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I wasn't sure how to phrase the title, so it may be a bit confusing. Feel free to edit it if you can phrase it better.

This question may be better suited for Worldbuilding SE. However, it is about how to specifically write a constructed language in English, so I put it here.

Question: I have constructed a language. Being a new language however, it is pronounced differently than English. This means I have to take a few liberties with the spelling when translating it, so that readers will pronounce it correctly when they see it. This has given rise to a few problems with certain words.

For example, the letter Y, which we can pronounce as a vowel, is used only as a consonant in my language. This means that the word Syan, when seen, will likely be pronounced See-ahn when in reality it should be pronounced S yahn.

How can I get my reader to pronounce the word the proper way? One obvious method would be to spell the word in question as S'yan. I am hesitant to do this, however, because apostrophes are disturbingly over-used in constructed languages, and I am trying to stay as far away from cliches as possible.

Any ideas? Has this problem perhaps been encountered before by someone here?

EDIT: Further examples:

The word Seic. Likely pronounced Sayk or seyek. Should be pronounced Say-ik.

The word Ashe. Likely pronounced Aysh. Should be pronounced Ahs-hay.

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    Why do you care if the reader pronounces it wrong? As a rule I pronounce almost all made up words (Eg placenames, people names, magic words) wrong. But it doesn't matter I am only reading it in my head, and even if I was reading to an audience who is going to care? – Lyndon White Aug 29 '15 at 1:07
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    @Oxinabox It matters if you are trying to make your language sound a specific way. – Thomas Myron Aug 29 '15 at 1:51
  • Step 1: figure out your phonemes (not pronouns!) Step 2: figure out your orthography. – curiousdannii Aug 29 '15 at 2:35
  • You seem to be confusing English the language with the phonetic alphabet used in English. Do the people in your story actually use the same alphabet, or do they have their own? If they use the same alphabet, how did they get it (ie - Japanese Romanization of the character け is 'ke', because of the Portuguese/Spanish vowel pronunciation)? If they don't share one, you probably don't have to worry about it looking correct, make it look like how it should sound "normally" in English. – Clockwork-Muse Aug 29 '15 at 8:43
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A few ideas:

  • You could have a character who doesn't speak that language ask how the name is pronounced, or mispronounce it and receive a correction. Obviously it would look contrived for this to keep happening, but doing it once or twice would be enough to introduce the general rule.

  • Use Matt Ellen's idea of a diaeresis / umlaut for the first two names mentioned (Sÿan and Seïc) and use an acute accent on the final 'e' for the last, giving Ashé.

  • Use a macron: Seīc, Ashē. Unfortunately that does not work for Syan. HTML codes for writing macrons can be found here.

  • Double the i for "Seiic" to get the desired pronounciation.

That said, whatever you do, I regret to say that 95% of your readers will read the unfamiliar combinations of letters as 'Something like that colour cyan' or 'Ash'. Please don't take this amiss; personally I think that a well-made conlang is a thing of beauty in itself and a great aid to the willing suspension of disbelief, but studies have shown that most people read exotic words in an almost purely visual way, rather as one would read Chinese characters.

Looking at it positively, the fact that most readers won't try very hard to pronounce names does in a way free the author to choose between the various possible renderings of names on their aesthetic appeal, or even on the basis of subconscious criteria which the author cannot explain but just seem to suggest one particular spelling as the 'right' one. Which of Sayik, Seic, Seīc, Seiic, or Seïc seems to best fit the character?

Edit: Proving my own point about readers' carelessness, I've only just realised that I've been misreading your desired pronunciation of Ashe and quite missed that you want the "sh" not to be read as a digraph. That's a difficult one. I can't really improve on Matt Ellen's suggestion of a phonetic spelling, or just decide you will spell it by your own rules and let the readers do as they will.

  • Yes, at this point I think spelling it differently is probably the safest route. Like you say, a lot of readers will just slide over it anyway. Btw, thank you so much for the link. I now know how to bring up the ASCII table from the start menu, something I didn't even know I could do, and needed desperately. Thank you! – Thomas Myron Aug 28 '15 at 21:57
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If you don't want to use an apostrophe, then consider a diaeresis. It used to be common in English to mark vowels that come after vowels, but need to be pronounced separately, with a diaeresis for example:

  • noöne
  • coördinate
  • Zoë

Also, this format is used in Lord of The Rings, e.g. in Fëanor, to make sure the e is pronounced separately. (You can read this for more details.)

So your examples would be

  • Sÿan
  • Seïc

It doesn't work for Ashe. I'm not sure what you'd do other than an apostrophe there. Since it's a transliteration, maybe spell it differently in English, e.g. Asshay.

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    The problem with this is that when I read it, I tend to skip over the diaeresis because I don't (or didn't anyway) know what it means. I think a fair majority of readers will also not know what it means, and simply read the word as if it weren't there. – Thomas Myron Aug 28 '15 at 18:10
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    Fair enough, I have no other advice, as you don't like the apostrophe. – Matt Ellen Aug 28 '15 at 18:18
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    Per your edit, spelling ti differently does seem to be the logical choice. – Thomas Myron Aug 28 '15 at 18:40
  • In old texts was there ever an equivalent for consonants of the way that diaeresis was used for vowels - a means to show that adjacent letters are to be pronounced separately? I'm thinking of words like "pothook". I'm wondering if this was indicated by not having a ligature between the "t" and the "h"? – Lostinfrance Aug 29 '15 at 17:54
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Do people using the constructed language use a Latin-based alphabet similar to English, or do they have an entirely different writing system?

