Let me tell you how this whole thing started. A few years back I was out having some drinks with a big group of people when I heard somebody making the sound you make when you blow your tongue in between your lips (a.k.a the fart sound) with their mouth. They did it to express their disapproval of a topic, and not to represent an actual fart. I found it interesting that instead of saying “bullshit” or “I don’t care”, they decided to make that sound instead, as if it would be a word everybody would understand.
At that moment I instantly thought: if everybody understands what that sound means, no matter your nationality or cultural background, why don’t we have a sign to represent it? Like a letter, like all the other sounds have.
It was clear that the sound existed and was used by people orally, it just had no visual representation to express it in a written text. Only if there would be a way to design it somehow. Wait a minute, there is a way. So I used the resources that were available to me at that moment: the notes app on my phone and the creativity of my tipsy friends. I passed my phone around the table with a simple brief: draw a brand new letter that matches the sound of a fart without using existing letters and without creating some sort of illustration that would depict a fart. Try to write it, as it would be a letter.
The results were fun to observe, but nothing mindblowing, of course. I continued to ask people to do the same thing every time I was going out, repeating the same simple brief. I had no expectations from this pseudo-scientific experiment. For me, it was just fun to see how other people represent visually the same sound and what it means to them.
Here are some of the sketches:
After a couple of months, I checked all the sketches on my phone. Nothing special, until I noticed two different people, from different contexts, drew a very similar symbol. It struck me.
Think about it: two people who have never met or talked to each other made the same connections in their minds and represented the same sound similarly. For me, it was enough. It was proof that this could be a possible way to represent it, out of many other options of course. What was special about this was also the fact that it wasn’t something I designed, but that the community created.
Ok, so what now? Let’s say we have a sketch for this new letter. What do we do with it?
The first natural question that came to my mind was how do you actually implement such a new symbol in the alphabet. I couldn’t recall any recent event that was even remotely close to this, there was no reference available on what to do in case you want to add a new letter to the alphabet. There’s no guide for that, so I had to dig very deep to find some answers.
Now bear with me, this is where the actual journey begins.
There are three key questions that need to be answered:
1. Is this a real problem to be solved?
2. What’s an alphabet, actually?
3. What’s the difference between written and spoken language?
So let’s start with the first question: does the world actually need this new letter?
I know what you’re thinking, but let me tell you that after a very short research, I landed on some very satisfying results. There are a couple of articles online, like this one, trying to address this question. One thing that didn’t even cross my mind, is that there’s a specific group of people who’s life would be improved if there would be a letter for the fart sound: comic book artists. What really motivated me to pursue finding an answer to this question is the level of passion and frustration that went into writing the article I mentioned above. I invite you to read it, it’s highly entertaining.
Anyway, a couple of articles and Reddit posts later it was clear: this IS a real problem. People on the internet are interested in finding the answer to this question. The world needs a letter for the fart sound. And I’m not the only one who believes so.
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s focus on the real question:
What the f*ck is an alphabet and how did we end up using it in the form we use it today?
The official answer to this, according to our good old friend Wikipedia, is this:
“An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written symbols or graphemes (called letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages.”
In short, an alphabet is a writing system. Now, every system is built on a set of rules or criteria that set some limitations. In our case, the conditions for a letter to be part of this system are the following:
- The system must be capable of representing the range of expressions that its culture wishes to record or convey
- The symbols must be reasonably easy to reproduce
- The written message must be interpretable in the sense that it must readily symbolize for the reader what it was intended to symbolize by the writer
Let’s see if our newly discovered symbol checks all the boxes. First, we have already seen that the fart sound is part of the range of expressions that a culture wishes to convey. Second, our new glyph is clearly easy to reproduce (not to mention, it also looks beautiful). And third, if we all agree on it as a standard and collective convention, then we can also say that the new letter symbolizes what the reader and the writer commonly understand. At the end of the day, the meaning of this letter and of all the other letters of the alphabet only exist in our minds, right? So as we can see so far, we have all we need to call this new symbol a letter.
The alphabet didn’t always look the same.
Now, let me tell you something. I’m not the only one to come up with the idea of adding a new letter to the alphabet. There was a lot of trial and error in the course of history until we got to the version we use today. And to understand how ridiculous this process can be, check out the story of Claudian letters.
A former Roman emperor named Claudius (reigned 41–54) introduced not one, but three new letters to the alphabet. How? By force. There’s no need for complicated paperwork when you are a Roman emperor. Needless to say that the use of Claudian letters was abandoned after he passed away.
But what if I tell you that a few centuries ago there were more letters in the English alphabet? I’d like to introduce you to Thorn, Wynn, Yough and Ash, to name a few. Long forgotten letters that once used to be part of the writing system.
How did they disappear, you may ask? One example is that the French scholars were not big fans of the Yough (a throaty sound), because they didn’t use it in their spoken language. So when they created transcripts of gothic writings, they simply removed the Yough symbol, and replaced it with two of the existing letters from the Latin alphabet: g and h. So basically the Yough sound didn’t fit with the need of French society, so they removed it. As simple as that.
