Modern writing systems: Matching languages and writing systems

Alphabets: advantages and disadvantages

"as easy as ABC"

Most, although not all, of this century's sweeping changes in writing systems have involved introductions of an alphabet to supersede or complement logographs, or of the roman alphabet to supersede another.

Why is this? What are the advantages and disadvantages of alphabets?

The original principle of the alphabetic writing system, in strong contrast to ideographic writing, is a visual codification of speech.

Ideally each letter represents one speech sound (grapheme-phoneme correspondence), and rules govern combinations from this small set of basic symbols into higher order linguistic units.

The principle was invented when the Greeks added vowels to the original consonants of the first Middle Eastern systematic 'phonemic' 1 writing. This had itself evolved from the phonetic principle begun when rebuses and phonograms were first used as stratagems to extend the repertoire of logographic scripts.

A hundred or so alphabets exist today. The most widely used are roman, arabic and cyrillic. Until there is a startling breakthrough, the writing system for European languages must continue to be based on the roman alphabet, however modified. It is the script of their heritage of print, and of international communication, and is used by six of the twelve international languages of the world - French, Spanish, German, English, Italian and Portuguese. It is essential to understand the alphabetic principle and its range of applications in other languages, in order to evaluate the spelling of any single one.

Some linguists hold that even an alphabetic language is relatively independent of the norm of its spoken language. However, although all European-language spelling systems have exceptions and deviations, their descriptions are ultimately based on how graphemes relate to phonemes, and the exceptions to this system.

Principles that can be applied in alphabetic spelling include:


reflects the pronunciation



shows the origin of words and word families



shows how units of meaning build up into words



Tradition may be the only explanation for some spellings.
Accidents can spoil anything

veil, gauge,sieve

Advantages of an alphabet for a writing system

Rudyard Kipling's Just So fable about the first alphabet told a story that the invention of representing the spoken word accurately was triggered by the need to prevent serious misinterpretations of the message of pictographs after a picture-message on bark asking for a new fishing spear to replace a broken one was interpreted as Daddy being speared by armed enemies.

Herodotus told a similar story - how when the Persian king Darius invaded Scythia in 512 BC, the Scythians sent him by messenger a picture of a mouse, a frog, a bird and three arrows. Darius interpreted this as a message of surrender of the land and their weapons. He discovered too late what it really meant - that unless the Persians could burrow, hide in the swamps or fly, they would all be killed.

The great business advantage of the first alphabets was that plain merchants and tradesmen could write and read messages and reports that said what they wanted to say, without needing first the intensive training of scholars in committing an immense vocabulary to memory.

The reason for the great advantage of the alphabet is that in most languages the number of phonemes (speech sounds) is only around forty, with a range of between twelve to sixty, a limit probably due to the restricted range of sounds that humans can distinguish in listening or articulate in speaking. It defines the maximum number of letters needed to represent them, that need to be learnt. Since the necessary letters are so few in number, they can be simple and distinctive, and easy to write and to copy.

  • In a consistent spelling system, any unfamiliar word can be written down by analysing the speech sounds, and it can be read by combining the written symbols (graphemes ).
  • Spelling conventions are like simplified line-drawing conventions or modern logos. Just as the simple strokes which represent a man, a house, a tree, are immediately identified across cultures, in a similar way, consistent conventional spellings in a standardised spellingn system are still recognised across patterned dialect changes.
  • A new language or one previously unwritten can be given a written form relatively easily, whereas creating a new complete logographic symbol system would be a major work.
  • Input, output and storage of alphabets in modern communications technologies present no problems for keyboards, printing and binary translation. Even though breakthroughs at first thought impossible have been made, keyboards and electronic technology for logographic languages remain more complex.
  • Native speakers of a written alphabetic language are helped directly by the spoken language they already know, sound by sound and word by word.
  • Foreigners can learn the spoken and written languages at the same time, learning to speak and listen from the books, and to read and write from the language they hear around them, so that each mode helps the other.
  • If the spelling is consistent, each word does not have to be learnt separately, so that the average person can reach a good working level of literacy sooner and with less effort than learners of a logographic writing system. By the second year, children who have grasped the alphabetic principle can read as many words as a long-time Chinese scholar can read in Mandarin. An English high-school student aged 15 may have a reading vocabulary of about 50,000 words while a Chinese adult can rarely name more than about 4000 logograms.
  • A writer may misspell, and still communicate in an alphabetic writing system, whereas logographs are not so immune to misinterpretation through human error or memory lapse in writing or reading.
  • It is easy to acquire and remember visual spelling patterns, because a consistent alphabetical system has recurring regularities, - as in bent, sent, dent, lent. With familiarity, there may be no need for the printed words to be internally translated into speech, because they are recognised immediately.
  • Teaching methods can be simultaneously 'synthetic bottom-up' building up sounds into words, and 'top-down analytic' perceiving meaning from whole words. (See later Literacy links)

Disadvantages of an alphabet: Apparent and Real

  • Alphabetic writing systems cannot communicate across time and space like logographs can, such as airport logos, brand-logos, Blissymbols and Chinese characters
  • Direct representation of any spoken language is not problem-free. We do not naturally consciously hear as separate elements in our speech the speech sounds that are distinguished in a language to make up its words, and which are the building blocks of alphabetic spelling. We hear them as part of the continuous sound wave.
    To map spelling to sound requires an explicit and abstract analysis of what we hear.

