Comparing writing systems

Syllable writing systems

and a note on shorthands

Characters can represent whole syllables in some writing systems. They could be said to be half way between writing systems where characters represent whole words and those where characters represent single speech sounds.

Syllables are more 'natural' units to analyse the spoken word than the individual speech sounds (phonemes). Children can segment words into syllables more easily than into sounds, and syllables are more easily combined into words than sounds can be blended into words.

However, a writing system in which each symbol represents a syllable is only practicable for languages such as Japanese or Maori, made up of a small range of syllables, unless a Korean or Devenagari solution is taken up, to include representation of phonemes as well as syllables.

Most European languages have too many different syllables, which would require hundreds of characters, and in some of them, such as English, many words can be difficult to segment clearly into syllables.

Japanese children are introduced to reading through a simple kana script which represents mora, which are mostly single syllables. Japanese writers such as Makita (1968 ) extol the value of mora as a simple introduction to reading, although there are reports that Japanese children can have problems even with this. (But is there anything that some children would not have some problems with?) Tzeng (1983) claimed that the initial success of learning a syllabary and the awareness of literacy it enhances can start to collapse as soon as there is a significant increase in the numbers of items to be learned and the number of words with similar sounds (homophones). Nevertheless, there does appear to be an advantage in starting to read with 30 or so simple syllables, to be able to carry the understanding of what reading is into learning the more difficult Japanese kanji characters.

If a test of a writing system is, 'could you teach yourself to read', or learn to read without schooling, then examples such as the African Vai and North American Cree syllabaries, where there was widespread adult literacy learnt informally, suggest that syllabaries win out, when the language makes them possible (Walker, 1969, Bennett & Berry, 1987).


Shorthands are highly rational, but are are usually difficult to learn because at first they require so much rote memory. Some, like English Speedscript, are condensed scripts, which are useful for those who know the language well. Often in practice shorthands are really aide-memoires that must be transcribed quickly and fully before the aide loses its memory, and often only the writers themselves can read these personalised notes. Common ciphers in English print include abbreviations like $ & Mr., numbers, acronyms and symbols, which Scragg (1989) considers are designed to increase reading speed as much as to be written quickly.