. In the late 17th century, Polhem created 79 wooden models to illustrate the basic building blocks of the art of engineering: a mechanical alphabet that includes the cogwheel, the winch, the roller bearing and the steel spring. The idea was that the models should be used as a teaching tool at the school of engineering opened by Polhem in 1697, the Laboratorium Mechanicum. These were intended to be used to build chains of solutions that could then be combined in different ways with different results (= machines).

A few of these models survive, and can be seen at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm (find out more here).


Most people are familiar with the Morse alphabet, even though it is far less common today than it was at the time of telegraphy.

Morse code is usually sent using light or sound signals. 
You can see the Morse alphabet here.

One lesser known use of Morse code is as a tool for people with injuries who find it hard to move or speak. As long as users can signal by blinking or squeezing a hand, for example, they can also communicate.


Stenography – or shorthand – is a form of writing using special characters in order to make quick, clear notes. The characters are simplified and adapted for writing quickly, and abbreviations are used. With practice, it is possible to write in shorthand as quickly as someone speaks.

In order to be effective, a stenographic alphabet must be developed for the language it will be used in, so the characters look different in different countries. Here in Sweden, we use the Melin system which was designed by Olof Werling Melin and first published in 1898. Melin based his system on an extensive survey of the frequencies of sounds in Swedish.


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