    Anyone who has been at the working face of computer speech synthesisers, or who sees how naive children start to write, is struck by how different are the speech sounds we have learnt to hear as literate adults, from the sounds that computers and children hear 'naturally'.

    Vowels are particularly difficult to analyse, and the first alphabets had none.
  • Spoken languages are always changing, however slowly. This sets a dilemma of whether to reform the spelling to keep up with these changes for the sake of learners, including new learners of the language, or to conserve the existing system for the sake of those who are already literate. The older alphabetic orthographies tend to become more 'morpho-phonemic', as they retain the old representation of words and fail to represent their changing pronunciation.
    • BUT, updating spelling is now more feasible, because computer techniques have done away with the bogey of reprinting in a modified spelling. Complete changes of house-styles and spellings can be made at the touch of a button. Since it is estimated that 90% of material in print has been printed or reprinted within the past decade, transitions can soon be practically complete, and work backwards to link with the past as well as forwards to update.
  • Alphabetic systems cannot cross the boundaries of spoken languages, except insofar as different dialects and tongues with the same alphabet contain resemblances that assist interpretation, e.g. Spanish is not too difficult to read from a knowledge of English. Whether dialect speakers are badly handicapped by alphabetic orthographies is still an issue. An alphabetic spelling is in principle a broad representation of a standard speech, but languages can have many dialects, and the standard form may even be dead, as classical Greek became in Greece.
    • BUT, although extreme divergences cause difficulties, although there is evidence that a good deal of variety in the dialects of its readers can be accommodated within the conventions of a consistent alphabetic orthography. As stated above, spelling conventions are like simplified line-drawing conventions or modern logos. The simple strokes which represent a man, a house, a tree, are immediately identified across cultures, and in a similar way, consistent conventional spellings are recognised across patterned dialect changes.

      Even dialects that are almost different languages can be accommodated within one fairly regular spelling system e.g. Spanish and Portuguese can be read both in the Old and New Worlds, and the common orthography helps to maintain the Spanish language as a diversity within unity, increasingly so as more people become literate. Guitart (1982: 176) has discussed and basically dismissed Spanish dialects as setting a significant orthographic problem.

      Dialect may not be the problem for English spelling improvement that has been generally anticipated. No English dialect is really represented in present English spelling, since it does not show accent and tone, and most other English dialect differences are in distinctive vocabulary, and in fairly consistent vowel shifts which match spelling conventions. When Australians and Southern Englishmen read or write the same words, they perceive the same meaning and form, although their pronunciation is so different. When either say 'I like my pie' they will think what they say or understand the other to say is 'I like my pie', although a phonetician would hear them both very differently - more like 'Oi loik moy poy' and 'Ai laik may pay'.

  • Over time, most alphabetic systems deviate from their first sound/symbol regularity and become more unpredictable - English is a striking example. Learners then benefit less from the alphabetic principle, because the regularities in the spelling are confusable with the irregular relationships to speech. That is one reason why many spelling reformers have devised completely new scripts for English, e.g. Kingsley Read's winning entry in Bernard Shaw's posthumous competition (1962, 1966), that sought to achieve Shaw's aim of a one-sound-one-symbol.
    • BUT, readers do not have to be consciously aware of a literal auditory representation for every word they read or write. Readers with a rate of 600-2000 word per minute clearly cannot be, and there is even controversy as to whether readers of English alphabetic spelling actually use alphabetic principles of sound/symbol relationships at all once they are skilled (See Chapter 5). This is understandable, since English spelling does not have regular sound/symbol correspondence to rely upon. There is practical interest, then, in how readers identify print in other types of orthography and particularly in more consistent alphabetic systems.

The value of consistent sound/symbol relationships in alphabetic writing systems

A simple demonstration shows the value of a consistent phonemic orthography for learners . Two groups of adults are asked to learn a two writing systems to the point where they can read a sentence in each. Both are invented and both use the same characters, but one has consistent sound/symbol relationships and can be learnt by the alphabetic principle, and one has inconsistent relationships and requires whole word learning. The alphabetic system is by far the quicker and easier.

