Xenotypography 101

Studying the writing of fictional alien civilizations

If aliens exist, what fonts do they use? To be fair, I don’t really care. But, asking the question allows me to call myself a xenotypographer (a term which has satisfyingly few Google results). That’s historic. It’s courageous, really.

Seriously, though. I’ve done some work on this. First, here is a mug.

Click it to see for yourself, but that mug - and Mars - rest on the desk of Elon Musk. The red symbols are from a fictional language called Marain (not Martian) in Iain Banks’s Culture novels. I think they look cool. Elon Musk thinks they look cool. You think they look cool. We all agree. They’re cool. But I actually did something about it! Again, I’m brave.

What to do? Why not generate all possible symbols in this language? But how?

Well, the mug’s symbols all fall within a template: a plus sign and an X, all wrapped in a square (see below, left). Incidentally, The Skyward Lament, as I like to call it, can also be created from this template (see below, right).

It's amazing how many images, and how many emotions, one can conjure from this template. Take a look.

Anyway, how many possible symbols are there? Well, again, the template is a plus sign, an X, and a square. The plus sign has four line segments, the X has four, and the square has eight (two on top, two on bottom, etc.) So, that’s a total of 4 + 4 + 8 = 16 line segments. Each one can be present or absent. That’s two possibilities each. So, every character could be represented by 16 bits of information, with each bit specifying whether a particular line segment is present or absent. That leaves us with 2^16 = 65,536 possible characters. About 30% of these are either easy to confuse with each other or can't be written without lifting your pen. That leaves us with around 46,000 characters. Here are 328 of them:

They all consist of two polygons. In fact, this is an exhaustive list of all characters made up of two polygons. Here are a bunch of characters with arrows pointing to the top-right:

There are all sorts of interesting groups of characters.

But, to count as xenotypography, we’ve got to turn our attention not only to the symbols, but to the fonts! Here’s an elegant, thin-lined one:

And a bold one:

Starting only as Musk’s mug’s markings, Marain’s managed to maintain a miraculous, multi-year magnetism over my mind, and I’ve only shown you the half of it here.