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Tsheg a Tibetan-style typeface

Updated on July 30, 2012

Tibetan scripts meet North-Indian and Roman letters

Tibetan scripts are quite popular because they look fairly alien but are particularly stylistic - the Uchan style has a distinct downward slope to it. This is about the Tsheg font - an example of which you can see here - and how you can read it and thus, make up your own images for the web or tee-shirts (or anything else for that matter), for free.

Tsheg - pronounced 'Cheg' - takes either English - Latin - text or it takes Punjabi - Gurmukhi - text and lets you play around with it in a beautifully artistic way - a design font that not only lets you make nice patterns but patterns that can be read once you know the rules (they are not that hard to learn as I will show you).

Tsheg (Cheg) font display example
Tsheg (Cheg) font display example

The Abugida - an alternative writing system

Rethinking how we write, one syllable at at time

We are all used to reading Roman/Latin text where the letters in a word can have one of many different sounds - we just learn the way it sounds so, if you have never seen the word 'alibi' written down before, there is little in the way of clues as to how it sounds. Another such word is panorama which has three 'a's in it and they all sound different.

There are phonetic ways of writing language down that use the Roman/Latin alphabet but they tend to use: diacritical marks to extend the variety of vowel sounds; variants of normal letters such as putting a slash through like Scandinavian 'O's or eastern European letters, extra dots or special letter combinations such as in Welsh, German or Bosnian, for example. However, in each of the above cases, letters spill over into adjacent syllables and things aren't always that clear.

So, here is another way of writing things down - looked at with a different perspective - the 'abugida' or 'alphasyllabary'

In this case, words are broken down into syllables which are written as blocks - usually consisting of one or two letters - and if appropriate, a vowel sound is drawn if it is not the default 'a'.

If there is more than one consonant sound, it modifies the way that the syllable block is drawn but in each case, the letters are said in order and then the vowel sound is added. In the example, you can see, written in blue, the word 'display'. In Tibetan Uchan and the Tsheg font, the spaces between letters are occupied by a dot called a Tsheg.

There are clearly two syllables in this word - 'di' and 'splay'. Firstly, 'di' is written with a 'd' that looks like the '3' with the loop at the bottom of it and the 'i' vowel sound - not being the default 'a' (as the in the last 'a' in 'panorama') - which is written like an 'f' and is written in front of the letter 'd'.

Next, we have 'splay'. The consonant that is of most interest is the 'p' because it blocks the air flow through your mouth. Most syllables only have one of these but can have other letters that don't block the air flow added before or after.

non-blocking consonants
non-blocking consonants

These non-blocking letters fall into several groups which are very logical - it is just that having put up with abcdefghij... for all of these years without question, we have never stopped to think if there could be a better approach.

On the right, you can see the letters with the regular Gurmukhi forms, along with the Tsheg font's version and then for comparison, you can see the Tibetan Uchan and Devanagari versions as well - making interesting viewing as you can see how some of the Tibetan letters are similar to the Gurmukhi and some to the Devanagari. So...

First of all, think of your mouth open, with your tongue resting on the bottom of your mouth and you just breath out, adding a bit of vocal cord activity, just to make it complete. We have the letter 'h'. Next, put the tip of your tongue against the tips of your teeth and produce a sound in the same way - now we have a 's'. Next, make the point at which your tongue is closest to the roof of your mouth, a bit further back, repeat the sound making process and we have a 'sh'. You can extend this even further back to get the type of 'sh' the actor Sean Connery is famous for and you get another letter - that letter is used in Hindi but not in Punjabi or English.

Now, curve your tongue up so that the 'valley-fold' runs from side to side and you get the sound of a letter 'r'. If instead, you make the reverse of the 'valley-fold' (a sort of 'ridge-fold') along your tongue - from front to back- you get a letter 'l'.

Finally, if we look at the sounds that vowels make, if we go smoothly from 'ee' to 'a' (as in the last 'a' of 'panorama' again) we get a 'ya' - the sound of the letter 'y'. If instead, we go from the other end of the vowel spectrum and produce a sound that starts from 'oo' and goes to 'a', we get 'wa' - the sound of the letter 'w'.

