The Wonderful World of Writing Systems

In my last post, I talked pretty extensively about the Ge’ez script, the writing system of Amharic, the majority language of Ethiopia. During my research, I became very interested in the many writing systems that world languages use — both the mechanics of how we match sounds to symbols and the politics of creating a writing system for a language (yes, it gets surprisingly political). For this article, I’ll be using Omniglot’s overviews of writing systems as my primary resource. If you get addicted to reading all of their articles about different languages…welcome to my life.

Let’s start our overview of different writing systems with the Abugida (alphasyllabary) system I discussed in my post about Amharic. The basic principle of Abugida writing systems, as I mentioned in my last post, is that a single symbol represents a syllable (for example, “ba”), and modifications to the symbol change the vowel sound (so a modification to the “ba” symbol can make it “be” or “bu”). We talked about Ge’ez in the last post, so let’s use that as an example. If you follow this link to Omniglot, you can see a chart of Ge’ez letters and how they are modified to represent different consonant + vowel combinations.

The Abugida system is also used in many South and Southeast Asian languages. It’s also been used for some languages in the past, but has fallen out of use for a variety of reasons. For instance, Tagalog or Filipino has an Abugida script developed from other systems used around South and Southeast Asia, but today, it’s mostly written using the Latin alphabet. The history of the different writing systems used for Tagalog can tell you a lot about the history of the Philippines and what groups of people gained and lost power and influence there. To tide you over until my giant post about languages in the Philippines, here’s a picture of what the letters of the Tagalog abugida look like without modifications to indicate a vowel sound different from “a”:

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f0/Baybayin_alpha.jpg
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Remember how I mentioned the politics of creating a writing system? Well, a lot of languages use or adapt writing systems from other languages (often ones that dominated them socially and politically), and sometimes, this isn’t the best fit — from a mechanical or a political standpoint. To remedy this, some speakers of these languages will take up the quite daunting task of creating a new writing system. The most famous example of this in history is probably the creation of Hangul, the writing system used for Korean.

Before the development of Hangul, Korean was written using Chinese characters. One of the obvious problems this presented was that Chinese and Korean are very, very different from each other. There are a lot of sounds in Korean that simply don’t exist in Chinese, and the two languages have completely different grammatical and lexical structures. Trying to map Korean onto Chinese characters was awkward and unwieldy, and literacy rates were very low because of the difficulty of learning Chinese characters. So, in the 15th century CE, the polymath King Sejong took it upon himself to create a new writing system that would better suit the Korean language and make it easier for ordinary Korean people to read and write. His system, which is still in use today, is called Hangul. If you’ve seen Korean writing and you’re not familiar with the language, you might think that it looks difficult to learn, but King Sejong’s advisor said, “a wise man can master it in a morning, and even a stupid person can learn it in ten days” (Handel 2016, p. 1). Going by that, I think I’d give myself three-ish days to learn it.

My Hangul skills are not great (maybe I am pretty stupid by King Sejong’s advisor’s standards), but I can’t deny that it’s a very intuitive system. It’s helpful to think of Hangul as “sound-stacks”. Each block you see is a stack of the sounds that make up a syllable. Here’s one example:

강남

The text above says “Gangnam” (as in Gangnam Style). The first “stack” is Gang, the second is Nam. Let’s look at Gang. ㄱ represents the G sound, and ㅏ, as you can probably now deduce, is A. The circle at the bottom, when it occupies the spot where G is now, indicates that there’s no initial consonant. At the bottom (end of the syllable), it’s an NG sound.

According to Professor Z. Handel from the University of Washington (2016), Korean is arranged in these stacks because it made the transition from Chinese characters to Hangul easier — if you needed or wanted to use both in a sentence, the Hangul “blocks” could mix seamlessly with Chinese characters and look aesthetically pleasing. Today, however, Chinese characters are very rarely used in Korean writing, especially for everyday stuff. But the way of writing Korean as blocks/stacks endures to this day. Since starting out as King Sejong’s project 600 years ago, Hangul has become an emblem of Korea’s unique language, culture, and identity.

Another example of a writing system invented by a single person as a way to assert and expand a cultural and linguistic identity is the Cherokee Syllabary. Eventually I may do a more in-depth post about indigenous languages in North America, but for now, my very brief introduction will be to say that for a very long time, Native American languages were actively suppressed, and many were primarily oral, making it all too easy for them to die out as youths — potential learners — were taken away to residential schools or foster homes, where they were forced to speak only English. As a result of these practices, many indigenous languages of North America have gone extinct, or are moribund with only a few elderly speakers, who may not be proficient.

The Cherokee Syllabary was devised by a silversmith named Sequoyah in 1821. Like King Sejong, his goal was to create a simple, effective writing system that would improve literacy and encourage the flow and exchange of ideas in his language. However, unlike Korean at the time of King Sejong, Cherokee had no writing system at all in the 19th century. Many of his compatriots were initially skeptical; his first student was his six-year-old daughter, since most adults were unwilling to learn the writing system. But that skepticism soon dissipated; Sequoyah’s writing system was adopted as the official writing system of the Cherokee Nation in 1825. The Cherokee Syllabary is in use today in Cherokee-language media, literature, textbooks, and signage.

Endeavors to create new writing systems didn’t stop with Sejong or Sequoyah. On Omniglot, you can find many people who are trying to improve existing writing systems, divorce their languages from colonial or imperial influence by creating a new writing system, or create writing systems for primarily oral languages. Finding the best way to put a language on paper is a lot harder than it looks, but when a system works, it can help a language survive and thrive.

Sources

Cherokee Syllabary. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cherokee_syllabary.

Ager, Simon. (2016). Ge’ez (Ethiopic). Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/ethiopic.htm.

Ager, Simon. (2016). Tagalog. Omniglot. http://www.omniglot.com/writing/tagalog.htm.

Handel, Z. (2016). Learn to Read Korean: An Introduction to the Hangul Alphabet. Presented at the 7th Int. Particle Accelerator Conf. (IPAC’16), Busan, Korea, May 2016. http://accelconf.web.cern.ch/AccelConf/ipac2016/papers/thea01.pdf.

Sequoyah. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sequoyah.

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