LINGUIST List 2.234

Friday, 17 May 1991

Disc: Phonology and Orthography

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  1. John Coleman, RE: Phonology and Orthography
  2. John Coleman, Phonology and Orthography
  3. Robert D Hoberman, Letter names "outside the system"?
  4. Robert D Hoberman, Putative syllabaries in Semitic

Message 1: RE: Phonology and Orthography

Date: Thu, 16 May 91 14:37 GMT
From: John Coleman <>
Subject: RE: Phonology and Orthography
Bernard Hurch ( says
> The whole Latin alphabet was adapted (not only adopted) 
> to the phonemics of Old/Middle Icelandic. 
> And the phonemic analysis was taken out quite detailed, even for "modern" standards.^^^^^^^^^^^^

(My emphasis.) What is this "THE phonemics"? There is rarely if ever a 
unique phonemic analysis for any language, Icelandic included. Of course
the orthography may fit some particular phonemic analysis, namely thoes
analyses which hypostatize the orthography! The reasoning behind the argument
that orthographic practises support phonemic theory seems to be blind to the
fact that phonemic theory is historically based on alphabetic orthographies.

So it's no surprise they are similar?

--- John
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Message 2: Phonology and Orthography

Date: Thu, 16 May 91 14:59 GMT
From: John Coleman <>
Subject: Phonology and Orthography
To Fleck:
 -- Exactly which syllabaries and descendent alphabets are you 
 referring to?

Phoenician -> Greek
 -- On what basis do you believe them to be mora-based? ...

By mora-based I was referring to CV units. In the modern semitic writing 
systems (Hebrew, Arabic, maybe are others I don't know) about and derivatives 
of earlier semitic writing systems, such as Devanagari and other Indian and
Asian scripts, the "letters" are consonants. Special diacritics may be added
to denote vowel qualities, or absence of a vowel from the CV, as in syllable
-final consonants. So the analysis of syllables assumed by such objects can
be represented Cv.C(v), where v denotes `prosodic' marking of the vowel,
() denotes possible omission, and the . denotes a mora-division.

 -- Why do you believe that greatly reducing the number of characters 
 to learn (by a factor of 10 or so) and easier extension to new
 languages (fewer new characters to be improvised) played little or 
 no role in the spread of alphabets? 
Is that indeed what happened? Compare the number of symbols that need to be
learned in mora-based Hebrew or Arabic with, say, the Cyrillic alphabet.
There's not a lot of difference. Many mora-based writing systems have
some degree of compositionality to the symbols, though that doesn't make
them alphabets (a requirement of which, I take it, is that the primitive
orthographic elements be concatenative). Why is non-alphabetic writing so 
successful? How many non-semitic languages has, say, the Arabic writing
system been applied to? (Turkish, Iranian, Swahili ...) Or how many 
languages have borrowed/adopted Indian writing systems (themselves adopted 
from Semitic)? (Malayalam, Mongolian ... ) Quite a few, and just as with 
the spread of alphabets, for political and religious, rather
than linguistic reasons, I suggest.

--- John Coleman
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Message 3: Letter names "outside the system"?

Date: Thu, 16 May 1991 14:09 EDT
From: Robert D Hoberman <>
Subject: Letter names "outside the system"?
Alexis writes, "But there is a crucial point here, which Hoberman has made 
explicit but which I suspect many more of you out there accept, namely, that
THEREFORE letter names should not be counted as evidence for phonological 
contrasts in a language. But this I think would be wrong and indeed 

No, I didn't say that letter names couldn't be used as evidence about the 
phonemic system of a language. Phonemicity is not an all-or-nothing 
proposition. Russian /i/ and /y/ are MARGINALLY distinct phonemes. The 
opposition has a very low functional load. In the vast majority of instances, 
the selection of [i] or [y] is conditioned, but not always -- and the "not 
always" cases include a letter name, foreign names, onomatopoeia, and words in 
a particular junctural situation, all of them special cases of one sort or 
another. (What counts is the disproportion; the fact that these are special 
cases is icing on the cake, or, if you prefer, independent confirmation.) 
Because of these, you have to say /y/ is a phoneme, but the opposition /i/ vs. 
/y/ is not at all of the same order as that of /i/ vs. /a/ or /u/. Any 
phonological theory that can't handle such a distinction is missing something 
big and pervasive in language.

Bob Hoberman
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Message 4: Putative syllabaries in Semitic

Date: Thu, 16 May 1991 13:34 EDT
From: Robert D Hoberman <>
Subject: Putative syllabaries in Semitic
 The notion that West Semitic writing systems such as Hebrew and Arabic 
are syllabaries has been persuasively refuted. The syllabary idea was proposed 
by Gelb in 1952. Since then the idea has been taken as authoritative by 
popularizers and some linguists, though, I think, mainly by those whose 
knowledge of these systems is second-hand. Recently, Peter Daniels has 
reexamined Gelb's statement, showing that "Virtually every statement in 
[Gelb's] paragraph is untrue; yet it can be understood as the outcome of Gelb's 
method of scholarship in general" ("Fundamentals of Grammatology", Journal of 
the American Oriental Society 110 (1990) 727-731). 

 Daniels also proposes a typology of writing system that makes precise 
some additional, useful distinctions. In his view, the West Semitic writing 
systems "constitute a third fundamental type of script", the "ABJAD". My own 
opinion is that these systems are in fact a kind of alphabet that happens not 
to represent some or most of the vowels (only the very oldest show no vowels at 
all). Daniels and I agree that the major conceptual distinction (and the major 
historical breakthrough) "is not the addition of vowel symbols to a consonantal 
abjad, but the development of the abjad itself--the isolation of the 
phonological segment."

Bob Hoberman

[End Linguist List, Vol. 2, No. 234]
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