None of these letters completely block the flow of air, they just modify it and as such, you can have a number of them making up a syllable. In the case of 'splay' we use 's' then our blocking 'p' and then 'l' followed by our vowel sound which is represented in written English as 'ay'.

Blocking Consonants - A logical way of forming an alphabet

Oorda Aerda Punjabi Gurmukhi alphabet
Oorda Aerda Punjabi Gurmukhi alphabet

In Punjabi, there are five basic mouth positions although in English, only four of these are used. We have already covered the concept of categorising sounds according to tongue position so it is time to apply that to regular consonants.

The five unvoiced blocking consonants (or 'unvoiced plosives') are: 'K'; 'Ch'; 'T' (retroflex); 't' (dental); and, 'P'.

By 'retroflex', it is meant that your tongue is positioned so that the tip of the tongue touches the roof of the mouth, well behind the tooth ridge, around halfway between that and where your soft palette meets your hard palette. By 'dental' it is meant that the tip of your tongue touches the ends of your teeth.

To each of these positions, we can apply a standard 'modification' that produces more consonants.

Modivications to plosive consonants
Modivications to plosive consonants

Modifications to Plosives

A logical look at how one mouth shape can give rise to a number of letters

The first line has the mouth shape that produces the letter 'k'. 'k' is also related to 'g' and 'kh' and in the diagram on the right, you can see how.

You might not have tried this out for yourself - I hadn't until I decided to start learning this. If you think about what you are doing with your tongue in terms of blocking air flow and your vocal cords in terms of when they vibrate, say the letter 'g'. You can say it at normal speed or slow it down, whatever you like to find out what is going on.

Usually, you will find that when you say a 'g', your vocal chords will keep on working throughout the process. Only if you prolong the blocked phase of the process will you run out of space in your mouth to accommodate the air required to keep the voice going. On the whole, you will find that when saying the work 'baggage', even though you block the air flow, you will continue to make a noise with your vocal chords. This actually isn't necessary because all that is required is that you make a sound up until the moment when you block the air flow (a). Whether or not you stop producing noise with our vocal chords when you block the air flow, the moment that you start the air flow again (b), your vocal chord are producing sound. This corresponds to the column in the diagram above that has in it 'g', 'j', 'd' and 'b'.

When you produce an unvoiced consonant such as 'k', your vocal chords switch off as you block the air flow (a) and then there is a gap between when air flow starts (b) and when your vocal chords start again (c). If you say the word 'package' repeatedly and gradually slow it down, you can make this out. If you experiment by starting the vocal chords as soon as you start the air flow, you find that you are saying 'paggage'.

Aspirated plosives are not normally a part of English and tend to exist only in 'loan-words' (such as 'akhbar' and 'khush') or joined word pairs (such as backhand). Sticking with English for the purpose of demonstration, try saying 'backhand' in the same way that you did with package above. You will find that like the 'k' example above, the 'kh' example has a longer gap - we are still talking of times in the order of a quarter of a second although this depends on who is speaking and how fast.

In effect the 'kh' is a conjunct of 'k' and 'h' which is a thought to have in the back of your mind...

Nasalisations

At the end of each mouth-shape line in the diagram above, there is a nasalisation. Without sounding to obvious, you get this sound explicitly when you block off the air flow through your mouth and let the vocalised sound pass through your nose. This is most obvious in the case of the 'P' shape, where you form the letter 'm'.

However, the other nasalisation letter in Roman/Latin is the netter 'n' and that is a very limited way of writing things down.

Think of whereabouts in your mouth the point of contact is between your tongue and the roof of your mouth when you say the word 'int' (as in 'integer', or, if you like, the word, 'hint'). This version of the letter 'n' is the one on the third line of the diagram on the right. Most people think that that is the end of the story - and why should they think any differently to that? In fact, in Gurmukhi, you might notice that in the 'implicit' column, the 'n' is represented by a small 'n'-like figure above the line and that is what is normally used, also noting that it is the same in the case of the implicit 'm' as well. In the explicit column, I have written out the nasalisation letter with a special little symbol that denotes that the letter is joined to the next one without a vowel sound, so that you can see which letter it corresponds to. In the column on the right is the Devanagari letter where they can be (and often are) written explicitly, just as a comparison.

