Writing Systems: Crash Course Linguistics #16
Hi, I'm Taylor and welcome to the last episode of Crash Course Linguistics!
All human societies have language, either spoken or signed or both.
But writing is a technology that got invented in different ways in different places,
so not all languages have a standardized written form.
The development of writing is influenced by lots of things:
the structure of the languages they represent, the tools used to produce them,
and who's powerful in a given place and time.
And this set of conventions that are used to represent a language in writing are called a writing system,
or an orthography.
A writing system involves two parts.
There's the symbols, or graphemes, and then there's what the symbols stand for.
Broadly speaking, graphemes can represent three different levels of linguistic information:
individual sounds, syllables, or words.
Let's start with graphemes that represent the smallest amount of information:
single sounds, or phonemes.
A writing system where each grapheme represents a phoneme is known as an alphabet.
We've seen in earlier episodes how the International Phonetic Alphabet represents each possible sound in any language with a symbol.
The alphabetic principle of one sound per symbol is also the case,
at least most of the time, for the Latin alphabet.
This system is used for many languages in Western Europe, like English and Finnish,
and for ones that were influenced by European colonization, such as Vietnamese and Swahili.
There are other alphabets too, including the Cyrillic alphabet, used to write many languages in Eastern Europe including Bulgarian and Russian, as well as Greek.
There are a few reasons why alphabets get more complicated than exactly one symbol per sound.
First: Many languages use accent marks or write several graphemes together to represent various sounds,
especially sounds that weren't in the language they borrowed their alphabet from.
Like the sounds English writes with "th", "sh" and "ch" weren't present in Latin,
which we borrowed our alphabet from.
Second: Although languages naturally change over time,
it's harder to convince people to change how they've learned to write.
The silent K in ‘knee' was “knee” in Middle English, and it still hasn't gone away.
Third: Languages often borrow words from each other and stick with the other language's spelling conventions.
Fourth and finally: While spelling may be standardized across a language,
the pronunciation may vary greatly.
In English, we spell the word ‘running' with a ‘g' at the end even though in many varieties of English it's pronounced ‘runnin'.
Even if people wanted to reform the spelling, whose version of “running” should they prefer?
For further nuance, some researchers distinguish between alphabets proper, where every phoneme gets a symbol, and abjads.
In an abjad, primarily consonants get their own symbols, and vowels can be left unwritten.
Many Semitic languages are written with abjads, including Arabic and Hebrew.
The next type of writing system is where each grapheme represents a syllable, known as a syllabary.
In a syllabary, there's a different symbol for, say, "ga" and "va" and "gai,"
rather than symbols for /g/, /a/, /v/, and so on.
Many writing systems in the region around India are based on the Nāgarī syllabary,
where there's a different symbol for each syllable, like “ka” and “ga.”
Then there's a small modification to indicate the vowel to make, like “ki” or “ko”.
Finally, at the upper end, we have writing systems where each grapheme can represent a whole word or morpheme of any length.
These systems are called logographic writing.
The Chinese writing system is generally considered to be an example of logographic writing.
This character means ‘rabbit'.
It can't be broken down into smaller parts.
It's rabbit whether it's pronounced tù in Mandarin, or tou in Cantonese.
Some writing systems also make use of more than one of these strategies.
For example, Japanese uses a logographic system called kanji to represent many words,
as well as a syllabary, kana, to represent syllables for adding grammatical information or loanwords from other languages.
Some systems work really well for some languages.
Semitic languages are well suited to the abjad system, because they don't have a strong focus on vowels.
As we discussed in episode 2, the roots of many words in Semitic languages are based on the consonants.
And languages where there aren't very many possible syllables, like Inuktitut, are easier to write with a syllabary.
But each system has its tradeoffs.
It's much easier to learn the 26 letters of the English alphabet than the four thousand plus characters needed to read Chinese,
but the Chinese system takes much less space to convey information.
Plus, it can be read by people whose languages sound very different.
The development of writing systems was influenced by the tools available.
Some writing systems are carved into stone, others involve using a brush and ink on paper.
Some scholars even believe that the Incas may have used a system of knotted strings,
called quipu, to record their language.
Usually the medium used to record a writing system influences the way it looks.
Roman script was very angular because that was easy to carve into rock,
while the brushes used to write Chinese scripts influenced their flowing style.
But language existed for a very long time before anyone started writing,
anywhere from 200,000 to 50,000 years ago.
It's impossible to pin down, because sounds and signs don't leave fossils.
We know writing is much more recent, but unfortunately, no one has left us a written record that says “February 21, today I invented writing!”
Archeologists have found records of proto-writing, which involves using symbols to represent specific meanings,
but not in whole strings like a sentence.
As best we can tell, writing was only invented independently three times in human history.
Each of these three times, the idea of writing spread to other cultures,
sometimes changing shape a lot along the way.
And each time, the leap to writing most likely was a slow process that took place over generations,
not a sudden invention by a single clever person.
Let's head to the Thought Bubble for some time travel through symbols.
