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Is there a specific term for a constructed writing system purportedly used for a conlang but actually for a natlang?

Constructed Languages Asked on August 21, 2021

Many constructed writing systems are purportedly used to write conlangs, but in reality are actually used to write English or another natlang.

For example, omniglot.com says that Kryptonian is “a transliteration alphabet containing symbols for each of the letters of the English alphabet. … They just used this alphabet to write things in English in the comics.”

The Kryptonian alphabet

Matoran has been called “similar to the English alphabet, being a simple substitution cipher”.

And in Star Wars, Aurebesh is essentially the same, a different way of writing English, although technically it’s actually “Galactic Basic”. Apparently another script was also used to write Galatic Basic, called Outer Rim Basic, although there’s very little information about it.

The Aurebesh alphabet

I’d consider these example to be a different kind of thing compared to something like the dancing men script from Sherlock Holmes as they’re ostensibly constructed writing systems for other languages, whereas the dancing men script is explicitly another way of writing English.

In the conlang community, is there a specific term for this type of constructed writing system? Or should we just refer to them as “transliterations” or “substitutions”?

Please note that I am specifically asking if there is a term which excludes these categories:

  • new orthographies for natlangs (ex. Canadian Aboriginal syllabics or Deseret for English)
  • a new writing system actually used to write a conlang (ex. Tengwar for Quenya)

2 Answers

I don't think there's already a word for this exact subset of scripts.

However, I think such a term would be a useful one -- we certainly have to refer to these sorts of scripts in the conlanging community -- and I think there are a number of options here.

1. Circumlocution

We could refer to these sorts of scripts in paraphrastic ways, like how you have in your question. "Transliteration alphabet" and "substitution cipher" both work for this purpose. However, I don't think this is a particularly attractive option, as these are long and rather unwieldy. Shortenings of these phrases end up being pretty ambiguous, as well. "Transliteration" in particular is usually used to describe completely separate things entirely, so using it in isolation to refer to these scripts would be confusing at best, and "substitution" is too vague.

2. Neologism

Since these sorts of scripts are really the neographic equivalent of relexes, we could also coin a new term like "relex" to refer to these scripts. Just spitballing, here are a few examples of the sorts of coinages that could work:

  • transbet (from "transliteration alphabet")
  • subscript (from "substitution script" -- though this word does obviously already have another meaning so that might not be desirable)
  • rescript (from analogy with "relex")
  • keychain script (because these sorts of scripts are easily used to sell keychains with people's names on them 'in another language')

There are any number of ways that such a term could be derived beyond these, but I feel that in order to have a term that describes this subset of scripts, some sort of new coinage is necessary.

Correct answer by Sparksbet on August 21, 2021

I would call this a cipher. Dictionary.com's 6th entry for "cipher" reads, in part:

a secret method of writing, as by transposition or substitution of letters, specially formed symbols, or the like.

This gives us two requirements for being a cipher:

  • Secrecy
  • Substitution

Since this sort of script is ostensibly used to write a constructed language while actually just transcribing English (or another natlang), the requirement for secrecy is satisfied. As the conscript comprises symbols that stand in for Latin (or other natural script) letters or symbols, the requirement for substitution is satisfied.

Let's look at the examples of scripts you want to exclude:

  • Deseret: This is explicitly for the purpose of writing English and is widely published for such purpose and thus it fails the requirement of secrecy.
  • Tengwar: Tengwar are not primarily used to replace otherwise extant letters or symbols and thus fails the requirement of substitution

Answered by Andrew Ray on August 21, 2021

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