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Note: This may be more suited to Worldbuilding SE. I believe it belongs here, because it is about how to write a conlang, but if not, please feel free to move it.

I am constructing Elvish. In my Elvish, there is no letter 'K'. Instead, the elves use 'C' to form the K sound. Additionally, the letter 'C' cannot form the S sound, as it can in English. It can only be pronounced as K.

This presents a problem. In English, we can usually tell whether a 'C' should be pronounced S or K by the letters about it. This means that in some Elvish words, readers will assume the letter 'C' is pronounced S, when it is in fact supposed to be pronounced K.

Example:

Looking at the word Acir, you would pronounce it ah-SEER. It is supposed to be pronounced ah-KEER.

I have thought of a way around this problem, but I am not sure if I should use it. My method is to write the Elvish words the way they sound, and not the way they would be spelled in Elvish. To take the above example, Acir would be spelled Akir.

The reason I am hesitant to do this is because there are no 'K's in Elvish for a reason. The letter 'K' looks (and sounds) too harsh to be an Elvish letter. Elvish should be soft and flowing, all S's and L's. If I write Elvish the way it sounds, it won't look soft and flowing, which could throw off the feel of the entire language.

Should I write my language as it sounds anyway? Will the reader still see it as 'soft and flowing'? Or should I stick with the Elvish lettering and trust to a glossary to correct the reader's pronunciation?

Further Note: Just removing the K sound from the words that have it would be the obvious answer. However, I've already built a lot of roots, and I would prefer to not have to rewrite those that have it.

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Your question is based on a faulty connection between "English" letters and Elvish letters and between English sounds and English letters. We use the Latin alphabet to write English words, by a series of approximations where one, two, or more letters represent a single sound. Think of the list of vowels: A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. Except vowels aren't letters, they're sounds. Those are the letters we use to represent the sounds. But, for example, the most common vowel in English is shwa, and we don't have a letter for that (instead, almost any 'vowel' letter will be used).

Elvish will be its own language with its own rules. The notion that it doesn't have a "K" but has a k sound is a little odd. Of course it doesn't have a letter K, because it doesn't have any letters from the Latin alphabet. Similarly it doesn't have a C or an S. Make up whatever glyphs you want for whatever kind of writing system you want.

When it comes down to writing it in English, what you are doing is, essentially, transliterating or Romanizing it. In this case you use our alphabet's letters to represent the sounds of the Elvish alphabet. as @what said, it's very similar to how we write Chinese words in English. The word 错 (meaning "wrong, bad") is not spelled with any Latin letters in Chinese, but in Pinyin (a sort of romanization) it's spelled cuò and pronounced like (roughly) tswo. (Pinyin uses c to represent a ts sound).

When devising a romanization, it's common that you'll run out of letters to represent sounds. English certainly has more sounds than it has letters. Consider bath and bathe; there the a represents two different vowels, the th represents one sound, but a different one in each word, and the e serves to silently convert the short A to long A AND to indicate the pronunciation of the th. Tolkien himself struggled with this and decided to use th always for the soft sound (as in bath) and dh for the voiced sound (as in bathe). Since dh doesn't appear in English, normally, the only way a reader can tell how to pronounce that is through a glossary.

  • This makes sense. I guess I'll just have to make sure my Elvish sounds like Elvish, and then it will hopefully look that way in English too. Thanks. – Thomas Myron May 27 '15 at 21:21
  • This answer and what's answer both basically say the same thing: spell it the way it sounds. I'm marking this one as the answer because I found it clearer; that may just be me, however. – Thomas Myron May 28 '15 at 17:13
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Elvish is not written in Latin letters. There is no reason why the / k / sound must be represented by the letter < c >.

Think of Russian or Chinese or any other human language not written in Latin letters. When what sounds like a / k / in those languages is transliterated or transcribed into English, usually the letter < k > is used, because that is the letter that most commonly and unambiguously represents that sound for a speaker of English. The letter < c >, if used at all, usually represents a sound like / ts /.

So do not think of the Latin letters as how the elves write, but as how you transliterate or transcribe their language. When you make up a system of romanization, use the Latin letters in the way they are most commonly pronounced, that is like they are spoken when you say the alphabet and – in ambiguious cases like < g > – like they are used in the International Phonetic Alphabet (e.g. sounding like in "bag").