Invention of writing number one:
In the Bronze Age around 4,500 years ago, a cluster of cultures developed writing systems.
The earliest was the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq.
Their writing system is known as cuneiform, and involved pressing a stylus into soft clay.
This Sumerian writing probably inspired the writing systems of other major Bronze Age civilizations around the Mediterranean,
like the Egyptians with their hieroglyphs.
Those hieroglyphs inspired a writing system that eventually became the Phoenician writing system,
which was adapted by the Greeks and ultimately became the Latin alphabet that English uses.
Number two: there is evidence that at least 3,500 years ago, writing developed in China.
The earliest examples of this writing system, known as the Oracle Bone Script,
have been found carved onto ox bones and turtle shells, which were used in divination rituals.
The Chinese writing system continued to develop, and today each character represents a word,
or one syllable of a multisyllable word.
Number three: Around 3,000 years ago, the Olmec glyphs, the oldest writing system in Mesoamerica,
was created in modern-day Mexico.
This system used a combination of word-level logograms with syllable-level symbols.
A number of Mesoamerican civilisations have written records using such glyphs,
including the Zapotec and the Aztecs, but the most successfully deciphered is the Mayan system.
Thanks for taking us back in time, Thought Bubble!
Since its origins, the Latin alphabet has involved repeated borrowing from one language to another, often unrelated, language.
Each time, the system was changed to better represent the sounds in a particular language,
or to fit the writing tools and surfaces used by a particular culture, before getting borrowed again by another language.
Some letters of the alphabet have had relatively uneventful histories.
The letter B started as the letter Bēt, originally meaning ‘house'.
It changed form to the character we recognise as B, but kept the same pronunciation.
In contrast, the Phonecian letter wāw, meaning ‘hook,' has had a wild ride.
It's the origin of the English letters that we know today as F, U, V, W and Y.
Other symbols were influenced by technology.
English used to use the symbols thorn and eth to represent the sounds at the beginning of “the” and “thing,”
but they weren't available on early printers from continental Europe.
So people started using “th” or “y” instead.
That's why “Ye Olde Tea Shoppe” is just another spelling of “THE Old Tea Shop.”
Once the idea of writing as a technology spread, some writing systems were built from scratch,
without directly borrowing systems and symbols.
In some exceptional cases, these newly-created writing systems became the orthography for a whole language.
The Cherokee syllabary was created by Native American polymath Sequoyah in the early 1800s.
It quickly led to many Cherokee-language newspapers and other publications and is still in use today.
Although some symbols in the Cherokee syllabary resemble Latin letters,
they stand for completely different sounds, such as these three which stand for tsa-la-gi, or "Cherokee".
Another example is Hangul, the writing system used for Korean.
It was devised by King Sejong the Great in 1443 as a replacement for Chinese characters,
which weren't well suited for the structure of Korean.
Hangul is especially cool, linguistically speaking,
because the shapes of the symbols are based on the position of the mouth while producing them.
For example, [n] looks like the tongue touching the front part of the roof of the mouth whereas [g] looks like the tongue touching the back part of the roof of the mouth instead.
And the evolution of writing systems hasn't stopped.
Sometimes these changes are political,
like when Turkish moved from the Arabic script to Latin in 1928 as part of President Atatürk's political reforms.
And after the American Revolution,
lexicographer Noah Webster had some luck differentiating American English from British English
with spelling reforms like "color" without a U and "center" instead of "centre."
But regularized spelling itself isn't even that old.
There was lots of inconsistency in the spelling of even basic words in the earliest written English.
Medieval manuscripts were written by monks, who wrote in ways that reflected their own accents,
and Shakespeare even spelled his own name six different ways.
When the printing press was invented, it got easier and cheaper to produce written material,
which led to greater regularization in spelling and more widespread literacy.
English spelling is in many ways a reflection of where the language was at four centuries ago,
when this standardization started.
The internet made producing and sharing writing even easier.
A social media post can go viral without passing through the hands of an editor or a printer,
and the average person writes a lot more often than before we had things like phones and texting.
So people are using creative respelling, like repeated letters and all caps,
and visual additions, like emojis, emoticons, and gifs to convey more than the literal meaning of words.
They can express sarcasm, irony, and other kinds of nuances that usually come from tone of voice or gesture in speech.
We can see our writing system evolving before our eyes!
People also use more recent technology to sidestep the need for writing altogether.
For languages that haven't historically been written down as often, including many signed languages,
people often send audio or video files through social media.
And here in Crash Course Linguistics, we've been using the internet to learn about linguistics.
We've learned about how language is made up of smaller pieces, like sounds and handshapes,
which combine into larger ones, like morphemes, signs, and words, and into even larger sentences and conversations.
We've also learned that all forms of language are worth getting excited about.
Language is the world's greatest collaborative project, and we're all participating in it every day!
So the next time you find yourself distracted from what someone's saying by wondering about how they're saying it,
congratulations, you're thinking like a linguist!
Thanks for watching the final episode of Crash Course Linguistics.
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