Spelling it "oddly" would make sense if the people literally use the symbols A-s-h-e or S-y-a-n to write their name. For example, they could be descendants of Portuguese-speaking people from Brazil whose language has evolved over several hundred years, in which case they would use similar letters as English, but with different pronunciations (in this case though, you'd probably want the spelling to at least resemble modern Brazilian Portuguese).

But if they're aliens from Zeta-Beta-Seven who write their name using something like Cuneiform, we would normally spell the English transliteration of their name using normal English pronunciation rules. Of course, English pronunciation is far from normalized, but that's another topic.

  • They use their own alphabet, which does not have all of our letters, and has some additional ones that we don't ('TH', for example). – Thomas Myron Aug 29 '15 at 5:01
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    Exactly this: if the language doesn't actually use the symbol 'y' for the consonantal y sound, then why confuse your readers by writing the name as Syan instead of Sjan? Of course, the latter might get people to try to say an s followed by a j-as-in-jam, but that's a separate issue. If it sounds like Sayik, then write it as Sayik, not Seic. (And does Ashe really have an unvoiced /s/? Because it might be less... unfortunate if you transcribed it as Azzay.) – Martha Sep 2 '15 at 23:25
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You could have an appendix (such as appears in the best-selling Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) that explains pronunciations. However even that is subject to pismronunciation.

Of course there already is a way to write these things. It is called IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet. The problem is that most of us don't learn it at school. However, if you did use it then all your writing problems would go away.

I won't render your names in IPA because I still don't know how you really want to pronounce them despite your explanation.

I am guessing that, given that you are writing from an English speaking perspective, your names sound like unusual English words when spoken. If that is the case you don't need the full gamut of IPA. You could use just the English subset.

International Phonetic Alphabet chart for English dialects From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you were really adventurous and wanted to get distracted from actual writing, you could invent your own script and then explain it with an appendix that references IPA. However that requires a commitment from readers that most authors don't get.

Bear in mind that this will only become an issue when the movie gets released and disappointed readers discover that they have been saying the names wrongly all along.

Alternatively use Tolkien's clever strategy of making names almost like English ones, e.g. Samwise which conveniently contracts to Sam.

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Your suggested writing system is very confusing. I think what you need to do is come up with a list of the language's phonemes, and then use whatever is the most common way of writing that phoneme in English (if English indeed does have that phoneme.) Or why don't you just spell words the ways you wrote in the question to explain how they're pronounced?

  • Syan: you say it should be pronounced "S yahn". Is there a glottal stop between the s and the y? If so it really would be appropriate to use a ', as it is widely used for glottal stops in real languages. Otherwise you could consider using a 'j' instead of a 'y'.
  • Seic: it should probably be spelt seiik.
  • Ashe: if the second vowel is [ei] then spell it consistently. And you probably are actually putting a glottal stop between the syllables: as'hei or ahs'hei

From these examples I am guessing you have these phonemes, and I'd recommend spelling them exactly that way:

Vowels: a (or ah, depending on whether there's a second 'a' sound), ei, i

Consonants: k, s, y (or maybe j), h

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    Actually, his suggested writing system is exactly how I would pronounce his names...if I were reading them in Hungarian. Well, except for the s = /s/ thing (in Hungarian, s = /sh/). – Martha Sep 2 '15 at 23:16
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First, why do you care? You say that you want the language to have a certain sound. Why? Does it matter to the plot? Or are you getting yourself distracted with creating this language rather than writing an interesting story?

If you really think it's important ...

There are many foreign words whose pronunciation is difficult to represent with conventional English. Look at how many Americans pronounce Al Qaeda as if the "ae" made a single vowel sound. The hardest part, I think, is making clear when two or more letters combine to make a single sound versus having separate sounds, like your "Ashe" example. (My first thought is that it should be pronounced "ash", just like if the "e" wasn't there.) I don't see how to beat this without using some punctuation to separate syllables, like apostrophes or hyphens. If you want readers to pronounce it Ahs-hay, then write "Ahs-hay".

You could have a pronunciation guide. I suspect readers would have a mixed reaction to this. Probably most will skim it, say "yeah whatever", and make up their own pronunciation as they go along. A few will get fanatical about learning all the details of your language that you care to share. Like the Star Trek folks went to great effort to invent a complete Klingon language. A few extreme fans download Klingon dictionaries and learn the language. But the vast majority couldn't care less, and listen to the Klingon dialogue exactly the same as they would if it was just a bunch of random noises.

You could use accent marks or the International Phonetic Alphabet. 99% of readers will have no idea how to pronounce these. You could explain it, in which case you're back to having a pronunciation guide, albeit one that someone else invented instead of you inventing just for this book. If you don't explain it, very few will research it. They'll just muddle through and be annoyed with you for using these unfamiliar symbols.

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If it means that much to you, have a pronounciation guide up front — not an appendix, but before the main text. And then just sigh and accept that half your readers aren't going to get it right anyway.

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I've decided to add a second, separate answer to my earlier one in order to flag up a specific suggestion made by another SE user on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.

After reading the part in your original question that focussed on how to indicate that the "sh" in "Ashe" was two separate sounds rather than a digraph, I became interested in whether there was an existing means of showing this in English orthography for transcribing real-life foreign languages. So I asked the following question on the English Language & Usage SE, "Is there an equivalent for diaeresis, but for consonants?", citing your question here as being what prompted me to ask.

When it comes to existing usage, the answer appears to be no, there isn't. However SE user "chasly from UK" suggested in this answer that you could simply add a diaeresis to the letter h, like this:

Asḧe

and gave a link to a site giving unicode and HTML codes for doing this.

Another possibility that I think I remember seeing someone do once might be to add a full stop between characters without a following space, thus:

As.he

Personally, I'm going to have two of my characters have an argument about how the hell do you transcribe Alienese s-followed-by-separate-h into English anyway?

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