LINGUIST List 7.226

Mon Feb 12 1996

Disc: Spelling

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Peter Daniels, Re: 7.219, Disc: Saussure, Emphasis, Spelling
  2. Waruno Mahdi, Re: 7.219, Disc: Spelling

Message 1: Re: 7.219, Disc: Saussure, Emphasis, Spelling

Date: Sat, 10 Feb 1996 21:26:36 CST
From: Peter Daniels <>
Subject: Re: 7.219, Disc: Saussure, Emphasis, Spelling
Modesty would require me to have let Mark Aronoff's and Alexis
Manaster Ramer's brief comments on phonemic orthographies stand on
their own, but I must recom- mend to the List that you consult my
distinction between "sophisticated" and "unsophisticated" script
creation. Only the latter--the most familiar example is Cherokee
script invented by Sequoyah, who knoew no other language and no- thing
of phonetics--is relevant to discussions of script creation in
antiquity. See my article in *Linguistics and Literacy*, ed. Downig,
Lima, Noonan (Ben- jamins 1992 -== Milwaukee symposium 1988), and
sec. 52 of *The World's Writing Systems*, ed. by me and Wm. Bright
Oxford 1996).
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Message 2: Re: 7.219, Disc: Spelling

Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996 15:39:51 +0100
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: 7.219, Disc: Spelling
On 10 Feb 1996, Alexis Manaster Ramer wrote:

> completely phonemic orthographies designed by linguists do not
> help us answer the question of whether such systems have arisen
> on their own--without the help of modern linguistics--and even if so
> why they are so rare (at best).

As I see it, the following points appear to play an important role:

(1) Eearliest writing systems either implemented existing own
(ideo)graphs to also represent homonyms and, significant in this
context, close homonyms, or accommodated a foreign writing system,
founded upon a foreign system of phonemes. Both altenatives obviously
led to imperfect phoneme-graph correspondences already at the
beginnings of writing. In view of the exceptional high (apparent)
degree of accuracy of Sanskrit Devanagari, it seems understandable
that it is to ancient Sanscrit linguistics that we owe the beginnings
of linguistic science.

(2) The phonology of a language is in constant flux, but for various
cultural reasons (sacredness of religious scriptures, canonization of
epic and officialese texts, privileged social status or social
exclusiveness of the educated), spelling tends to be conservative. So,
corrections come too late, and then quickly become obsolete again.

(3) Language is not uniform, being variegated not only in having many
regional dialects, but also social dialects, professional and
age-group jargons, so that even in the synchrony, a professionally
reformed spelling will often (if not always) only be strictly phonemic
for a part of the speakers. When the literary (non-unalphabetic) part
of the population is a minority, it would not even necessarily be
phonemic for the majority of speakers.

Hope that wasn't a recitation of the obvious, sailing full steam past
the actual topic of discussion.

Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5407
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155
14195 Berlin email:
Germany WWW:
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