  • 1
    That is a good point. Elvish does not use Latin letters - which is the main reason I am making my own Elvish alphabet. My question is, however, how do I write those letters in something like dialogue? I can't very well use the Elvish letters in an English novel. Upon rereading your answer, you seem to be saying that I should write the words the way they sound, regardless of the way the look. Would that be correct? – Thomas Myron May 27 '15 at 19:31
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    @TommyMyron Yes. – user5645 May 28 '15 at 4:46
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You are producing a written work. The look of it matters, as a written document. And a c looks different to a k, and sets off different associations in the mind.

Notably, Latin has no k (it has a hard c, as you are proposing), and very few high-register words in English have a k. It is for this reason that Tolkien, master philologist, chose to represent the k sound in Adûnaic and Khuzdul with a k, but the same sound in Quenya and Sindarin with a c.

In other words, I think your idea is a good one. You are writing for the eye as much as, or more than, the ear. K is harsh to the English eye; c is refined. K is Germanic and low register; c is Latinate and high register.

A short and simple pronunciation note will do the trick: these are hardly unusual in fantasy novels. Some readers will skip it, but this is not a problem: if some readers’ internal voice pronounce some names incorrectly, so be it.

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I think @jm13fire has the right idea: use accents, and give readers a quick pronunciation guide at the beginning.

I would go for a caron over a C, which looks like č, as ç (with a cedilla) is used for a soft C. I would definitely read Ačir as "Akir."

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    Interesting. Unfortunately, I think a lot of readers aren't familiar with accent marks (I definitely am not). When I read that, I simply don't know what the mark over the C means, so my mind just ignores it and still sees "Aseer." It is an interesting idea though, maybe I can find a compromise. – Thomas Myron May 27 '15 at 21:17
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    c-caron usually denotes something closer to "ch" though. I'd pronounce it Achir, or even Atyir. – RemcoGerlich May 28 '15 at 13:02
  • @RemcoGerlich It certainly may — my point was simply that if the OP has his heart set on writing C but only intending the sound K, some manner of diacritical mark would help. Since I don't speak or read any languages which use the caron, my first guess would be to read the C as a K. The OP may have to invent some accent mark to get his point across. – Lauren Ipsum May 28 '15 at 13:28
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I feel like it's not really the look of the letter k so much as it is the sound. I feel like a good workaround here would be to use the sound produced by K as little as possible. To use your example, I feel that Acir (ah-SEER) is more of a soft and "Elvish"-sounding name. I think that instead of there being no letter k, the sound 'kh' should be essentially removed.

There is a reason to leave the letter in the language, and that is for words foreign to the Elvish language. For example, in Spanish, the letters W and K are not native to the language and not used in any native words, but are kept for two reasons: because Spanish uses the Latin alphabet, and because they are used in foreign words such as el wat which refers to the unit of electrical measure (the watt).


EDIT: it has been brought to my attention that my solution above would require a lot of rewriting. In response to this, I say the following:

I agree that using c instead of k makes the language look much smoother. However, using c to produce only the k sound is rather deceptive. It would be helpful, then, to use a glossary.

Personally, I feel that the letter c looks much "smoother" than the letter s, especially in the construction ce as in ice. Possibly you could use some sort of symbol (accent, umlaut, caret etc) to symbolize the pronunciation differences if you decide to allow c to use both pronunciations.

Regardless, I suggest a glossary. This will allow you to include words in the elven vernacular and define them so readers are not confused (see also: Eragon/Inheritance series).

  • Just not using the sound kh would be the obvious answer. However, I have already spent a lot of time developing a root system for my Elvish, and would prefer not to have to rewrite a lot of the words if necessary. Hence my question. – Thomas Myron May 27 '15 at 18:38
  • @TommyMyron Edited to reflect my response to your comment. – jm13fire May 27 '15 at 18:45
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    Rewriting words is easy with search and replace. I don't see that as an argument. What I see is that you, @jm13fire, need to make up your mind wether you want to create a language that looks a certain way in Latin letters, or a language that sounds a certain way. The latter is the Tolkien approach, the first is the common fantasy writer's approach (that too often results in ridiculous and unpronouncable names). I would not recommend a pronunciation guide or glossary, it makes reading a struggle and I never buy books that require perusing it. You write for English so make it readable in it. – user5645 May 27 '15 at 18:49
  • @what Which approach do you recommend? I can see some of the benefits of both, but I would imagine that the first approach would be beneficial given that text is a visual medium. – jm13fire May 27 '15 at 18:52
  • @jm13fire No, written text is an auditory medium! Readers subvocalize (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subvocalization), and if you get published you might have to read your novel aloud, so always write by sound, not by graphical form. – user5645 May 27 '15 at 18:54

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