I'm trying to typeset fiction which uses these. I've gotten used to doing curly quotes and making emdashes proper emdashes, but I'm not sure what to do with these.

These aren't contractions, so whatever they are they're not actually apostrophes. I have half a mind that maybe the okina (the Hawaiian punctuation) should be used, though I don't think anyone's pronouncing Teal'c or Za'ha'dum with glottal stops.

Is there a semantically correct character for this?

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    Can you please include an image of what you're talking about? Aug 17 at 20:53
  • To be fair I don't think this is really a graphic design question. You probably need to ask some sci-fi fan who know what the language is or how it's supposed to be pronounced. Maybe try Conlang Stack Exchange, see if anyone knows. Might be better to include an image however.
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 18 at 1:32
  • @BillyKerr It's a typography question. My understanding was that those were fair game here, but if not I apologize. I wouldn't expect a science fiction fan to have any clue as to the correct typography for this, any more than I'd expect them to be able to tell me which quote mark was appropriate in a science fiction novel's paragraph (because it's just not a science fiction question). An image won't help, as it would just be an image of the lazy choice that some blogger used, the same way they end up using hyphens for the other dashes.
    – John O
    Aug 18 at 6:05
  • @JohnO Yeah, normal typography questions are fine, but you're asking about some alien/fictional language, also you didn't post an image either, so we can't even see what you're talking about. Any answer would just be a guess. If there's supposed to be some special use character, then go to the source/inventor/author of the language. Sorry.
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 18 at 8:38
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    @joojaa - yeah that's the SE I was trying to remember but failed, full of hobbits, elves, vulcans and clingons!!
    – Billy Kerr
    Aug 19 at 17:45

This question probably is unanswerable and might be closed, but I'll play along.

I'm not sure I ever fully understood why aliens have such an affection for adding apostrophes in their names. I don't get how I'm supposed to pronounce those names differently from if they didn't have apostrophes. But it has become a common practice in science fiction it seems.

It must be a matter of personal taste which character you use. We can't possibly make a general rule for typesetting fictional languages we know nothing about. And even within the logic of a given story it would seem a bit strange to have very strict typesetting rules when writing alien languages with our own alphabet, but that's just my opinion.

You talk about just using "curly quotes" like we normally use in contractions. I would call it a typesetter's apostrophe, but the Unicode name would be right single quotation mark (U+2019).

This is the safe choice in my opinion. It blends in unnoticeably. People who care about typography will notice you used "the right" character and people who don't won't notice anyway.

It seems the ʻokina, with the Unicode name modifier letter turned comma (U+02BB), looks very similar to the left single quotation mark (U+2018) except that it's a tiny bit smaller and positioned a little lower. (The version of Caslon which I use here don't have that character, so I just use the left single quotation mark.)

Using this might make it stand out a little bit, but my guess is that most readers probably wouldn't notice. There could be a risk that typography nerds would see this as a mistake or perhaps they would snap their fingers in acknowledgement of a tiny sophisticated detail. I don't know.

Using the real ʻokina character would look very similar and probably wouldn't be noticeable for most people not familiar with the difference. Also it seems a bit strange to me to introduce a Hawaiian character to write an alien language in English (if that's the language your story is in).

Another way of distinguishing the alien names from contracted words could be to use the regular apostrophe (U+0027) also known as typewriter apostrophe.

Again there is the risk that people who know about typography would see this as an error.

If you really need the alien names to stand out you could use some homemade symbol like these triangles (which probably resembles some existing Unicode character):

I don't really like that idea personally though. It would indicate that we humans had to invent an entirely new character to be able to write alien sounds. Would we even be able to pronounce such a hitherto unknown sound?

In the end, if you really are in doubt, you should probably ask the author if they had some special character in mind when writing the story. If they don't, you could present some alternatives for them to choose from.

