Introduction to a book on
Writing Systems of the World

Book now published, April 2013, see Amazon


No country is locked into its orthography, any more than it should be locked into any other aspect of its history.

Sometimes liberation is possible in practice as well as in theory, as shown in other pages linked to this. Many countries have modified their writing systems successfully. Some have been able to change from one writing system to another. Others have not. For example, India has not yet been able to adopt the roman alphabet as a seconary alternative and common script for its many languages.

But why should writing down a language in print involve so many social and political issues, not just the language? Why isn't writing as easy as speaking?

Talking is universal. Every human being learns to talk, unlesss something is very wrong. Every society in the world has a spoken language. Babies from six months on pick up words and grammar at an enormous rate. By the age of four most children invent their own sentences so they can say most of what they want to say. They do not just imitate what they hear - they are using language creatively for themselves. Schoolchildren invent their own secret languages among themselves. This is all amazing. Language requires ability to manipulate symbols that and is so complex that even the most pampered and tutored chimpanzees barely manage any of it.

Learning the spoken language is as 'natural' as learning to walk. Watch babies as they struggle hard to crawl, stand up, walk, run, despite the tumbles. Listen to them as they struggle as hard to to practise sounds, babble, to get their tongues round words, to express their ideas, and to understand the blooming buzzing confusion of voices around them.

But speech is different from walking in an interesting way. Language is a human invention. When babies learn to speak, they are learning a human invention. Since language and speaking capacities seem to be built into the human brain, just like our instinct for moving around, it was once supposed that the language itself was built in too. A child left to itself would speak 'naturally', and its natural language would be the original pre-Babel tongue. King Frederick of Prussia even tested the common hypothesis that this language would be Hebrew, since this was supposed to be the language of the Garden of Eden. He had a baby brought up isolated from all human language contact. The experiment ended in disaster. The baby didn't learn any speech at all, and pined away through lack of human company.

There are about 3000 languages in the modern world. Thousands of different languages have been invented all over the world, branching off from many different root-languages, as dissimilar as could be. Most may be dead.. India alone has 14 major language families with almost 200 different languages, which break down further into dialects. Papua-New Guinea has at least 700 languages in its mountain valleys, and possibly over 900.

'Linguistics', the study of language, was taken for granted to be the study of spoken language until recently. Tthe written language was, well, it was just the spoken language written down, wasn't it? Logically, it should be as easy and 'natural' to learn as the spoken language - after all, it is only language visible, language that is seen with the eyes and marked with the hands, just as the spoken language is heard with the ears and spoken with the mouth.

Why don't children learn to read as 'naturally' as they learn to hear or speak? Many people, seeing how naturally children learn the spoken language, have assumed that in the ideal school, children would learn to read as 'naturally' and as easily as they appear to have learnt the spoken language. Why don't they learn as 'naturally'? The few children who take to reading like ducks to water are usually already precocious in the spoken language. But most children find it hard to learn to read, many never learn, and many, if not most, adults never read easily or well at all. Why is this? Because writing is different from the spoken language.

Written language is a also a human invention, like spoken language, but it is not a universal invention. Few societies have invented a writing system for themselves - most have been borrowed and adapted from the original inventors. Civilisations as advanced as the Incas have had no writing. The civilisations of the written word were limited mainly to Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Writing systems in the New World, the Pacific, and much of Africa were usually primitive. Where no records remain, we do not know what vanished civilisations may have achieved, but into this century many hundreds of languages and societies have remained preliterate. Two thirds of the world's languages are still unwritten, and there are only several hundred different writing systems. Learning to read is not as natural as learning to talk, despite the hopeful notions that it ought to be.

Writing systems today are taken for granted because they are not new inventions of this century. Although they are a vital component of communications technology , their very antiquity and familiarity makes them the one aspect that is virtually ignored in the tremendous thrust of research and development to research to improve written communication. The modern advances in written English language are in its print, layout, textual cohesion, legibility and readability, but not in updating the writing system itself, to fit the task to the needs and abilities of users and learners following modern principles of human engineering. For hundreds of years there has been more argument than research on the improvement of English spelling, which after all, is only a tool, only part of the technology.

Anglo-American societies have universal schooling, and spend more per capita on education than most countries of the world. Nevertheless, high-school and adult illiteracy rates in these cultures are depressingly high. In 1989 the Ford Foundation estimated that 72 million adults were functionally illiterate in the United States alone. Similar statistics are constantly being reported.

Many, if not most children have difficulty learning to read, and many adults who pass as readers are not fluent or accurate. There are many reasons for their problems. It is hard to learn to read if there is poor teaching, few books, an anti-educational home and environment, peers who mock swots, the hypnotic counter-attractions of television, personal despair or physical or mental or 'specific' handicaps. Often all these problems accumulate and children are multiply vulnerable. And, as we shall see, no matter what the writing system, in every country learning to read is not a simple 'natural' process. However, when all these problems are taken into account, Anglo-American literacy problems still appear particularly high in proportion to educational efforts.

There are some unnecessary difficulties in the task itself, that could be diagnosed and remedied. For example, reformers and other critics have claimed for more than four hundred years that English spelling is 'user-unfriendly'. Anecdotal case studies, informal surveys, innumerable jokes and cartoons, and personal experience give the same message - that English spelling is difficult. However, scientific investigation and evidence on this point has been strangely limited. There are realms of research on reading and reading difficulties, at the rate of above 3000 articles a year and hundreds of books. These see the problem as belonging to the learners who fail. These inadequate people must be located, assessed, diagnosed and remediated. New ways of reading instruction have constantly been tried, dropped and recycled. This recycling is still happening. Yet a questioning attitude is needed as to whether the stuff of the writing system itself could be improved, and if so, how.

Since Noam Chomsky, the giant of modern linguistic theory, stated in 1970 that some features of English spelling made it already 'optimum' (i.e. the best possible) this claim is commonly repeated as a knockdown argument against considering any improvement. However, Chomsky himself does not regard it as such, and the evidence does not support a sweeping claim for near-perfection.

What would be the best possible spelling? The best possible spelling would have to suit the language itself, because each language has special features. It should suit many different needs - for readers and writers, people learning the language as well as those born to speak it, machines as well as people. It should be easy to learn, yet fast and efficient for the experts to read and write, and be accessible for those who are dull as well as those who are brilliant, and for people with language handicaps as well as those who have none. And it must not be so different from what we have already that our heritage of print is no longer readable - unless of course, some future breakthrough is made that completely revolutionises all writing systems - perhaps something now undreamt of, that can be read in any language, on the principles of Chinese but without its difficulties.

One argument against trying to improve English spelling is that this is an unrealisable goal. All those different needs are too incompatibl. No trade-off is possible. A spelling to suit readers would handicap writers. If it was easy to learn it would be clumsy to use, and handicap users. This pessimism will be looked at carefully. Could any 'best fit' be possible after all, to meet all these different needs and abilities?

The design of English spelling is a new, wide and still almost empty field for empirical research.

Spelling is far more important to our social fabric than is generally realised. See for example, the coming page on * 'Society and Spelling' Foreigners regard the English and Americans and Australasians in amazement. We have spelling lists in school, and we replace our battered office dictionaries with computer Spelling-Checkers, and we apologise, that we are 'terrible spellers' - sometimes smugly, because that means we are in the swim, with everyone else. But spelling means more than that in society. As our orthography (literally, 'correct writing', 'orthodox writing'), spelling is the bearer of literacy.

Orthographic change in any society is related to social change.

Writing systems have a function in maintaining or changing social structure. They are an element of control in education. International written English has a significance we ignore to our detriment today. Bound up with our spelling are the possibilities of democracy, philosophies of liberty and equality, our concepts of education, and the distribution of labour in our economic system.

The options already open for how language can be written down. * See further links on writing systems, giving an overview of the major writing systems of the world, and comparing their advantages and disadvantages. We can see how orthographies tend to be adapted to the languages they represent - but curiously, most of them manage to fail to be ideal matches, if not in one way, then in another. Humans may muddle through, but never to perfection.

In English-language schooling, there are never-ending battles and recycling fashions between two contrasting methods of teaching reading - the 'whole-word' See-and-Say and 'phonics' Sound-it-Out. See the coming pages on * Literacy and also * the links contrasting the two major types of writing system in the world, with their similarities and differences - 'whole-word' characters and the alphabetic principle that represents the sound sof speech with letters. There are many different versions of applied alphabetics in modern languages. Syllabic writing (characters for syllables) comes in as as a third possibility. Japanese and Korean scripts are also described, because they are two particularly fascinating solutions. They both, in very different ways, mix all three major types of writing system within their orthographies. Lessons may also learnt from the experiences when 'ideal' writing systems have been designed from scratch in modern times for ancient spoken languages that have never been written down before. New invented languages that seek to be international also include new writing systems deliberately planned to be 'user-friendly'.

Writing systems change, and this series will describe how they change, and why they do.* Some specific national reforms are described in greater detail, to show how writing systems are related to social change, and to illustrate themes and theories that should blow Anglo-Saxon orthographic parochialism out of the mud. These accounts show that orthography can no more be considered unchangeable by human interference than any other construction of the human mind.

They show the importance of spelling reforms and radical modernisation of scripts for developing countries in the twentieth century.

Readers can then look at English spelling with fresh eyes - or for the first time. Further pages will describe the English spelling system.* A full description is hilarious in places - it also makes clear that improvements are possible, and clarifies what they might be. And when students and teachers understand the sense and the nonsense of it all, then spelling for literacy can be taught and learnt with understanding, rather than blindly rote-taught and rote- learnt, or ignored at learners' peril.

There are many common assumptions about English spelling, and arguments that get repeated but never tested. What really are its advantages and disadvantages? The worst features of English spelling are not esssential to the English language itself. English spelling improvement may require only clearing up the inconsistencies and what is in effect clutter, from that basic structure.

And English spelling is a changing - like hidden erosion in soils that still carry surface grass. * A further page will describe the trends to change in English spelling today, at home and abroad. English spelling has international significance in view of the role that the English languages has played as the most international language of the world. Examples of dramatic change in English pidgin orthographies, are also described and some future possibilities considered.

Does difficult spelling really affect levels of literacy? There are influential but mistaken claims that skilled readers operate only on visual memory and use of context to get meaning directly from print. They do not make any use of the relationship of the written to the spoken language, and so it does not matter whether spelling represents speech in any way, whether 'photographic' or conventionalised. *A further page will look at the evidence about the needs and abilities of readers and learners, to show that nature of the spelling is relevant indeed.

*Another page is about at the brass tacks of spelling design for the English language - on research and development that should be taken for granted for this basic tool for our modern comunications technology. Experiments and studies investigate one issue that appears clear from the preceding chapters - the superfluous letters in English spelling that might perhaps be better omitted. This leads into a close look at the problems of research in English spelling design and what needs to be done.

Research is a country of high grounds and swamps. On the high ground are the manageabl problems that can be solved by theories and techniques based on research; these problems tend to be specialised and even small. In the swampy ground are all those messy confusing problems that defy technical solution. In this swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern. Researchers must choose - to solve relatively unimportant problems in unimpeachably rigorous and elegant ways, or to descend into the swamp, where important problems can only be tackled with less rigorous methods, and there is the likelihood of mud on your nose.

This book describes research in the boggy swamps where the problem of universal literacy still flounders - but there is also enough research in safer areas on the high ground that can be used to throw down ropes. Selection to illustrate theories and evidence has had to be drastic in some places, with inevitable omissions, but those interested will find there is a vast literature on reading and its cognitive processes that they may consult.

A network of original studies and pilot experiments is available to complement reviews of existing research, and to offer a broader foundation for further investigation of the new field of the design of English spelling, as part of the already well-established discipline of language planning (that is usually applied by English-speaking scholars to other languages). Within this network, a structured series of experiments investigated whether simply dropping surplus letters in the spelling of English words would aid or disrupt word recognition. Some pilot studies are reported in outline so that their directions can be tested and their designs replicated. Almost anyone can carry out their own paper-and-pencil research on spelling to test the ideas put forward, and have an Aunt-Sally at the old fallible assumptions that few questioned in the past.

Final pages will look at the future for print literacy, and the possibilities for spelling.

And there are Spelling Games and Curiosities.