Introduction to a book on
Writing Systems of the
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
'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
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
Orthographic change in any society is related to social
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.
(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
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
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
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.
1 Writing systems World writing systems, Alphabetic writing systems, Chinese logographic writing system, The'mixed' Japanese writing system , Korea's amazing writing system , Syllable writing systems , New and recent writing systems
2.Writing system reforms - overview Society and writing systems, Writing system reforms
3. Some writing system reforms in the past 150 years Chinese writing reforms - Japanese writing reforms, Korean writing reforms,Spelling reform in Indonesia and Malaysia, Netherlands spelling reforms, Portuguese spelling reforms , Russian spelling reform, Spanish spelling reforms, Spelling reform in Turkey
4. Related issues to writing and reforms - Adapting to spelling reform in Greenland , Spelling and literacy in Cuba and Nicaragua - India's failed writing system reform
5. Language and writing systems in Arabic, Danish, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Hebrew, Norwegian, Serbo-Croatian
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