A bit of background on what I'm developing: I'm trying to develop a language for an alien race with completely different biology to humans. It's still in the very early stages, so the exact form is subject to change, but they won't be making sounds with their mouths, but still through their breathing apparatus. They will have some kind of a vocal chords/flaps, likely either two or four pairs, enabling the use of chords/consonance and dissonance, and will be able to produce trills, plosives, and fricatives with whatever is closing the chamber, be that lip-like or flap-like. I was thinking to add other ways to redirect sounds, to mimick the effect of the tongue, but that does not make much sense outside of a mouth, and makes it needlessly more complex, so I will not be doing that.

I know for most constructed languages it is encouraged to use IPA for the phonetic side of things, but that is based on the way the human mouth and vocal chords work to produce sound, so I am not sure where to begin in notating sounds produced by an entirely non-human biology.

I think the easiest would be to just develop a writing system that takes these features into account, and explain how that system represents the sounds, but that restricts you to a featural phonetic alphabet-like script, and forbids anything like, say, a logography.

Unless you have something that serves the functions as IPA for human languages, developing the language (esp. morphological stuff) is hard.

So, if the writing system is not phonetic and cannot serve those same functions as the IPA, how do you represent those sounds in a usable and systematic way?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome to worldbuilding @wleightond. Your question is a bit unclear and reads more like some discussion you are having with yourself rather than an outright question. Let me suggest that you edit your question and organise it thus: Premise, Problem, Query. The premise is where you give us some background information about the world that you are building. Problem is where you describe the issue that has made you as an author get stuck. Query is where you ask the question, and where you expect that — if it it gets answered — it will solve your problem. $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Mar 14, 2017 at 15:28

2 Answers 2


What is IPA

IPA is the International Phonetic Alphabet. In principle, it has letters and diacritics which enable the representation of all sounds that the human phonatory apparatus can produce when used in normal speech. It also includes symbols which enable the representation of some (but not necessarily all) sound variations, such as pitch, tone, stress or phonetic emphasis. It cannot represent the sounds made by our close cousins the chimpanzees, or by our more distant cousins the cats and the dogs, although the chimpanzees, the cats and the dogs have lungs, larynges, vocal chords, tongues, teeth, lips and noses just as we do: but theirs are different enough from ours to make different sounds. It cannot represent music. It cannot represent (or at best can only very awkwardly represent) various noises, such as the noises we make to imitate kissing or blowing wind.

How IPA is used

IPA can be used in two ways, known generally as broad and narrow transcription. (The representation of speech in IPA is called transcription and not writing because it operates at a much less abstract level.) In general, dictionaries give a broad transcription, which conflates the sounds which are allophones of the same phoneme. For example, the English phoneme /l/ has two allophones, a "light" [l] as in lent and a "dark" (velarized) [ɫ] as in fiddle, which are both shown as /l/ in most dictionaries. (Note that the broad transcription representing phonemes is usually written between slashes and the narrow transcription representing phones is written in brackets.) There is no pair of words in English which are distinguished by having a light [l] as opposed to a dark [ɫ], and this is why the two kinds of /l/ are said to be allophones, that is, they are just different realisations of the same phoneme.

An alien IPA for an alien species

How would one build a phonetic alphabet for an alien species? First of all, one must begin by understanding how the aliens species makes sounds. There are many ways to make sounds, and humans use only some of them (at least for speech). Do the aliens make speech sounds like us, by inducing vibrations in a column of air and then modifying the pure tones by various means, such as adding vocal chord vibrations, changing pitch, coloring the sound by rounding the lips or releasing the air through the nose, adding friction sounds, or stopping and releasing the air with the lips or the back of the toungue? Or do they use alien mechanisms, for example the stridulation used by the grasshoppers of Earth?

