I am currently working with Salvadoran Nawat, an endangered language that has never had a standardized orthography due to being primarily oral. As part of the revitalization process, we need to standardize an orthography for this language. However, we are not sure if we should represent phonemes or phones in the orthography. For instance, in cases where two consecutive /k/ phonemes occur as in /kk/, the pronunciation in Nawat actually entails aspiration of the first k, resulting in [hk]. Consequently, a word like /nutsakka/ is articulated as [nutsahka], should we write it as nutzakka or nutzahka? Similarly, when /n/ precedes /p/, as in /senpa/, the articulation in Nawat is [sempa]. Should we write senpa or sempa in such instances?

In the context of revitalizing endangered languages that have primarily been oral, should orthographies represent phonemes or phones? How do we address the issue of phonemic vs. phonetic orthographical representation in cases where there are differences in pronunciation such as the example of /kk/ becoming [hk] in Salvadoran Nawat?

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    My answer would normally be "it depends, you need to provide more detail", but you've laid out your use case pretty well. The short answer is that writing phonemes is more useful to native speakers and writing phones is more useful to outsiders, but I'll try to write up a more comprehensive explanation tomorrow.
    – Draconis
    Mar 27, 2023 at 4:55
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    @YellowSky but native speakers tend not to hear distinct allophones, instead hearing a unified phoneme. If writing the way one hears is the most natural way, the question is whose hearing should we write according to
    – Tristan
    Mar 27, 2023 at 8:46
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    @YellowSky Are those actually the same phonemes, though, and not just the same morphophonemes? Anything termed ‘word-final’ anything, at least, must by definition involve morphemes, not just phonemes. Native English speakers, including children, will virtually always hear the /l/ in plaque and black or the /e/ in bed and bet as the same sound, not as separate sounds. Similarly, (adult) Spanish speakers will swear up and down that the two <d>’s in un dedo are pronounced the same, despite them being acoustically quite obviously distinct. Mar 27, 2023 at 13:19
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    @YellowSky children are still forming their model of the language's phonology so aren't a good indication of how adult native speakers perceive things (completely illiterate adults would be ideal informants, as they'd have less interference from spelling, but in standard languages there aren't many of those without other complicating factors)
    – Tristan
    Mar 27, 2023 at 13:32
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    @YellowSky Regardless, English-speakers generally cannot hear the difference between the l's in lick & kill or the t's in stop & top (and certainly don't hear the t in store as the same as the d in door, despite them being phonetically identical in most varieties)
    – Tristan
    Mar 27, 2023 at 13:32

6 Answers 6


Consult the speech community.

The orthography must fit the needs of the speech community, they are the primary users of it. When the speech community wants a phonetic representation (helping essentially L2 learners), do it. When the speech community prefers a phonemic representation (benefitting L1 speakers and imposing additional effort on L2 speakers), do that.

It is the speech community that has the final vote on a practical orthography.


It does not per se matter whether you write using narrow vs broad transcriptions. The following desiderata should guide your choices. Number 1 is, do speakers like your choice over the alternative. That alone is very difficult to decide factually. In aid of figuring out what possibilities people will like, the primary considerations are ease of use, and representational adequacy (not creating massive ambiguity). To the extent that there are phonological alternations in the language, a more-phonetic spelling means that it becomes harder for a user to say what the root for "tamale" is in the language. Ideally, each morpheme has a single invariant spelling. However, if the language has a very active phonology where affixation produces substantial alternations, and when the underlying form can't be easily discerned from the citation form, it may be necessary to introduce orthographic alternations which parallel the phonological alternations.

Let's assume this dialects has autonomous /ŋ/ in <tenhat> ([ŋ]) 'river bank'. An adequate spelling system would have some means of indicating this. This means that /ŋ/ is a phoneme, and in a purely phonemic writing system you would therefore write teŋkal as <tenhkal>, but I expect that speakers will think that this clutters the writing system, in being unnecessarily faithful to pronunciation. The general principle is that if there is a simple rule that predicts the pronunciation from spelling, you should exploit that rule.

Another consideration is whether the phonemic value of some sound is highly obvious to anyone with minimal education. You claim that there is /kk/ but it is pronounced [hk] – what is your argument that it is indeed /kk/ and not /hk/? Alternations might make it obvious, e.g. /tek-ka/ → [tehka] but /tek-ta/ → [tekta]. An argument like "we don't have to have underlying geminates" is not a very useful argument, even professional linguists recognize that that is not strong motivation for positing a divergence from pronunciation in underlying forms (a concept that is close to useless to a person learning how to spell).


The answer of user6726 raises some very good points, but really the correct answer is that you should get in touch with someone (ideally more than one person) who has faced this problem before, instead of philosophizing ex nihilo about what might be the better choice.

You are facing an unusual and highly non-trivial task that relatively few people have done before and that your experience has probably not prepared you for. (Presumably you wouldn't be asking here if you've already done this before.) Do you want to repeat the mistakes that people made in the past when devising new orthographic systems, or do you want to learn from their experience? Note that if you make a mistake, it can be quite hard to fix (example).

