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This Designer Thinks Spanish Should Be Simpler To Type

“Nueva Qwerty” from Studio José de la O compresses the Spanish alphabet down to just 19 letters.

This Designer Thinks Spanish Should Be Simpler To Type
[Photo: courtesy José de la O]

Fun fact of the day: Did you know that there’s a 300-year-old government committee in charge of adding and subtracting letters from the Spanish language? La Real Academia Española (Royal Spanish Academy) has been around since 1713, and deleted two letters (“ch” and “ll”) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010. But if you ask designer José de la O, they didn’t go far enough. He’s created a “speculative alphabet” called Nueva Qwerty that compresses Spanish from 27 letters down to just 19. Here’s what it looks like:

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[Image: courtesy José de la O]

De la O invented five new glyphs to combine 12 letters that are difficult to distinguish in spoken Spanish and lead, in his words, to unnecessarily “confusing, complicated and unpractical [sic] . . . orthographic rules.”  Take, for instance, the difference between B and V, both representing the phoneme “/b/” (which sounds like, well, halfway between a B and a V). “Some scholars argue that the labiodental sound is practically the same, just variating in regional accents or dialects, but not in its meaning,” de la O tells Co.Design. “If you say: “Vaca” (Spanish for cow) and “Baca,” its meaning permeates.” He figured, why not conjoin the two letters into one:

[Image: courtesy José de la O]

De la O isn’t the first person to wish that words could just look how they sound: in 1848, A Plea for Phonetic Spelling, or: The Necessity of Orthographic Reform made the same argument for English, and even introduced new letters. Of course, they didn’t catch on—English doesn’t have a governing body that can legislate these matters by fiat like Spanish does. And De la O isn’t exactly expecting Nueva Qwerty to catch the eye of the Royal Spanish Academy. “It’s a critical piece,” he says—like design fiction in typographic form. “We want to start a conversation, provoke, and have fun annoying orthographic intellectuals. “If the Royal Spanish Academy all of a sudden decided to use our alphabet, a lot of people will be very, very annoyed.” He’s referring to the tempest in a teapot that the Academy’s 2010 decree caused among Spanish writers, journalists, and academics (one of whom called the deletion of “ch” and “ll” a “magic realist moment” meant to sell new dictionary copies). If just losing two letters ruffled people’s feathers, imagine needing whole new keyboards:

[Photo: courtesy José de la O]
De la O does try to have it both ways, though. He claims that this simplified alphabet would make it easier for dyslexic people to read and write in Spanish, but didn’t perform any research on the subject. (Probably for the best: typographer Charles Bigelow already surveyed the literature on fonts supposedly designed to ease dyslexic difficulty, and found that word and line spacing may make a difference but that the fine details of individual letterforms don’t.)

But as speculation about the morphability of language, Nueva Qwerty is still a fascinating exercise. De la O says that written Spanish, with its ambiguous spelling of phonemes and fussy diacritical marks (like accents and tildes), discriminates against indigenous people in Latin America who speak Spanish as a second language. “This person will write Spanish phonetically rather than grammatically correct, but Spanish speakers would think of people with these orthographic errors as ‘ignorant’ or ‘dumb,'” he adds. With an alphabet that prioritizes (or forces?) phonetic spelling, “maybe this discrimination could be minimized.”  At the very least, typing on your phone in Spanish in this alternate universe would be easier on the thumbs:

[Photo: courtesy José de la O]

If you’d like to noodle around with Nueva Qwerty yourself, de la O has created two free typefaces, which you can download here.

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.

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