Now, say the word 'inch' and again, notice where your tongue touches the roof of your mouth. It is in a different place - this time corresponding to the second line of the diagram.

Lastly, say 'ink' and again, you will find that the tongue touches the roof of your mouth in another place. That is three 'n's covered explicitly in the Abugidas but covered by just one letter 'n' in the Roman/Latin alphabet - whether you consider this efficient or slapdash is a matter of opinion that I am not going to try to influence.

Geminates and Other Conjuncts

Putting Plosives Together

We have already seen how we can look at blocking consonants and how vocal chords can be used to define each letter.

In the example on the right, we can see 'bugging' and 'backing' which have normal-length consonants. However, in a similar way to how we saw 'kh' make for a longer consonant - certainly in terms of how long the gap was between the vocal chords stopping at (a) and starting again at 'd' - other plosives can be used to extend the length of the consonant - or, as we call it, a 'conjunct. In fact, it can even be the same consonant.

With 'sackcloth' you can hear how the 'k' sound lasts twice as long as a normal 'k' as it did with 'backing'. This is a geminate and is a particular type of conjunct (two consonants stuck together without a vowel placed in between them). Just as a point of interest, if you have a geminate with an aspirated letter, say, 'kh', then, for the reason that the aspiration comes from the latter part of the consonant, the first part of a geminated 'kh' is a 'k' so instead of 'kh-kh', you end up with a 'k-kh'.

In the other examples on the right, you can see what happens with conjuncts that have variously vocalised and non-vocalised first and second consonants - again, say them increasingly slowly to observe what is going on.

Finally, we have an example of what happens when you have two blocking consonants with a non-vocalised consonant in between. In this cases 'angsts' is quite interesting to listen to.

Removing Redundancy - Pruning out unneeded consonants

Missing consonants from Gurmukhi and other Indic scripts
Missing consonants from Gurmukhi and other Indic scripts

One thing that you might have noticed is that not all of the letters of the alphabet are mentioned. Firstly,'c' is completely redundant as its job is done perfectly adequately and unambiguously by the letters 's' and 'k'. Next, 'q' is not there, being replaced by 'k' and if you want 'qu' you use 'kw'. 'ph' replaces 'f' and whilst most people will not know that there is a difference between the two (IUPAC - International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry - with their curious decision to make the international spelling of 'sulphur' into 'sulfur'), there is and shame on IUPAC for being ignorant.

In short, as you can tell from our consonant listing 'ph' is produced by bringing together your two lips whereas 'f' forms by bringing your bottom lip up against your teeth. 'X' is also missing because when it is within a word, it sounds like 'ks' and when it is at the beginning of a word, in English it sounds like a 'z'.

One useful letter that is missing is a 'z' however, although this is replaced by a dotted 'j' - this is logical and when you get used to it, it is not a problem.

Another anomaly is that there is no differentiation between 'v' and 'w' so I'll leave it to your imagination what the word 'vowel' would sound like. Mount Everest was named after Colonel Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India (named by his successor although the locals called it 'Chomolungma'. Everest opposed the use of his name because it could not be written in the local scripts which would equally call it 'Ewerest'. David Beckham has a tattoo on his arm with this wife's name (Victoria) written in Devanagari and with that, the problem has been addressed (sort of) by making use of a conjunct that makes it 'Whictoria' which is close.

Vowels

Dependent and independent vowels
Dependent and independent vowels

Above is a table showing how vowel sounds are attached to the consonants (and also consonant clusters or conjuncts) in a variety of abugidas. They are written as they would appear on their own or at the beginning of a word; and, as they would be written if they were the vowel sound for the letter 'k'. You can compare how they appear in these scripts and see what they have in common. Note that each writing system has its own set of 'carriers' for the independent vowels - Gurmukhi using three and Uchan using just one.

The conjuncts build themselves up either horizontally or vertically - or both - and have a beginning and an end in the text. The vowel symbols are added, only one per consonant cluster, to the top, bottom, right or left. When the vowel symbol is added to the left, it is still pronounced after the consonant cluster.

