Most conlang examples I find in tutorials use a small set of vowels, but the one I'm working on has 13 and I'm having trouble finding the simplest transliteration to work with. Here are the IPA symbols:

Front    | Back
[i]      | [u]  
[y]      |
[e]      | [o]
[ø]      |
[aɛ̯]     |
[œ]      |
[a]      | [ɑ]
[œ̃]      | [õ]
[ã]      |

My keyboard only allows me to type àâäùûüèêëéìîï but not œɛɑø or the diacritics used in the IPA for nasal vowels and diphthongs.

(EDIT: Note that my question really is all about the transliteration I'll be using for practical typing. Sure, I can just use fancy unicode symbols for my actual writing system in the end if I want to, but copypasting symbols isn't very practical for writing long texts.)

The language uses a (very simplified) subset of Quebec French for sound inventory, but I wanted to avoid using too many digraphs or diacritics which French relies on heavily. I know I can always come up with a custom font and writing system later on which brings in more glyphs for vowels, but I need something practical to use during conception.

I'd be interested if you have a generic answer as to what your own process is when you have a similar problem or a specific suggestion in my case.

My incomplete solution for now is this (updated to include jknappen's suggestion which I like for the German-style umlaut). I could add a macro to my text editor to allow for tildes, but I still need to figure out how I want to distinguish [œ] and [e] or [a] and [ɑ].

Front    | Back
[i]  /i/ | [u]  /u/
[y]  /ü/ |
[e]      | [o]  /o/
[ø]  /ö/ |
[aɛ̯] /ä/ |
[œ]      |
[a]  /a/ | [ɑ]
[œ̃]      | [õ]
[ã]      |
  • You can use a compose key application (e.g., WinCompose) which lets you type a symbol like ɛ with Compose key + e + h. – mic Apr 13 '19 at 2:24

One possibility is to use German-style umlauts, i.e., ü for /y/, ö for /ø/, and ä for /æ/; you can keep the symbol œ for /œ/. I'd recommend against having both ae and œ in the writing system because of confusability. The choice of tilde for nasalisation is a good one, IMO. The most problematic case are the two different kinds of a-sounds, but there are some African languages just going with a and ɑ (and there is also an uppercase letter for the ɑ in Unicode, it is named Latin Alpha). All the symbols are readily available in Unicode and should not pose insurmountable difficulties in text processing.

  • I didn't think it made sense because in French that symbol is used as a diaeresis, indicating separation between vowels that otherwise would form a digraph, but if German uses it to indicate a change in vowel sound then I guess it could work! Plus doing so with ü would solve another problem, where I can use y to represent its English equivalent. – Domino Feb 18 '19 at 18:16
  • In Swedish, å, ä and ö are separate letters - with their own single keys on a Swedish keyboard, and their own place in the alphabet. Y is also used for /y/, as a vowel, so there are nine letters for vowels (a, e, i, o, u, y, å, ä, ö). Swedish distinguishes between short and long vowels, so e.g. one letter (like ö) is used for both /øː/ (long) and /œ/ (short). – PapaFreud Feb 27 '19 at 5:29

I ended up using the following:

  Front  |          |   Back
[i]  /i/ |          | [u]  /u/
[y]  /ü/ |          |
[e]  /e/ |          | [o]  /o/
[ø]  /ë/ |          | [õ]  /õ/
[aɛ̯] /á/ |          |
[œ]  /œ/ |          |
[œ̃]  /ĩ/ |          |
         | [a]  /a/ | [ɑː] /aa/
         | [ɑ̃]  /ã/ |
  • Many vowel variants were written using something similar to the German umlaut following jknappen's recommendation.
  • ĩ, ã, õ and œ were chosen because they work in many fonts and are close to their IPA representation. I set up an AutoHotkey script to allow typing them easily.
  • I really didn't want to introduce a diacritic to represent [ɑ], so I just made that sound longer so it makes sense to represent it with /aa/. This will make it easier to tell apart too.
  • Update: After reading the beginning of Mark Rosenfelder's LCK again, his warning about the same diacritic having more than one meaning made me realize using an umlaut for the diphthong [aɛ̯] was not right, so I chose to replace that with á, which makes it much easier to remember.
  • Update: I decided to move the umlaut from ö to ë and to represent [œ̃] with ĩ. These are debatable choices, but I like how it means I now have only one possible diacritic for each glyph, except for <a> which can have either a tilde to indicate nasalization or an accent for the diphthong.
  • This looks like a pretty good orthography to me but I would have done some things differently: 1. You use the diaeresis in ü for fronting but ë for rounding (the same diacritic with 2 meanings). 2. The letter i stands for /i/ but ĩ stands for /œ̃/? 3. I would have used a digraph for a diphthong – b a May 4 '19 at 21:26
  • @ba There might be place for improvement for the diaeresis indeed, but I think you're confused about [œ] which is a single vowel and not a diphthong. See this video for an example of how they are pronounced. – Domino May 4 '19 at 21:40
  • /aɛ̯/ is the diphthong – b a May 4 '19 at 21:42
  • @ba And I'm using /á/ for that one 🙂. In Québec French we actually use ê. I chose to use a diacritic because no Québécois would think about it as being two sounds combined, but I'd understand why someone who's not familiar at all with this sound would prefer using a digraph. You're not changing my mind, but thanks for the input! – Domino May 4 '19 at 22:20

On my computer I have a custom keyboard setup that allows me to enter all sorts of combining diacritics. This allows you to make combinations that are usually not present, including multiple diacritics on the same letter. The only downside to this is that they do not render well in some fonts. I'll give some examples of what I can do with my keyboard setup.

umlaut with a: ä

circumflex with e: ê

macron over u: ū

acute and under ring with o: ó̥

caron above and below i: ǐ̬

There are a lot of options, see the wikipedia page I linked above for all of the different options. To type them you just need to press ctrl-alt with whatever you assign the key to.

  • Thanks for sharing that software, but people seem to be having trouble with it on Windows 10. Besides, it's probably less tedious to set up automatic replacements within Word or other text editors. It's what I'm thinking of doing for /œ/. – Domino Feb 19 '19 at 14:45
  • 1
    I was able to use that software on windows 10, though it is no longer strictly supported. It is hit or miss – rtpax Feb 19 '19 at 14:54
  • If anyone is wondering, I ended up using autohotkey for /œ/ and /õ/. It's very easy to set up and turn on when I want to start working on my conlang. – Domino Mar 26 '19 at 14:22

I've thought about re-purposing some letters which have vowel-like properties. For example, the letter /w/ can sometimes be arm-wrestled into a vowel-like state. Then there's /r/, which is almost like a schwa sometimes, and /n/, which sometimes sounds like... well, like a nasalized null vowel-like thing...

It's often not great, but it's okay.

I know you mentioned being constrained, but unicode has letters in other alphabets that could help. Cyrillic for example has letters that might be re-useful.

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