LINGUIST List 2.310

Thursday, 20 June 1991

Disc: Orthography

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  1. Richard Goerwitz, eek, no vowels (Semitic orthography)
  2. John Phillips, Re: Orthography

Message 1: eek, no vowels (Semitic orthography)

Date: Wed, 19 Jun 91 14:12:32 CDT
From: Richard Goerwitz <>
Subject: eek, no vowels (Semitic orthography)
Semitic writing was originally logographic and syllabic. In Akkadian,
for instance (and also Sumerian, from which it is derived), a sign could
stand for a whole word, or just for a syllable, such as ba, bi, bu, dam,
gar, nim, etc. The West Semites apparently found this system too complex,
because they replaced it with an orthography where ba/bi/bu, ma/mi/mu,
etc. were all represented with the same sign. The same sign was also used
for syllable-closing consonants (with no V). This system was also felt to
be inadequate, and was modified so that certain (primarily long) vowels
could be represented. Long a, for instance, was represented with either
the sign for /h/ or with the sign for a glottal stop. This is how Arabic,
Hebrew, and Aramaic are all written. For liturgical purposes (and also
in certain literature, and for disambiguation) scribes evolved a set of
diacritics which indicate all vowels in these languages.
Naturally, there are interesting exceptions. Ethiopic permutates the
base alphabetic forms to indicate the vowel that is present. Phoenician
actually resisted the trend towards representing vowels and even of put-
ting any sort of divider between words (in other languages, you get a
space, dot, slash, or wedge of some kind). Ugaritic (a second millennium
BC dialect) arose before use of consonants to represent long vowels had
come into practice. It is odd because it represents the vowels only
after a glottal stop (for which there are three signs, 'a 'i/e 'u/o).
Akkadian has only one sign for the glottal stop, so scholars have pondered
where the Ugaritic practice came from.
In effect, the history of Semitic is one of evolution from logographic
and syllabic signs to a consonantal orthography, to a modified consonantal
orthography which could represent some vowels, to a full system of dia-
critics which are used today mainly in restricted literary contexts.
The Tiberian Hebrew text of the Bible is probably the most complete or-
thography ever actually put into practice.
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Message 2: Re: Orthography

Date: Wed, 19 Jun 91 13:41:45 BST
From: John Phillips <>
Subject: Re: Orthography
Most of the discussion of orthography and writing systems has assumed
that an alphabetic writing system is self-evidently superior to any
other. There seem to be two disputable ideas underlying this
assumption: that an alphabet uses a small number of characters, and so
is easier to learn, write, and read; and that an alphabet gives the
right level of detail in representing a language. Because of the first,
the Chinese writing system is ridiculous because it has so many
characters; because of the second, the Arabic script is difficult since
it does not represent most vowels. I don't think either can be
maintained in general. One would, for instance, think that a featural
system, encoding phonetic features rather than phonemes, would be better
than an alphabet. It would have fewer characters than an alphabet,
representing voicing, labial articulation, etc. And for completeness,
it should mark lexical stress, emphasis, and perhaps intonation contour.
But few writing systems do any of this. Characters of the Korean Hangul
script and Pitman's shorthand can be decomposed into elements
representing articulatory features. Some written languages sometimes
mark stress, and italics or underlining sometimes mark emphasis in
English, but none of these are regular and widespread.
	It seems to me that the two important factors about a writing
system are learnability and readability. A logographic or syllabic
system will have more characters to learn than an alphabetic system,
but an alphabetic system requires more linguistic awareness of its
users. It is easy for an untrained speaker to segment sentences into
words, rather less easy to segment them into syllables, and quite hard
to segment them into phonemes. There is a considerable body of evidence
suggesting that, in the initial stages, learning a logographic script is
very much easier than learning an alphabetic script. The difficulty
comes later because of the number of logographic signs which must
eventually be learnt.
	Once learnt though, logographic writing is easier to read than
alphabetic writing - I believe this has been demonstrated for both Chinese
and Japanese. This is because fluent readers read logographically
anyway - English readers do not read letter by letter, they recognise
and interpret whole words at once. Since the shapes of Chinese
characters are more compact and distinctive than the shapes of English
words, they are easier to read. There is an anecdote about
the Chinese (a couple of centuries ago) comparing printed English text
to pictures of rows of worms and wondering how it could be read.
	Different languages are best suited by different writing
systems. Chinese can get away with a fairly small number of characters
because of its simple concatenative morphology and comparatively small
number of basic morphemes (because it has borrowed little from other
languages). Other factors are the amount of homophony in a language,
and the predictability of pronunciation of a morpheme in different
contexts (so that pronunciation can be predicted from spelling).
Linguistic factors sometimes come into play, alongside political and
religious factors, when a writing system is adopted, e.g.
Vietnamese was until recently written logographically rather than
phonetically like most of its neighbours; on the other hand Mongol and
other east Siberian languages settled on an alphabetic script rather
than the rival Chinese-derived script, since these languages have a
complex inflectional system.
	The Arabic script is interesting in that it combines advantages
of both phonetic and logographic writing. It is made up of a small
number of basic signs and so is easy to learn and remember, but the
shapes of individual words written in the script are very distinctive
and can be easily read as logographs. Compare the Morse code -
alphabetic but with minimal distinctiveness and so very difficult to
read when printed.
			John Phillips
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