I think you got the point now. Adding or removing letters from the alphabet is, before anything else, a socio-political matter.
Here’s a more familiar example of a letter (a ligature of two letters to be more precise) that survived until the present day: the German “ß”, also known as “eszett”. I would argue the main reason for why this letter survived, is because the father of the letterpress, our good old friend Mr. Gutenberg, was German. He basically owned the means of production for the printed alphabet, so he was free to add or remove whatever letter he wanted.
Adding a new letter is in fact possible.
Now, you may be wondering how is the “ß” relevant to our story. Believe it or not, this letter opens the road to our initial problem: adding a new letter to the alphabet in our times. If you’re not a user of the German language you might not know the eszett is used as a ligature for “ss” and has so far existed only as a lowercase letter. Since no word starts with a double “S”, there was no need for an uppercase version of it. Until 2017, when the new German passport was issued with a new design, where all the letters were capitalized.
Guess what? Germans were not happy about that. People that had the “ß” in their names were now forced to use “SS” instead, basically spelling their names wrong. And what do Germans do when their identity is threatened by new rules? They add a new symbol to the alphabet to solve the issue. Yep, you read it right. They literally requested the creation of an uppercase version of the “ß”, so they can spell their names correctly. Now that’s what I call democracy.
But the first question that came to my mind when I read this news was: where the f*ck do you request such a thing? Which institution do you have to address in order to add a new letter to the alphabet? Can anybody do it?
And now we get to answer our last question: what’s the difference between written and spoken language? Bear with me, this will get super interesting.
I’m sure you are somehow aware of the phonetic alphabet. Those weird symbols, that look like somebody ate an alphabet soup and spit it back out, are used to describe how a word is pronounced. You probably know them from dictionaries, where they are usually included in brackets before the definition of a word. What’s up with that actually?
The phonetic alphabet is a convention, standardized by the IPA which, besides being your favorite craft beer, also stands for International Phonetic Alphabet. For the sake of shortening this neverending story, I will let you read more about it here, so I can get straight to the breaking news. Ready? Ok, here we go: THE PHONETIC ALPHABET ACTUALLY INCLUDES A SYMBOL FOR THE FART SOUND. Yes, I know, this is science at its peak. Even more than that, it also has a name. Two of them actually, both are way too fancy for what this sound actually represents: linguolabial trill or buccal interdental trill. The act of producing the sound of a fart by using nothing else but your lips is called “blowing the raspberry” or “making the Bronx cheer”. I’ll let you entertain yourself with the Wikipedia definition of this concept. It’s a highly enjoyable read, I promise.
Ok, our problem is half solved. We have the phonetic symbol for the fart sound, so why not add its corresponding glyph in the written language? We already have a good candidate for that, right? *wink*
Thank god people on the internet always think of everything before I do, and I can find some answers. Here’s one of my favourites on Quora:
Thank you, Alex. Finally somebody coming up with solutions!
I also love how this person phrased their question:
I couldn’t agree more, random stranger on the internet!
Here’s my conclusion. Kind of.
Ok, I could go on and on with this topic, but I know your patience is slowly coming to an end.
The point is the alphabet that we’ve been using for such a long time only exists in our minds, the same as other concepts that run our world. I know, this is quite an obvious statement but I think we tend to forget that. And what we especially forget is that these imaginary constructs can be re-shaped and challenged. I believe it’s our responsibility to redefine the concepts our world is built on when they no longer reflect our current needs. When they are outdated and unquestioned. And the alphabet is one of these concepts.
Now, more than ever before, we have the possibility to do so. It’s important to understand the difference between written and spoken language. One of the main reasons why our ancestors had trouble adding new letters to the alphabet was directly linked to the technical limitations of the written language. Before computers, letters were carved in wood or cast in metal. Creating a new symbol wasn’t a profitable solution, while recycling existing ones and using them upside down, for example, was much faster and economical.
But these days are gone. The digital era brought new ways of manipulating type. Ways that give space to innovation. The font styles literally boomed since the digitalization of type. Why shouldn’t the letters do the same? One fair example of how the means of written communication expanded during the digital era are emojis. Think about the diversity and variety emojis brought to our written communication. And yes, emojis are not letters, but you access them from the same space: your keyboard.
Here’s a complex chart that will illustrate my point:
If Germans were able to implement a new symbol, that’s solid proof the fart sound can be added to the alphabet if enough people believe in it.
As type enthusiasts, type designers, or anything type-related, we should never look at the alphabet as a static set of glyphs. We, the users and creators, have the power to influence the course of the alphabet and challenge the current iteration and make it reflect our paradigm.
So, I’m especially pointing at you, type designers, the masters of glyphs. Next time you design a new set of characters, ask yourself if there is space for one more. This will make me very happy.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget: any system should be questioned. That includes the alphabet. Oh yeah, please take this article with a grain of salt, I’m not a linguist specialist nor a historian.