Univerſall Alphabet
of Thomas Harriot

Ian James
© June 2012

the words 'universal alphabet'

In 1585, English scientist Thomas Harriot devised “an universall Alphabet conteyninge six & thirty letters”, with which to record the Carolina Algonquian language. It was in essence a sophisticated phonetic script which, as it turns out, anticipates my own attempts quite closely. Indeed, the glyph structure is very much along the lines of scripts in my Phonological Cypher series. Harriot’s script is fully cursive.


The vowels have no ascenders or tails, and were designed in pairs. Two other letters not shown here (similar to the last pair, but more angular) were noted as being used “in barbarouss wordes only” but were not given any explicit values in Harriot’s paper.

Harriot vowels


The consonants were arranged into four phonemic sets. Some vowel shapes are used as bases. First are the semivowels and sibilants, with a looped descender. Next are the nasals and fricatives, with a looped ascender, in order of their place of articulation. Third is the glottal fricative /h/, by itself.

Harriot consonants

Last is the set of plosives, with both looped ascender and descender. There is a featural relationship between some plosives and their fricatives.

Harriot consonants


This is from Harriot’s own example, using a regularized font.

Lord's prayer in Harriot' script
Our father which art in heav’n :
hallow’d be thy name : thy kingdom come

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Thomas Harriot portrait - source unknown


All material on this page © Ian James, unless otherwise stated.
Last modified Jun.30,2012