Imagine a people group with a strong oral culture is waiting for the Bible in their language, and Wycliffe has offered to partner with them.

As this people group wants written Bibles they can touch and hold, and to learn to read, the first step is to design a user-friendly writing system.

This writing system, or orthography, needs to represent the language well, and the people group need to be happy with it. This is not necessarily easy, as these two goals may be in opposition on certain points.

People often have strong feelings about how their language should look on paper, and holding too tightly to linguistic principles at the expense of a people group’s wishes can, in the worst case scenario, mean the people group don’t feel ownership of the written form of the language, and the Bible translation ends up not being used.

Sometimes, writing systems are deliberately made more complicated at the request of the people group themselves to differentiate the language from that of neighbouring people groups, for instance. This will make it slightly harder to learn to read (readers have to learn two different representations of the same sound rather than just one), but win the all-important approval of the people group.

So, bearing that in mind, how do you actually design an alphabet from scratch?

Linguists meet with mother-tongue speakers and, usually communicating through a third language, work through a list of 5000-10,000 words covering a wide range of topics. The goal is to gather as much written and audio data as possible.

The linguist spends time figuring out how many sounds the language has, how they work together and how many symbols will be needed to write the language. At this point the linguist can produce an alphabet chart, suggesting how to represent each sound in writing and present it to mother-tongue speakers. For many minority language speakers, an alphabet chart is their first visual encounter with their language, and the first step, in their minds, towards having a Bible they understand.