Resources for Developing Orthographies

Factors affecting orthography development: Process and best practices

Factors in designing effective orthographies for unwritten languages
Cahill, Michael and Elke Karan. 2008. 
A summary of the major factors which must be considered when planning an orthography.

Planning Mother Tongue-Based Education Programs in Minority Language Communities
Malone, Susan E. 2011. 
Guidelines for developing writing systems are presented in chapter 5 of this literacy resource manual.

Writing unwritten languages - a guide to the process. Chapter 3: Developing a Writing System. 
Robinson, Clinton and Karl Gadelii. 2003. 
This chapter discusses key elements that affect the decision making process when designing a writing system for yet unwritten languages. Includes a good visual.

How shall I write this language?
Smalley, William A. 1959. 
Brief article presenting five criteria for an adequate writing system. A classic; frequently cited and referred to by others as “Smalley’s Maxims”.

Writing System Development and Reform: a Process
Karan, Elke. 2006.  
An overview of theory relating to establishing orthographies for unwritten languages and modifying existing systems. Covers principles which favor popular acceptance and successful implementation, as well as case studies. (See chapters 7‒11,13)

Practical helps

SIL Roman Fonts for Literacy (brochure)

Extensive character coverage combined with cutting-edge technology

Font names:  Andika, Charis SIL, Gentium






Free downloads of fonts for a variety of languages and scripts:

Alphabet Design Workshops in PNG: a community-based approach to orthography development
Easton, Cathy. 2003. 
Detailed description of a participatory method of orthography development (ADW) that has proven itself successful in Papua New Guinea since the mid 1990s.

Manual for Alphabet Design through Community Interaction for Papua New Guinea Elementary Teacher Trainers
Easton, Catherine and Diane Wroge. 2012. 
A training manual for those who help run workshops for orthography design. Socio-linguistic issues, symbol choices, and dialect issues are discussed. Logistic issues are also given consideration.

The development of writing systems: A guide
Wedekind, Klaus, and Charlotte Wedekind. 1997. 
A practical workshop tool covering linguistic issues, symbolization options, sociolinguistic considerations, and ideas for testing the orthography. Includes a select bibliography with notes.

Creating an Orthography Description
Hosken, Martin. 2003.  
Guidelines for fieldworkers needing to write an orthography description. Includes an outline and script-specific directives and discussions relating to the computing domain. 

Bantu Orthography Manual
Schroeder, Leila.  2008 
A practical resource for fieldworkers. Provides procedural guidelines as well as charts to help in analysis and decision making. Although designed for complex, agglutinative Bantu languages, the manual may serve as an inspiration for participatory approaches for languages with less complex phonologies and morphologies.

LinguaLinks Library
Software for purchase (on hold). A collection of electronic reference materials designed to support language fieldwork, organized according to discipline. Modules and reference works on orthography development are found in the Literacy Bookshelf.

Contains practical helps as well as full-text publications, including the journal series Notes on Literacy (1966-2001), which feature articles on orthography.


Reference and text books

Cahill, Michael and Keren Rice (eds.). 2014. Developing orthographies for unwritten languages. SIL International.
A compilation of articles, —some by attendees of the 2011 symposium by the same name, held at the Linguistic Society of America meetings, 7‒10 January 2011. Treats linguistic and practical issues in writing system development. Generous in case studies. Amazon link

Coulmas, Florian. 1996. The Blackwell encyclopedia of writing systems. Oxford: Blackwell. 
An alphabetically ordered reference tool with numerous visuals. Some topics receive brief, coverage, while others are covered at great depth.  Amazon link

Coulmas, Florian. 2003. Writing systems: An introduction to their linguistic analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
A university textbook covering script types, history of specific systems, and the adaptation of the Latin script for a multiplicity of languages.  Amazon link

Daniels, Peter T. and William Bright (eds.). 1996.  The world's writing systems. New York, New York. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Volume with comprehensive coverage on writing systems from around the world, written by the experts. Contains useful charts and sample texts. Amazon link   Review by Richard Sproat

Fishman, Joshua A. 1977 (ed.). Advances in the creation and revision of writing systems. The Hague: Mouton.
Articles by 17 authors, some more valuable than others. Of interest: articles presenting a theoretical overview, various case studies.   Amazon link

Jensen, Hans. 1970. Sign, Symbol and Script. translated from the German by George Unwin (original title: Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart.1958.) London: Geore Allen and Unwin Ltd.
Comprehensive coverage on writing history and scripts by a much cited expert. Designing writing systems for unwritten languages is not addressed.  Amazon link

Rogers, Henry. 2005. Writing Systems: A linguistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
A university textbook covering the history of writing, writing system typology, and specific scripts. Includes some practical exercises. Designing writing systems for unwritten languages is not addressed. Amazon link

Sebba, Mark. 2007. Spelling and Society: The culture and politics of orthography around the world  New York.  Cambridge University Press.
Highlights orthography as a social practice. Includes a unit on Spelling Reform. Generous in case studies and citations. Amazon link    Publisher’s link            
Reviews:     Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer (2009), Robert D. Angus (2008)

Smalley, William A. et al. (1963). Orthography studies: Articles on new writing systems. Helps for Translators 6. London: United Bible Societies.
A collection of articles written by field workers grappling with orthography issues in the 50s and 60s. Theoretical articles and case studies. Some reprints; some frequently-cited classics.  Amazon link


Reading lists, bibliographies

Writing Systems: Select Readings and Resource List
Karan, Elke. 2014. SIL International
A comprehensive bibliography of resources that are relevant to orthography development.

Resource Network for Linguistic Diversity: Orthography development
Two resources: a) A bibliography on orthography development and  
b) a PowerPoint presentation explaining the team work process involving a language community and a linguist.

SIL Cameroon
SIL Cameroon offers many downloadable publications written in or about Cameroonian languages. A search designating linguistics/orthography in the domain filter provides 60+ downloadable documents, including orthography descriptions and statements.

SIL Language & Culture Archives (formerly known as the SIL Bibliography)

Full citations of works by SIL field workers, partners and affiliates. Many resources are available for free download.


Writing Systems: