In 1821, a former French army officer, Charles Barbier de la Serre, took his new invention to the Royal Institution for Blind Children; he had created a means by which his fellow artillerymen could read messages at night without betraying their position by lighting a lamp or candle. The director of the Royal Institution, Dr. Guillié, was unimpressed. Fortunately, Dr. Guillié was fired a little more than a week later after a scandal involving his affair with a female teacher at the school; Andr&eacute, who replaced him, was much more interested when Barbier showed him sonography, and resolved that Barbier’s "sonography", in which sounds were represented by patterns of raised dots, would be on the curriculum for all of the school’s students, including young Louis Braille. Braille would go on to survive tuburculosis, which left his health fragile for the rest of his life and the burning of his Braille-system books by a future headmaster of the Royal Institution, P. Armand Dufau, who would later become a champion of the alphabet when he decided it was better for his career. His work survived his early death and spirited attacks from champions of other writing systems for the blind, such as New York Point, to become the worldwide standard. How many other alphabets invented in the last hundred and fifty years can you name? When Ataturk instituted language reform in Turkey, he chose a modified Latin alphabet. The Latinate alphabet used in Vietnamese, quoc ngu, is actually a seventeenth century invention. The imposition of Cyrillic on Soviet territories spread the Russian alphabet that had been official since the days of Peter the Great. In 1854, Brigham Young invented Deseret, meant to be the official alphabet of the Mormon settlers in Utah; the alphabet was abandoned by 1869. Bopomofo now exists largely as a training alphabet for learning Taiwanese. Sequoya’s Cherokee alphabet was developed around 1820.

The alternative writing page at Omniglot, the web’s finest alphabet resource, shows some other alphabets invented to replace or improve extant systems of writing, but Morse code is hardly an alphabet at all. If you aren’t a dictator capable of bending your people and their printing presses to your will, it would seem, per Klingon and Tengwar, inventing a language that will be spoken by science fiction and fantasy fans is the best way to ensure that your alphabet will spread. It’s curious that these invented alphabets tend to be alphabetic rather than logographic, but as Yingzi, a demonstration of what an English-language logographic writing system might be like, demonstrates, logography is hard (link via an old, fascinating MeFi thread on ancient alphabets).

I’ve always been fascinated by words. It’s about time I started paying attention to letters.