Writing Systems and Society

"Scripts become flags"

There have been major or minor reforms in the writing systems of every major language in the world except English, within the past hundred years. These include Afrikaans, Albanian, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Filipino, French, Finnish, German, Greek, Greenlandic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Irish, Itlaian, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Niugini Tok Pisin, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese Mandarin, Turkish and Vietnamese.

The story of each has been different.

For some it has been easy transition,
for others long-running battles;
for some, democratic choice,
for others, arbitrary imposition almost overnight.

There are characteristic contexts of social change, and some similarities in their consequences for literacy and society. Attitudes and arguments in many countries can seem obtuse or perverse to observers outside, but always it is socio-political circumstances that are of prime significance for writing system reforms.

There is no 'single way' to achieve reform.Some writing systems have been invented by identified individuals - for example, the Korean committee that produced hangul in 1446,
Christian missionaries from the reputed inventor of Cyrillic, Saint Cyril, onwards to modern times, with their goal of bringing the scriptures to pagan lands
Twentieth century Language Planners.

Most writing systems change their form gradually over time, often growing by accretion, like Egyptian and many Indian scripts. However, once a basic principle has been set down, writing conventions must be made clear if communication is to be reliable. The first standardisation may be long and late in coming; if it happens to be made today, it may be regarded as a reform. But always, if literacy is not to be restricted to an elite, an efficient writing system must be able to respond to needs for change,.

The histories of writing systems often show developments towards greater efficiency,
but also the dead wreckage that accumulates and encumbers them.
They show how difficult change can be, but also the benefits and acceptance once it is achieved.

Politics and spelling. Serbo-Croatian is unique as an example of what political history can do to a national writing system, splitting it into two - Roman and Cyrillic. The vicissitudes of reform can show the quirks of human nature and bad luck as much as anything else. Some recent attempts remain largely unsuccessful, as in Denmark, Germany (over capital letters for nouns), Israel and India,
but Spanish and Portuguese reforms cover more than two continents and several major dialects, and they cross the world as English spelling reforms would need to do.

All orthographic reform is usually difficult to bring about, however great the need and however profitable the outcome.

English opponents of spelling reform still predict future failure on the grounds of past failure, but in many countries, improvements have taken years, and even centuries. The reasons for failures make a wry comment on the chequered career of English campaigns for reform.

Writing systems are similar to organized religions in some respects of their function and significance. The two have often been closely connected. Sacred scriptures are often written in scripts that are regarded as being sacred as their contents. Language and orthography may be carefully preserved as an essential manifestation of the sanctity of a religion, making its holiness tangible. Antique Arabic script is retained untouched for the Qur'an, ancient Hebrew for the Jewish Scriptures, roman script for Catholic Croats and cyrillic for Orthodox Serbs. Latin has been critically important in Catholic history, and the language of the King James Bible for English Protestants. Older Boers in South Africa felt it was profanation when the Holy Dutch Bible was translated into the vernacular Afrikaans that they actually spoke. There is a close psychological connection between a sign and what it signifies.

The name hieroglyphics means sacred writing. In many cultures, from ancient Egypt to medieval times, the writing system has been seen as so sacred, and has been so complex, that it could be read only by the priestly caste and pious scholars, who supported and were supported by an illiterate aristocracy. The link of magic and the writing system in Northern Europe, as seen in the double meanings of the words spell and rune (the name of Norse writing).

The nature of the writing system shows some of the values, power relations, and tensions within a society. It has had major social and economic consequences. The development of Western capitalism, science and ways of thinking would have been impossible without the accessible alphabetic script and linear arabic number systems. Literacy results in the internalisation of the social values of the literate community. It is initiation into a world accessible only to an elite.

Writing systems have political functions. There is a dilemma for governments, which they may recognise but not admit. A semi-literate or illiterate society may be gullible and governable because it is dependant upon authority (such as television or proclamation) for its information. A literate society is more efficient and educable and produces sources of management. Literacy gives the people access to training and skills that increase the economic prosperity of a nation, but unless there is heavy repression and publishing monopolies, it may open the way for the unruliness of a democracy. People with access to books may turn out to be dangerously independent-minded. Books, far more than broadcast media, can give everyone the liberty to 'know, to utter and to understand' (Milton, Areopagitica, 1644). Power goes with access to print. 

Old China had a sense of heavenly self-sufficiency and an economic base in peasant agriculture. The Chinese script carried traditional Chinese civilisation in a country that did not want change and cared little for trade. For thousands of years it was a matter of pride that the difficult writing system was like the virtues, a life-time's work to acquire. Skill in its mastery had to be demonstrated in competitions, as a key to government office. The medieval mandarins of Korea in the fifteenth century banned a new Korean alphabetic, hangul , as soon as its royal sponsor was dead, because, they said, it would enable the common people to read and write. The mandarins recognised the vested interest they had in retaining their difficult Chinese-origin orthography - and it was commerce, Korean nationalism and Western missionaries that brought hangul back four hundred years later.

Trading nations, from the Phoenicians and the Russ onwards, have preferred, and indeed, have needed, some form of alphabetic or syllabic writing for their enterprises. In the classical civilisations of Greece and Rome, the male citizens were expected to be literate as part of their citizenship, and the Greek and Roman writing systems were simple and regular enough for boys to be taught by literate slaves, although the masses, the hoi polloi and the slaves, were in general unlettered. The huge Roman Empire was held together and organised by the written word, which was deliberately made plain enough for the armies and civil administrations to operate in their extending territories. When Pax Romana collapsed, literacy was continued by the clerics scattered over that Empire, still in Latin - but without public literacy, the spoken forms quickly became unstable, and became the Romance languages and dog-Latins.