In everyday life, it is hard to find rigorous comparative cross-cultural research evidence to establish whether or how features of spelling significantly affect learners or users. There is a great deal of observation and anecdote. For example migrants and English-language students complain that English spelling is so difficult compared to that of their language of origin, which is 'so easy to learn to read'. English-speakers, on the other hand, can pick up how to read Indonesian or Italian for pronunciation within minutes - both sets of spelling principles can be written out on a half-page. Danish or French spelling principles may take more space and a few days longer to follow.

Parents of bilingual children report different learning rates. For example, Don Stuart's trilingual daughter read Japanese literature in hiragana at the age of 5.5 years, and was beginning to read in semi-phonemic Dutch but 'it goes without saying that she has made least progress of all in English with its completely unsystematic orthography' (Fishman, 1968: 750-51).

A consistent alphabetic orthography might be assumed to be the quickest to learn, and the most efficient for reading new vocabulary, because strategies can be based on its consistent relationship with the spoken language, and/or its consistent visual patterns. Continental languages can make almost predominant use of phonic methods in teaching reading because even French has reliable rules of pronunciation, unlike English.
It was an almost universal practice to include at the back of French reading primers a systematic table that set out all the phonic units in the French language. In French, you can pronounce anything that you read, although there can be several ways that the same sounds can be spelled. In contrast the English need a complete dictionary for the spelling system and its exceptions.

On the other hand, there are pundits in English literacy such as Frank Smith, writing on the 'Fallacy of Phonics' (1985) who have had little regard for alphabetic regularity for learners (See chapter 5). 'Drawing attention to the elements of words, word attack and sounding out may be directing poor readers away from the behavior that would help them most.' But a visitor to some classrooms of the developing (and developed) countries could conclude that it was the primitive and deadening pedagogical ways used to teach phonics to village and urban children that so often failed to obtain results. Carefully-matched comparisons are required to evaluate objectively the real value or hindrance.

French, Danish and Swedish are among the few modern roman-alphabetic orthographies that still retain major inconsistencies - although none on the same scale as English (See chapter 4). Nevertheless, all three have universal education to a high standard, and, possibly due to their high value on education and scholastic application, spelling does not on the face of it appear a major problem for readers. Even in the 1930 Swedish census, illiteracy was reported to be almost non-existent except among the mentally retarded, and only 1% of convicts could not read. Until 1858 parents were supposed to teach their children to read before they began school, and for many years after that, reading was not taught as a subject except in special junior schools. That is, the orthographic system was simple enough for ordinary working parents, with no special training, to teach their children to read.

Writing has been another matter. Söderberg (1971) reported that skill in Swedish spelling is normally attained after many years of hard school work, and contrasts with the relative ease of Finnish. In Danish, learning to read is considered difficult, but as with Sweden, Danes regard their literacy problem as writing rather than reading. Since the relation between print and speech is not clear, Danes have attempted, like Hanna et al (1966) in the English-speaking world, to find computer algorithms to express grapheme-phoneme relationships - but face similar difficulties .


Printed Arabic is read by millions of Muslems around the world. Several facts about Arabic in script and print should be noted.   The letter forms are derived from the flowing, cursive handwriting used in manuscripts of Holy Writ, the Koran. The lines move across the page from right to left, and books are read from "back to front" in contrast to the Western mode. The spelling system is phonetic as far as the consonants are concerned, with matching of a sound to each letter almost exclusively. There are no silent letters and no double letters except to make a break in pronunciation.

This phonetic advantage is offset by several disadvantages from the standpoint of an ideal system. In print, the separate characters are often run together instead of being separated by small spaces as they are in English print. 28 symbols are listed as the basic alphabet in a modern Arabic dictionary, but there are different forms for the majority of the characters depending upon their position at the beginning, in the middle, or at the ends of words. The intermediate forms are a sort of shorthand of the basic forms. Only 9 of the letters have the same form in other than initial position.

In Arabic print the long vowel sounds and consonants are indicated, but the short vowels are omitted except were confusion might result.   A system of 15 or more vowel points (diacritical marks) is used to indicate vowel sounds. One character is a vowel lengthener. The missing vowels create reading problems unless the reader is familiar with the structure and grammar of Arabic. Printing and typing Arabic is tedious and subject to error due to the numerous diacritic marks that must be added. When these are omitted, confusion and misunderstanding may result.

In printed Arabic there are many instances of joined letters that form ligatures standing for syllables. At least 130 of these are widely used in printing the language. Formerly children had to learn nearly 500 of these joined letter symbols to be able to read. Arabic spelling, unlike English and the new Turkish, is not completely standardized. Slightly different forms are used for the same word. Even people's names have different versions in print or writing.

From 'Some Features of Arabic in Print', by Gertrude Hildreth, an American University professor in Turkey 1959-60 and 1964-68, in Spelling Progress Bulletin Spring 1972 pp2-5. Edited account

The alphabetical system is a system of representation remarkable in conceptual simplicity, practicality and its virtually unlimited range of possible expression. Nickerson (1981: 258).