  • Thanks Wolff. I'm not really sure myself, except that the Okina is almost certainly wrong. I even wonder if Unicode itself shouldn't sort this out... there is an argument to be made that it's a well-attested mark that only bears resemblance to the apostrophe and has a different (if unexplained) meaning. In the past, they've created new codepoints for such. Was sort of hoping that there was such a thing already. The IPA symbol would only make sense if one could be certain that they represented glottal stops, which isn't the case.
    – John O
    Aug 18 at 21:27
  • I'm just thinking that it's fiction. How could there be rules for something which has no well defined meaning and is introduced by the author? Wouldn't anything be "legal"?
    – Wolff
    Aug 18 at 21:40
  • Think about if you really need to attract attention to these names or just want the reader to read the story smoothly. If you do decide to use some special character, you are actually building on the fictional universe. You are showing the reader how humans have chosen to integrate alien words into their language. That might be a bit much. Like changing spelling of words like they would have changed in the fictional universe. Do I make sense?
    – Wolff
    Aug 18 at 21:40
  • You make sense, and I don't disagree. I was just hoping for an answer that made it easier... one that I could just do it and not think about it.
    – John O
    Aug 18 at 21:43
  • Then just use the standard "curly quotes" and don't put too much into it. 😁
    – Wolff
    Aug 18 at 21:55

From what I'm reading, there is no actual purpose to these particular marks in fiction which serve more as visual "seasoning". Some of these symbols do have actual purpose in real language but what they mean to alien characters is hidden in imagination. For the apostrophe, these symbols can be used -

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I've finally somehow noticed this, after searching for several weeks (and pissing off some of the moderators on another SE site).


According to this, the correct character is U+02BC ʼ MODIFIER LETTER APOSTROPHE:

It's description makes that really clear, as it specifically mentions transliteration but non-specific to any (human or presumably other) language:

[...] is preferred where the apostrophe is to represent a modifier letter (for example, in transliterations to indicate a glottal stop). In the latter case, it is also referred to as a letter apostrophe. The letter apostrophe may be used, for example, in transliterations to represent the Arabic glottal stop (hamza) or the Cyrillic "soft sign", or in some orthographies such as cʼh of Breton, where this combination is an independent trigraph. ICANN considers this the proper character for Ukrainian apostrophe within IDNs. This character is rendered identically to U+2019 in the Unicode code charts, and the standard cautions that one should never assume this code is used in any language.

(Emphasis mine.) Note that it mentions that the glottal stop is only one possible use, leaving this open to pretty much any conceivable phonemic/pronunciation.

This is in contrast to U+2019 ’ RIGHT SINGLE QUOTATION MARK:

is preferred where the character is to represent a punctuation mark, as for contractions: "we’ve", and the code is also referred to as a punctuation apostrophe. The closing single quote and the apostrophe were unified in Unicode 2.1 "to correct problems in the mapping tables from Windows and Macintosh code pages." This can make searching text more difficult as quotes and apostrophes cannot be distinguished without context.

(Emphasis mine.) This one is, of course, only truly proper for punctuation, which can be ruled out given that these names and nouns always seem to represent singular words without any indication that they are contractions (in the few extant examples of multi-word usage, such as Lovecraft's famous gobbledygook cultist chant, these are merely multiple words that are using it as a modifier letter of some type).

This late, I did not expect a definitive answer to exist, and certainly if one did exist either that I would be the one to discover it or that it could be anything other than "Unicode has no proper character for this. I've been through a bazillion blog articles describing the various differences of the apostrophe-like characters, and I must have passed this one by a dozen times reading through Unicode technical documentation.

I had gone so far as to have started a draft proposal to send in to the UTC, had it 80% complete only to stumble onto this while writing a section idiotically titled "Anticipated Objections". Ugh.

My proposal would have unceremoniously been rejected, and knowing what I know now, I don't think I could make even a bad faith argument that another character is warranted for this particular use. For the record, it was going to be UNSPECIFIED ALIEN PHONEMIC SYMBOL, in Latin Extended-F.

I'm going to let Wolff's answer remain the accepted (he answered with a well-considered and well-researched answer given in good faith, I appreciate that) and leave a comment under it directing anyone to come look at mine as well. Thanks everyone who answered/commented.

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    OK, it seems to be the Unicode character you were looking for, but do we agree that U+02BC looks 100% indistinguishable from U+2019? Nobody will ever notice the difference unless they start analyzing your text as code. Bear in mind that most graphic designers in the end mostly care about how things present themselves visually. So it didn't occur to me to look for some visually similar character with another description. 😀
    – Wolff
    Sep 2 at 17:21

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