After considering the phonatory apparatus of the aliens one should decide what sounds are considered distinct by the aliens. For example, English (at least RP and General American Englishes) distinguishes the front mid vowel /ɛ/ (as in ten) from the front open vowel /æ/ (and in tan); a Romanian needs quite a lot of effort to learn to hear this distinction, because the Romanian language has only one phoneme /e/; or consider Mandarin Chinese, where there are four different phonemes which all sound like ch /tʃ/ to a European. (The four Chinese sounds are /ʈʂ/, /tɕ/, /ʈʂʰ/ and /tɕʰ/, transcribed zh, j, ch and q in Pinyin.) That is to say, just because the phonatory apparatus can make certain sounds does not mean that they are meaningfully distinct in any given language.

For an example of human yet alien-like acoustic language consider the whistled languages, which are of course impossible to transcribe using IPA, but are somewhat representable using musical notation.

Then how would we write the alien language?

When alien language is to be represented in a book one must necessarily use some sort of tranliteration or transcription scheme using Latin letters, possibly with diacritics, or with a variation in font (to remind the readers that the letters do not stand for their usual sounds), or both.

  • Chinese Pinyin is a (relatively) widely known transcription scheme, which uses Latin letters in a most un-Latin way. For example, let's say that you see quanxu; a naive English reader might naively imagine a pronounciation like /kwænksu/ whereas a savvy reader will know that it should be /tɕʰwanɕy/ (sort of like chʰwahnshü, with ah the vowel in car and ü as in German).

  • Egyptologists use a special transcription system (complete with a conventional pronounciation) to represent ancient Egyptian words -- Twt-ʕnḫ-ı͗mn, pronounced conventionally /tuːtənˈkɑːmən/ is much easier to show in print than the actual hieroglyphs. (Wikipedia says that the original pronounciation may have been something like /taˈwaːt ˈʕaːnxu ʔaˈmaːn/.)

So to write the alien language use Latin letters, in some sort of systematic way, trying to represent not the sounds of the alien speech but the meaningful distinctions and roles of those sounds. Use vowels for sounds which can be pronounced (by the aliens) continuously and can form the center of a syllable; you may use the human front-to-back order /i/-/e/-/a/-/o/-/u/ to represent some alien natural order, for example high pitch to low pitch; use continuant consonants such as f, v, s and z to represent sounds which can be pronounced continuously but are not syllable centers; l, r, m and n can be used in both roles; use stops such as p, t, k to represent momentary sounds which cannot be sustained; use h and possibly also n (and even m) to indicate some sort of variation corresponding for example to human aspiration or nazalization.


Anyone who knows what the IPA is will know about manner of articulation and places places of articulation. Places of articulation are places like the glottis or lips, while manners are how how obstructed the air is; nasal, trill, fricative, etc.

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Every place on the chart has a section of the mouth that is required to use it. Now all you need to do is remove sounds made in places your species doesn't have. For example, a species of bird people would be unable to make labial sounds (Like english /m/, /p/, /b/, /f/ or /v/) But would likely have a strong glottis, making for Radicals and Laryngeal sounds to be made easier.

Of course, for sounds people can't make, you're out of luck, but trust me, your readers aren't going to evolve a new mouth just to speak your conlang. Stick to the sounds people can make, as well as animals.

  • $\begingroup$ If you are using non-humans the empty boxes are back on the table as long as you aren't thinking of reading aloud. $\endgroup$
    – user25818
    Mar 14, 2017 at 15:47
  • $\begingroup$ @notstoreboughtdirt the empty boxes maybe, but the greyed out boxes are impossible $\endgroup$
    – TrEs-2b
    Mar 14, 2017 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ "Of course, for sounds people can't make, you're out of luck." I don't think so. Define an organ to make a sound and voila, you have new class in APA (alien phonetic alphabet) table. In any case the Alien to Human transcription and transaltion will be used. By the way, how "Hrs-Hghn" name from the Dark Side of the Sun shall be pronounced? $\endgroup$
    – Crowley
    Mar 14, 2017 at 18:59

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