If you were planning an Arctic expedition, would you philosophize about the merits and demerits of one might possibly want to take with them or which means of transportation to choose with strangers on the internet (no matter how knowledgeable), or would you ask someone who has actually been on an Arctic expedition on their own?

Let me also add that the idea that "the speech community" will make decision for you may very well be false hope (unless the speech community happens to have a strong opinion on every design choice that you face). Consult them, for sure, but they have never face this task before any more than you have. "The speech community" is not an oracle for you to consult and abide by its declarations, it's a sounding board that might agree or disagree with certain points but will presumably also be open to persuasion. Of course you cannot force your preferences on them, but it's not your role an an expert to blindly follow whatever the speech community tells you.

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    Oh my, where would one find people who’d had experience of dealing with newly invented orthographies for natural languages I wonder? Mar 28, 2023 at 13:34
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    It’s not the designers you need to speak to it’s the users who are left to live with the system long after the designers have disappeared. And it is eminently sensible to ask speakers what they think a particular sound in a word is or represents. It makes no difference whatsoever if they’ve ever designed an orthographic system for a natural language before. Why should it? Mar 28, 2023 at 13:39
  • @Araucaria-him Interaction through Linguistics SE based on an isolated example of a single word (with people who, by the looks of it, for the most part have not, contrary to your insinuation, had a hand in designing any orthographic system) is hardly a substitute for an in-depth conversation with someone with hands-on experience. Secondly, you should of course speak to designers who kept in touch with the speech community. I imagine that if a designer is involved enough with the speech community to come up with an orthography, then they perhaps in seeing how it actually works in practice.
    – Pilcrow
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:23
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    @Araucaria-him "And it is eminently sensible to ask speakers what they think a particular sound in a word is or represents." Yes, of course it is. But it seems bizarre to deny that people who have hands-on experience with designing orthographic systems can share useful experience that ordinary speakers cannot. And if you're not doing that, then I don't know what point you are trying to make here.
    – Pilcrow
    Mar 28, 2023 at 19:24
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    They don't need to have had experience of designing the systems; they need to be familiar with the main issues in graphisation or have had experience of other natural languages which have had orthographies put together. Some members here may have some knowledge of several different recently invented orthographies (and their consequences). This is amply sufficient for professional linguists(to be able to have views on the subject and to offer advice, especially if their area of expertise includes endangered languages, for instance, and in many other cases too. Mar 29, 2023 at 9:40

I'm a conlanger, rather than a professional linguist, but I use a unique letter for each phoneme, but whenever that sound occurs, even as an allophone, it is written that way.

In other words, if /m/ is a phoneme as well as an allophone of /n/ before labial consonants, [sempa] should be written sempa, but if /m/ is not an independent phoneme, senpa makes more sense.

Of course, this is also a matter of personal preference. But a more phonemic writing system would be easier for the native speakers to acquire, and therefore more useful for the revitalization.

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    That's the normal phonemic orthographic principle. As Pike subtitled his book Phonemics: A technique for reducing languages to writing. University of Michigan Publications Linguistics 3. Ann Arbor. 1947. And the reduction was to alphabetic writing, by phoneme.
    – jlawler
    Mar 27, 2023 at 15:10

I'm not convinced that an accurate phonetic transcription would help L2 learners (let alone L1 ones). Co-articulation is both universal and not really consciously perceived (see also above comment by Tristan). Most of the time, when isolating bits of perfectly normal speech, you are surprised to hear how much centered the vowels are compared to their targets, or how sloppy the realization of a stop consonant is. So my hunch would be to stick to phonemes and forget the phones, that are very context-dependent.

Anyway, what you're doing is not there to stay indefinitely, spelling (and language) will evolve after you. Thompson finally got a 'p' because it can be (illusorily) heard in the realization of Thomson. In this case the perceived phone imposed its presence in a language whose spelling is not phonetic... (but this only happened because the meaning "son of Thom" was progressively lost).


Also, in addition the phonetics, I suggest the principle to keep the orthography consistent with the grammar.

As instance, in German (the language reform of 1998 simplified the grammar), Schifffahrt has 3 "f" because it is compound of Schiff+fahrt, while the old word Schiffahrt had to loose one "f" [for typographical reasons, as suggested in a comment below].

The same principle of simplification is for the usage of ss or ß:

  • New rule: Use ss, if it is preceded by a short vowel, use ß otherwise.
  • Old rule: Use ss, if it is preceded by a short vowel and the second s starts a new syllable, use ß otherwise [as suggested in a comment below].
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    Old German orthography used double consonants where triple ones are expected mainly for typographical reasons, not for phonetical ones. Mar 29, 2023 at 8:58
  • Thank you, I learnt something.
    – blue_lama
    Mar 29, 2023 at 14:31
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    New rule: Use "ss", if it is preceded by a short vowel, use "ß" otherwise. Old rule: Use "ss", if it is preceded by a short vowel and the second "s" starts a new syllable, use "ß" otherwise.
    – Uwe
    Apr 4, 2023 at 13:56

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