Notice that whilst the Tsheg font has the style of Uchan, it has the same structure as Gurmukhi and is therefore legible to Gurmukhi readers.

When One Vowel Just Won't Do - Words starting with vowels and complex vowels

Vowel pitch in some words
Vowel pitch in some words

The default vowel sound that follows a consonant is the neutral 'a' - the last 'a' in 'panorama'. There are other vowel sounds in this writing system and they are roughly equivalent to:

'ee', 'i', 'ai', 'ae' 'a', 'ah' 'oh', 'au', 'u' and 'oo' as in (respectively) 'sEEn', 'sIt', 'sAne', 'AIr' (or 'AEro' in English) 'panoramA' 'pArt'', 'sOAp', 'All', 'pUt' and 'hOOp'.

Sometimes, a word needs to start with a vowel and, in the same way that we put consonants together in clusters (and call them conjuncts), there are times when we need to have more than one vowel sound. When the symbol for a vowel is joined to a consonant, it is called a 'dependent vowel' - it depends upon the consonant. When it can sit on its own, it is called an 'independent vowel'.

We have already seen how a 'w' and a 'y' can be used to make a vowel sound start at either the 'oo' end or the 'ee' end and lead to somewhere in the middle (depending upon the added vowel sound if any) but sometimes, we need to start somewhere else and we can do this by using additional vowels.

You can see in the illustration above an explicit spelling and a shortened spelling - Hindi tends to use a lot of 'y's and 'w's whereas Punjabi tends to use the explicit vowels more. Neither are incorrect.

When English Spelling Goes Mad - Problem words and thinking your way out of them

Complex Spelling in Gurmukhi
Complex Spelling in Gurmukhi

English spelling is far from phonetic but there are instances where people fall over when trying to make a word work:

Attached is pronounced 'A-ta-ch.sh.t' We have a conjunct that has 'chsht' so it starts and finishes with plosives with an unvocalised section in the middle. You might actually have noticed in this instance that the 'sh' part of it is in effect the aspirated form of 'ch' which is often written down as 'chh' so we have a geminated aspirated 'ch' or 'ch.chh';

Sixth likewise has 'k.s.th' in it; and,

Thousandth has 'n.d.th' at the end. Many people, including newsreaders, stumble over these but all it takes is for them to think out the word, consonant by consonant.

Note, in the image above that when a conjunct has as it's last letter a 'r', 'l', 'w' or 'y', the shape of that letter changes to one that is quicker to write - these are the only 'subjoined' letters there are - there are no other conjuncts in Punjabi - and they are formed like this to make it easier to write.

letters of alphabet in Tsheg font
letters of alphabet in Tsheg font

Ooh! and there's Latin/Roman text as well

Give your artwork the 'Tibetan look' the easy way

Just in case you were thinking that you couldn't make artwork that the ordinary person in the street could read (unless they could read Punjabi, of course), there is a full set of Latin/Roman characters in the font - in fact there are two, in two fonts. One of the fonts has just the Latin text only.

One is easier to read than the other but they are both Indian- Tibetan-style for you to create texts of names and so on.

Letters of the Latin alphabet in Tsheg font
Letters of the Latin alphabet in Tsheg font
Thseg tee-shirt
Thseg tee-shirt

Putting it all together

tee shirts, temporary tattoos and so on

Once you have played around with the fonts and learned how to make the text - it is a lot easier if you are doing it rather than just reading about it - you can add extra marks such as the first paragraph marker, the double lines for fullstops and so on.

Simply learning how to read and write Gurmukhi will expand your thinking because it will get you to look more closely at they way you do things and see them in a different light.

All of the resources on the Billie the Cat website are free to download although you can buy ready-made flashcards, tee-shirts and mugs if you want to. I don't make any money from the site itself other than the clicks people do on the advertising.

Thank you for reading this far and now it is time for you to go off and have some fun, creating artwork and making things.

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      GentlemenGogoVEVO 4 years ago

      nice job and i like India

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      apbrar 4 years ago

      it is really great to see comparison between different scripts and looks interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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