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:
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.
Disadvantages of an alphabet: Apparent and Real
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.
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 .
A NOTE ON ARABIC.
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
1 Writing systems World writing systems, Chinese logographic writing system , The'mixed' Japanese writing system , Korea's amazing writing system , Syllable writing systems , New and recent writing systems
3. Some writing system reforms in the past 150 years Chinese writing reforms - Japanese writing reforms, Korean writing reforms,Spelling reform in Indonesia and Malaysia, Netherlands spelling reforms, Portuguese spelling reforms , Russian spelling reform, Spanish spelling reforms , Spelling reform in Turkey