LINGUIST List 11.2746

Mon Dec 18 2000

Review: Sproat: A Computational Theory of Writing Sys.

Editor for this issue: Andrew Carnie <>

What follows is another discussion note contributed to our Book Discussion Forum. We expect these discussions to be informal and interactive; and the author of the book discussed is cordially invited to join in. If you are interested in leading a book discussion, look for books announced on LINGUIST as "available for discussion." (This means that the publisher has sent us a review copy.) Then contact Andrew Carnie at


  1. "Nikolai A. Dobronravin, St.Petersburg State University", Sproat15/12/2000

Message 1: Sproat15/12/2000

Date: Sproat15/12/2000
From: "Nikolai A. Dobronravin, St.Petersburg State University" <"Nikolai>
Subject: Sproat15/12/2000

Richard Sproat (2000) A Computational Theory of Writing Systems
(Studies in Natural Language Processing) Cambridge University Press,
xviii, 236 pp. ISBN 0-521-66340-7

Reviewed by: Nikolai Dobronravin, St.Petersburg State
University, St.Petersburg, Russia.

This book offers a formal computational theory of writing
systems. The author's interest in the subject is connected to
his work on text-to-speech synthesis systems. Only a few
writing systems are discussed in detail, as "this book is not
intended as an introduction to the topic of writing systems"
(p. xvii).

Chapter 1, "Reading Devices", presents a brief description of
text-to-speech synthesis systems. The model and conventions to
be used in the book are also discussed, as well as some general
terms such as "grapheme", "script", "writing system", and
"orthography". The author sees a writing system as "a script
used to represent a particular language" (p. 24) and uses the
terms "writing system" and "orthography" interchangeably,
"though properly an orthography is really merely one type of
writing system" (p.25). An example from Russian, the problem of
pronouncing a particular letter string transcribed as <goroda>,
is looked upon as a starting-point for a further discussion of
the relationship between written and "linguistic" forms. The
appendix to Chapter 1 gives a brief overview of finite-state
automata and transducers.

Chapter 2, "Regularity", looks at one of the hypotheses
introduced in the first chapter of the book. The author sees
the mapping from the ORL (Orthographically Relevant Level) to
spelling as a regular relation. The applicability of the
formalism used in the book to various scripts and orthographies
is then demonstrated. The chapter also involves a discussion of
the hieroglyphic writing system of Ancient Egyptian where it
seems problematic for regularity.

Chapter 3, "ORL Depth and Consistency", will be of great
interest to the linguists familiar with Slavic languages. In
this chapter the hypothesis of Consistency is discussed. As
already suggested in the first chapter, "the ORL for a given
writing system (as used for a particular language) represents a
consistent level of linguistic representation" (p. 16). It is
demonstrated that the orthographies of Russian and Belarusian
differ in the depth of the ORL. Strangely enough, any previous
work on both orthographies is lacking, except for a recent
article by Jan Maksymiuk (1999). The author then moves to
examine the depth or "shallowness" of the modern (American)
English and Serbo-Croatian orthographies. The chapter includes
many interesting observations, though some of them (e.g.,
concerning the borrowing of orthographic conventions), would
certainly deserve discussion in more detail.

Chapter 4, "Linguistic Elements", looks at the questions of the
linguistic elements that are or can be represented by written
symbols in various writing systems. This chapter includes a
review of some taxonomies of writing systems. These tend to be
arboreal, while the author suggests a two-dimensional taxonomy
based on the type of phonography and the degree of logography
of any single system. The chapter gives an overview of Chinese
and Japanese writing systems, followed by a brief description
of an orthographic plural marker (the Syriac "syame"),
reduplication markers and cancellation signs in a number of
writing systems.

In Chapter 5, "Psycholinguistic Evidence", the author finds
support for his computational model of writing systems in
psycholinguistic literature dealing with the problems of

Chapter 6, "Further Issues", covers almost everything that
could be thought of in a theory of writing systems. This
chapter addresses the adaptation of writing systems (mainly the
case of Manx Gaelic), spelling reforms such as the 1995 reform
of the Dutch orthography, written numerals and abbreviations
and non-Bloomfieldian views on writing and written language.
The postscript presents coherent, though brief arguments for a
formal theory of writing systems needed in general linguistics
and speech technology alike.

The book will be of great interest to the linguists because of
its general approach, claimed not to stem from any single
writing system. In fact, the treatment of different
orthographies is not (and could not) be equal. While the
analysis of English, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Belarusian
orthographies is lengthy and detailed, many writing systems are
hardly mentioned in the book.

It is also worth mention that the 20th century saw a tremendous
rise in language planning and script/orthography reforms almost
everywhere in the world. As a result, most orthographies now in
use have been subjected to one or a series of reforms where
both linguists and politicians were eager to participate. The
linguists had to develop a certain theoretical framework for
these reforms. E.g., most new orthographies developed in the
1920s and the 193os in the former Soviet Union (including that
of Belarusian, especially before the 1933 orthographic reform)
were based on the so called "phonetic principle", which was
seen as more convenient for mass literacy campaigns. Later on,
the major principle used in the former Soviet Union was a
combination of phonemic and morphological "principles". As the
author analyzes both Russian and Belarusian data, it would only
be reasonable to take into account the well-known national
linguistic traditions, as they still influence the discussions
on orthography.

A few corrections must also be made, if we speak about the
borrowing of writing systems. E.g., it is not enough to say
that Arabic script was adapted to Kurdish or Uighur (as well as
some other languages of the Islamic world) "not in the way in
which it is used" in Arabic written tradition (p. 186). Indeed,
where such adaptations took place, they were preceded by a more
traditional adaptation. New forms only developed under the
influence of the other scripts (Roman and Cyrillic) known to
the reformers.

It is also difficult to understand why the author sees writing
as an "elite skill" in Japan (p.157-158). In fact, for at least
a few centuries the level of literacy in Japan was far higher
than in some European countries where much simpler alphabetic
writing systems were in use.

In spite of these minor criticisms, the
book is certainly worth reading. As one who knows the
difficulties of studying writing systems, I can see this
attempt to develop a formal theory of orthography as a brave
act to be supported and continued.

The reviewer: Nikolai Dobronravin holds a PhD in African
linguistics from St.Petersburg State University, Russia. His
research interests include sociolinguistics, literacy and
writing systems (particularly with regard to various
Arabic-script adaptations in Africa, Asia and Europe).

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue