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16. Writing: History, and Typology

In this section, the theory and historical development of writing systems, as described from the viewpoint of western academic tradition, will be reviewed. The main sources are Daniels (1996), (Encarta: writing, alphabet), Haarmann (1992a). Secondary sources referenced are: Noeth (1985: 256-273), Amiet (1966), Cohen (1958), Diringer (1948) (1953), Driver (1948), Gehlen (1964), Gelb (1952), Kyriatsoulis (1996), Lambert (1966), Schmandt-besserat (1978, 1992), Schlott (1989). Daniels (1996) gives a recent and comprehensive overview of all writing systems that were or are in use, and can be said to reflect the latest academic consensus on the matter. For matters of convenience, the often-cited source Haarmann (1992a) is abbreviated with HA in this section. Some statements contradicting the western academic mainstream are given under:
->:WRITING_CRIT, p. 193

Humankind is defined by language; but civilization is defined by writing.
Daniels (1996: 1)

Writing systems are used to convey and preserve language across time and space...
O'Connor (1996: 787)

16.1. Prehistory of writing, earliest traces of cultural memory technology

Literature referenced: Lock (1996), Anati (1991), Daniels (1996: 19-24), Dechend (1977), (1993), (1997), (and personal communications), Gimbutas (1974), HA (Haarmann 1992a) (50-56, 69-81), Haarmann (1997), Leroi-gourhan (1982), (1984), Meister (1997), Mellaart (1989, I-IV), Marshack (1972), Semiotica (1994) . Lock (1996) is the most comprehensive and most recent source for all evolutionary aspects of the history of symbolization .

The interpretation of the archeological record poses a set of specific problems, when we want to reconstruct the thoughts and habits of ancient people by those traces that have been preserved throughout the millennia by all kinds of fortuitous conditions. In his article, "On the scientific study of paleoart", Bednarik (1994) presents a short and concise summary of the problem cases that apply equally well to the study of the pre-history of writing. [490] In a similar vein the statement of Hertha v. Dechend:

Dechend (1997: 9): Raising the question about the nature of those clues and traces which might enable us to reconstruct at least some thoughts of early homines sapientes sapientes, we have to state first, that next to no phenomenon should be accepted as "suggesting itself", and "obvious", no instrument, no technique, no rite, no game, no dance. The more fundamental, and the more apparently self-suggesting a technique, the more ingenious the brain that hatched it.

16.1.1. Oldest symbolic representations

The oldest known (homo erectus-) man-made notches are on a bear-skull from the lower Acheulian period, dated to about 430,000 years ago (Haarmann 1997: 674). As to the interpretation, it is quite debatable whether these notches "seem to be related to some religious ideas of the Azykh people" (ibid.), ie. if they are records of symbol usage. There are also indications of symbolic capacity of the Neanderthal people 150-200,000 years ago (Haarmann 1997: 675), the available specimen showing "... an example of archaic man's sense of abstraction and symmetry" (ibid.).

(ibid.): With the appearance of modern man, the impact on symbol-making becomes more dynamic... Among the outstanding genres of artistic activities are sculpturing and painting. The oldest evidence for these activities dates back to the Aurignacian period...
There are two facets by which early cave art distinguishes itself. One is the compositional technique of combining two categories of symbols, namely naturalistic or sub-naturalistic motifs with abstract symbols, linear and stylized. If man's general capacity of using symbols is the key to culture, then the capacity of distinguishing between iconicity and abstractness as two cognitive procedures is man's practical approach to symbol-making.

From the viewpoint of the modern observer, the naturalistic pictorial representations are easier to interpret than abstract patterns. (Even if it is not possible to establish what the "meaning" of the pictures of animals in caves like Altamira or Lascaux was for the ancient people, and if there had been cave rituals, in which these might have played a role). (Haarmann 1997: 676). The abstract patterns are harder to classify than pictures: for example the dot patterns that appear in between the animal paintings in the cave paintings of Lascaux (HA 51-52). Whatever those "meanings" were, any interpretations will remain open to argument. One example is the pattern of the "baton de command" found in Cueto de la Mina in Asturias, minimum age 12,000 years. The (very controversial) interpretation cited in (HA 54-57) and Marshack (1972: 213 pp.) sees it as a codification of lunar phases. More examples for interpretations of abstract symbols are given in Haarmann (1997: 676).

16.1.2. Technological and social constraints for ancient cultural memory technology

An important consideration for the interpretation of possible cases of para-writing [491] are the technological and social constraints for ancient cultural memory technology (CMT). Writing is a CMT typical for agricultural people with a sedentary lifestyle. Goody (1987: 300), Diamond (1997: 215-238). We should consider the Cro Magnon prehistoric homines sapientes sapientes as intellectually equal to ourselves (Dechend, 1997: above), but they had a lifestyle quite different from ours: they were nomadic people, following the animal herds in their wanderings. They couldn't carry very many things along with them. (Sahlins 1976: 33-34). For this reason, if they chose to make recordings, they could record only the most important, most critical information relevant to them. Probably, calendaric and astronomic information is very high on the priority list. (Marshack 1972, Dechend 1993, Aveni 1986). And as nomads with few moveable belongings, they also had little use for accounting methods for foodstocks and possessions, as the later Mesopotamians did (Lambert 1966). It is therefore more likely that nomadic peoples will develop quite different ways to transmit their cultural memory than sedentary ones, because their constraints are so much different. The Aborigines of Australia present us with a lifestyle and habits that may be quite similar to such pre-historic hunter-gatherers, and inferences can be drawn from their example. Strehlow (1971), Munn (1973).

16.1.3. Some borderline cases of prehistoric para-writing

The archeological record presents us with many borderline cases of what can be called para-writing, systems of patterns or "ornamental" systems whose language encoding character cannot be established, and that cannot therefore be properly classified as writing. It is largely a matter of informed speculation to deduce from these remains what forms the forerunners of writing systems had and how they were used.

A typical borderline case of para-writing are the markings used by the cultures of Old Europe from around -5000, Belgrad area. Some researchers consider them as writing, with specific meanings attributed to the markings, the majority classes them as pure ornament. Literature: Gimbutas (1974: 17), (1995), Haarmann (1992: 70-81), Haarmann (1997: 677-679), and the discussion in Daniels (1996: 21-22). This case gives rise to the question whether there are alternative coding systems that we can hypostasize for ancient cultures that are of entirely different type than for encoding language constructs. The astronomical and mathematical possibilities may still have room for further exploration, and further interdisciplinary research could yield more material. See also: Dechend (1997: 1, 15), (1993), Aveni (1986).

One particularly interesting possibility for a hitherto unexplored mode of encoding are the zigzag patterns on spinning whorls depicted in Gimbutas (1995: 67). None of the researchers in the literature [492] makes any reference to the obvious fact that whorls revolve in normal usage, and so it is possible that these patterns indicate encodings of a cyclical characteristic, or the possibility that these patterns could only be "read" when the whorls were spinning. With the presently available insufficient data material, a further enquiry in this possibility is outside the scope of this study but it could be the subject of a consecutive work. See also:
->:WEAVING, p. 165.

The widely publicized theories of Schmandt-besserat (1978, 1992) about clay tokens being the precursors of writing in Mesopotamia have received increasingly critical reviews (Daniels 1996: 22-23) and so, the pre-history of writing continues to remain in the dark.

16.1.4. Earliest writing

The oldest writing system was found in Uruk, Mesopotamia, dating around -3200 (Lambert 1966), and a little later the most ancient hieroglyphs in Egypt. The academic consensus is today that the idea of writing came from the Sumerians to the Egyptians. (Daniels 1996: 24, 33). Chinese writing was probably invented independently.
->:CHINESE_WRT, p. 178)

16.2. Typology of writing systems

This section contains a typology and overview of the historical development of writing systems. The main sources are Daniels (1996) and Haarmann (1992a). The source Haarmann (1992a) is abbreviated with HA in this section. Typology adapted from: (HA 147). The abbreviation CS ( character system ) is used as more general expression for writing system to cover abstract-logographic types.

Logographic: one char encodes one concept or one word

Phonographic: encoding of sound sequences by chars
Segmental chars for consonant patterns
Syllabic chars for syllables
Abjad chars for single consonants
Alphabetic chars for consonants and vowels

16.2.1. Logographic


Examples of pictographic CS

Ancient Sumerian from -3200 to -2550 (HA 94-100,152-153 )
Ancient Egyptian before -2750 (HA 101-105,128-133, 212-214 )
Aztec pictograms (HA 201-206 )
These early writing systems derive from pictorial representations, i.e. the picture of a hand is used as the symbol for the concept "hand" etc. A further development into abstraction and generalization towards a logographic system occurs when the picture of a foot is used for the concept of "to walk, to go".


From (HA 148, 207-210)
Mathematical symbols
Dance notation systems
Musical notation
Professional technical coding systems, like chemistry, electrical symbols
Computer codes
Typographical symbols like "&", %, #, and @

Ideographic-Morphemic Chinese CS

China and Japan are the main great civilizations using the Chinese writing system (Korea is still partly using it besides their Hangul system). It probably originated entirely independently of the western Eurasian writing systems. (Daniels 1996: 189-190). It incorporates within its CS four different kinds of categories of representation (HA 171-187 ). Category 1: Its oldest chars are derived from pictorial representations which still constitute a small part of the CS, called hsiang hsing (HA 179). Category 2: there are single char ideograms called chih-shih, (HA 180). Category 3: compound ideograms of several chars are called hui-i, (HA 180). Category 4: compound chars with a morphemic element are called hsing-sheng (HA 181). This character formation pattern makes for about 90% of all current Chinese chars. It constructs a character from two root symbols: the semantic determinator and the phonographic indicator. There are two more categories of lesser importance: chuan-chu (HA 181) and chia-chieh (HA 181). For further discussion of Chinese writing:

16.2.2. Phonographic

Phonographic CS are encodings of sound structures. They are descendants of older Logographic CS (HA 211). The best recorded instance of this development is in the history of Mesopotamian CS.


Egyptian Hieroglyphic, Hieratic, Demotic from -3000 to about -100 (HA 213-223).
This CS encodes only consonant structures consisting of 1, 2, or 3 consonants. Since vowels are omitted these are called segments, to distinguish from syllables which are vowel-consonant patterns. There are numerous remnants of the older egyptian logographic structures (HA 218). The writing direction was variable. Hieroglyphs could be faced any of the four directions, so that the writing could mimic a dialogue between persons who faced each other - like speech bubbles in cartoons (HA 221, Schlott 1989, 162, 163).


Later Sumer cuneiform from -2400 (HA 223) . In Sumerian use, writing always kept a strong logographic component. The descendant cuneiform writings of the following peoples kept the shape and the techniques of character production, but adopted the system to a different language model, the semitic languages of Akkad (-2300), Babylon (-2000), Assur (-1500 to -700). They evolved more and more into phonographic systems (HA 225-242). The cuneiform script remained in use in astrological schools in Babylon until the Roman era, 50 CE. (Sandermann 1997, 14).

The Japanese writing systems of Hiragana and Katakana encode syllabic structures. This is an efficient method, because Japanese language has a simple syllabic structure of about 100 consonant-vowel (CV) morphemes. Coulmas (1981: 59), (Smith 1996: 210-212). Maya writing is a mixed logographic / syllabic CS (Macri 1996: 175).

Semitic Character Systems: Abjad / Aleph-Bayt

The exact descendance of the Semitic script, whether from an Egyptian or Mesopotamian script, is still a matter of debate. (Daniels 1996: 24-25). Somewhere on the Levant, a West Semitic (Canaanite) language-speaking people first developed an encoding standard for single consonants (abjad) between -2000 and -1500 (O'Connor 1996: 88-90). It writes from right to left. A family tree of ancient Semitic scripts is given in O'Connor (1996: 89). The northern branch gave rise to Ugarit cuneiform around -1500 (HA 267, 380) and Phoenician -1600 (HA 268 ff.). From this were derived the Aramaic (-800 to -400), and Hebrew (-500). The first characters of these scripts are called Aleph (Alep), Beth (Bayt), and Ghimel, Dallet. This naming was later adopted by the Greeks as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta. From the South Canaanite branch arose the Arabic scripts. At later times, a dot notation was introduced for vowels in Hebrew and Arabic.

A minority opinion sees an influence of the Minoan writing systems Linear A and B on the Phoenician alphabet. There is some indication of cross cultural influences between the Minoan civilization and the Phoenicians who took over the mediterranean trade from the Minoans after their civilization collapsed around -1400. Haarmann believes that an Old European CS influenced the Minoan CS which in turn influenced the Phoenician (HA 70-94, 267, 283). A discussion and critique of this view is found in Daniels (1996: 21-22, 24-25).
->:OLD_EUROPE, p. 176

Diffusion of the Canaanite system: Hebrew / Arabian / Indian, and East Asian

The presently used writing systems of most of civilizations on this planet are derived from the common semitic Canaanite source (O'Connor 1996: 89). (With the exception of Chinese-derived writing, which originated independently). These are the Arabic and Hebrew scripts, and the various Indian systems derived from Brahmi script (Devanagari and many others), see (Daniels 1996: 371-442), (HA 364), and Bright (1996: 384), and the South East Asian scripts, like Burmese, Khmer, Thai, etc. (Daniels 1996: 443-484).

Development of the Western Alphabet

The Greeks adopted Phoenician writing and added signs for vowels around -800. The writing direction was changed, first to the boustrophedon (as the ox plows) manner, then going from left to right (HA 282-288). The Greek alphabet was standardized in -403 by Archinos (HA 289). It diffused in all directions and gave rise to the Roman alphabet by the bridge of Etruscian and Tyrrhenian alphabets (HA 290-294). Other important derivations from the Greek CS are Cyrillic and Armenian CS. A dissenting opinion on the origin of the alphabet is voiced by Bernal (1987, 1990, 1991), who assumes a continuity of development between the cultures of ancient Egypt and the Levant and ancient Greece, and a strong Phoenician presence in ancient Greece. His theories are discussed in Daniels (1996: 23, 267).

16.2.3. Korean Hangul: the most refined implementation of the alphabetic principle

There is one writing system in wide usage that is perhaps a more perfect implementation of the alphabetic principle than the Greek-derived western alphabet: the Korean hangul. Haarmann (1990: 355-360), Haarmann (1997: 677), King (1996: 219-227).

16.2.4. Writing (Encarta)

The following articles from Microsoft Encarta give a comprehensive introduction to the different forms of writing and its history.

Writing, method of human intercommunication by means of arbitrary visual marks forming a system. Writing can be achieved in either limited or full systems, a full system being one that is capable of expressing unambiguously any concept that can be formulated in language.

Limited Writing Systems
Limited writing systems are generally used for purposes such as keeping accounts or as mnemonic devices for recalling significant facts or conveying general meanings. Also called subwriting, limited systems of writing include picture writing (or pictography), ideography, and the use of marked or unmarked objects as mnemonic devices. Such systems are characterized by a high degree of ambiguity because there is no fixed correspondence between the signs of the writing system and the language represented. For this reason interpretation of a limited system is usually independent of language. The purpose of the pictogram, ideogram, or object is to call to mind an image or impression that is subsequently expressed in language. This is clearly the procedure involved in the Native American picture writing that can be “read” easily by practically anyone with no knowledge whatever of Native American languages. On the other hand, if interpretation of limited writing systems is attempted without a knowledge of the cultural background of the writer, the image or impression called to mind by the writing will be meaningless or misunderstood.

Full Writing Systems
A full writing system is capable of expressing any concept that can be formulated in language. Therefore, full writing systems are characterized by a more or less fixed correspondence between the signs of the writing system and elements of the language the writing represents. The elements of language represented, then, can be words, syllables, or phonemes (the smallest units of speech that distinguish two different utterances in a language). Thus, writing systems can be categorized as word (or logographic), syllabic, or alphabetic. Because full writing systems represent elements of language, knowledge of the language written is required to understand the meaning intended by the writer. This does not mean that a writing system is tied to one language. In fact, writing systems are rather easily transferred from one language to another. This means only that, unlike a pictographic system, a full system conveys no meaning to the reader without a knowledge of the underlying language.

Word (or Logogram) Systems
Word writing systems are characterized by many signs called logograms which represent complete words. Such signs frequently represent a series of related words, and in many cases, one sign represents several separate and distinct words. In purely logographic writing, such distinctions usually remain unresolved and the writing is ambiguous. Certain types of signs, however, can be used to resolve the ambiguity and assure correct reading of the logogram. These signs are used as semantic and phonetic indicators and are often called determinatives and phonetic complements. Determinatives are signs used to indicate the class or category to which the word represented by the logogram belongs. Determinatives are logograms themselves and are not read but serve only to indicate the semantic group, such as gods, countries, birds, fish, verbs of motion, verbs of building, objects made of wood, objects made of stone, and so on, to which the logogram belongs. Phonetic complements are similar in use but more specific in that they show part or all of the pronunciation of the word that the logogram represents. In modern alphabetic writing in English, for example, the logogram “2” is read “two.” When the ordinal number is referred to, however, the phonetic complement “d” is attached and the logogram, plus complement “2nd,” is read “second.” In this example, for the first time, signs are used for purely phonetic (or nonlogographic) purposes. In other words, the sign functions not to call to mind an idea and the word associated with it, but to recall a sound which is part of the word that the logogram being read represents. Originally, phonetic indicators were chosen from the logograms that have a meaning corresponding to the desired sound. This device is known as phonetic transfer or, more commonly, rebus writing. Like determinatives, phonetic indicators are not to be read but serve only to facilitate the reading of the basic logogram.
Thus far, elements of language are expressed only by logograms. Such representation is adequate for most nouns and simple verbs, but not adequate for most adjectives and adverbs, and especially for pronouns and proper nouns such as personal names. It cannot express all the nuances of case endings and verbal inflection. A full system of writing, as defined above, must be capable of expressing all these if they exist in the language. Without this capability, a purely logographic writing system cannot be classified as a full system even if it makes use of semantic and phonetic indicators.

Syllabic Systems
The principle of phonetic transfer was used to overcome the limitations of logographic writings. By using signs to represent sounds, in this case, syllables, words that had no logographic representation could be expressed. In addition, morphemes, or case endings and verbal inflection, could be expressed by attaching the signs representing their sounds to the root logogram. It should be noted that, unlike phonetic indicators, such signs are to be read and interpreted as elements of the language being written.
The combined logo-syllabic system represents the first system of full writing. Once a system has reached a full capability of expression, the conflict in its development is between economy of writing (number of signs required to write a given utterance), and reduction of ambiguity. The major disadvantage of a logo-syllabic system is that it requires a very large number of signs because the number of words in a language is quite large. Grouping all words with similar meanings under one logogram, or using the same sign for different words, reduces the number of signs required, but such a system still needs at least 500 or 600 signs. Furthermore, ambiguity is very likely unless indicators are used, which means sacrificing the main advantage of having to use fewer signs per utterance. On the other hand, the number of signs needed for a purely syllabic system can be less than 100 and is seldom more than 200. The use of syllabic writing has the further advantage that the logograms do not have to be interpreted by the reader because the words are written out unambiguously in the phonetic script. The disadvantage of syllabic writing is that the system requires, on the average, more signs to write a given utterance. In its simplest form, a syllabic system consists only of consonant and vowel signs and signs for simple vowels.
The next step is the reduction of the syllabary, or the list of syllables, to only consonant and vowel signs, with the vowels undifferentiated. This reduces the number of signs required to the number of consonant sounds in the language, but increases the ambiguity in that the correct vowel sounds have to be supplied by the reader. Because this is syllabic writing the number of signs required to write a given utterance is the same as that for the simple syllabic system that expresses each vowel fully. The reduced syllabic system requires many fewer signs; therefore, each sign can be simpler. Although this type of writing is considered alphabetic by many people, it is more accurately called semialphabetic, as it does not indicate each phoneme of the language separately and unambiguously.

Alphabetic Systems
The final step toward fully alphabetic writing is the separation of the consonant sounds from the vowel sounds, and the separate writing of each. This requires a few more signs but eliminates the ambiguity of having the reader supply the vowels. Alphabetic writing requires the greatest number of signs for a given utterance, but the number of signs required for the system is small enough so that the signs can still be very simple. Because each sign represents a phoneme, the word that is intended by the writer is spelled out explicitly, and no sounds are required to be supplied by the reader. See ALPHABET.
These systems outline the theory and methods of writing, but in actual fact writing systems do not exist in these pure forms. Elements from one type of system are almost always found incorporated in another; an example is the number of logograms used with the modern alphabetic writing system.

History of Writing
Writing systems always tended to be conservative, their origins often being attributed to divine sources. Any change or modification was met with great hesitation, and even today, attempts to reform spelling or eliminate inconsistencies in writing conventions meet with strong resistance. Because of this conservatism major innovations in the structure of a writing system usually occurred when one people borrowed a system from another people. The Akkadians, for example, adapted the syllabic portion of the Sumerian logo-syllabic system to their own language, but retained the logograms, and used them regularly as a type of shorthand (see SUMERIAN LANGUAGE). When the Hittites borrowed the system from the Akkadians for their own language, they eliminated most of the polyphonous and homophonous syllabic signs and many of the Sumerian logograms, but used a number of Akkadian syllabic spellings as logograms (see HITTITE LANGUAGE).
The earliest known writing dates from shortly before 3000 BC, and is attributed to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. Because this earliest writing is logographic, it can be read only in vague terms, but the principle of phonetic transfer is apparent and was well on its way to becoming logo-syllabic. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is known from about 100 years later, and it is also the earliest authentication of the principle of phonetic transfer (see EGYPTIAN LANGUAGE; HIEROGLYPHS). It is possible that the development of Egyptian writing came as a result of Sumerian stimulus.
At about the same time, so-called Proto-Elamite writing developed in Elam. This system has yet to be deciphered, and nothing can be said of its nature at the present time except that, from the number of signs used, it is logo-syllabic. Logo-syllabic systems of writing also developed, at a later date, in the Aegean, in Anatolia, in the Indus Valley, and in China (see CHINESE LANGUAGE). From these logo-syllabic systems, syllabaries were borrowed by other peoples to write their own languages. The syllabary in its simplest and most reduced form (that is, signs for consonant plus any vowel) was borrowed by the Semitic peoples of Palestine and Syria from the Egyptians, leaving behind the logograms and more complex syllables of the Egyptian system, during the last half of the 2nd millennium BC (see SEMITIC LANGUAGES). This syllabary was almost ready-made because Egyptian writing had never expressed vowels. The earliest such semialphabetic writing is found in the so-called Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions, which date back to about 1500 BC. Another such system, dated to about 1300 BC, was found at Ugarit on the northern Syrian coast, but in this case the writing was inscribed on clay in the manner of Mesopotamian cuneiform. Similar writing systems were developed by the other peoples of this region, and it was from the Phoenicians that the Greeks borrowed their writing system. The Greeks took the final step of separating the consonants from the vowels and writing each separately, thus arriving at full alphabetic writing about 800 BC (see GREEK LANGUAGE). Alphabetic writing has yet to be improved upon in terms of the definition of a full writing system. See also separate articles on all the individual letters of the English alphabet.

Contributed by: R. M. Whiting, Ignace Jay Gelb
"Writing," Microsoft (R) Encarta.

16.2.5. Semitic Languages (Encarta)

Semitic Languages, one of the five subfamilies or branches of the Hamito-Semitic or Afro-Asiatic language family (see HAMITO.SEMITIC LANGUAGES). Of the Semitic languages, Arabic was carried beyond its original home in the Arab Peninsula throughout the Arab Empire and is spoken across North Africa to the Atlantic coast, and Arabic and Hebrew are used by Muslims and Jews in other parts of the world. The other Semitic languages are centered in a region bounded on the west by Ethiopia and on the north by Syria and extending southeast through Iraq and the Arab Peninsula, with some “islands” of Semitic speech farther east in Iran.

Linguistic Groups
Linguists divide the Semitic languages into four groups. The North Peripheral group is represented by the Assyro-Babylonian language, or Akkadian. The oldest attested Semitic language, with the oldest Semitic literature, Akkadian was spoken in Mesopotamia between about 3000 BC and 600-400 BC and used as a literary language until the 1st century AD.
The North Central group includes the ancient and modern Hebrew language; ancient tongues such as Ugaritic and Phoenician; and the Aramaic language, including Syriac, or Christian Aramaic.
The South Central group consists of literary or Standard Arabic and the modern spoken Arabic dialects (see ARABIC LANGUAGE). Maltese, an offshoot of Arabic, is spoken on the island of Malta and, because of its location, has been heavily influenced by Italian.
The South Peripheral group consists of the South Arabic dialects, now spoken in parts of the southern Arab Peninsula (and in ancient times by peoples such as the Minaeans and Sabaeans); and the languages of Ethiopia. The latter include Gecez, or classical Ethiopic, now surviving only as a literary and liturgical language; Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia; and regional Ethiopian languages such as Tigré, Tigrinya, and Gurage.

In Semitic languages, words are typically based on a series of three consonants; this series, called the root, carries the basic meaning. Superimposed on the root is a pattern of vowels (or vowels and consonants) that signifies variations in the basic meaning or that serves as an inflection (such as for verb tense and number). For example, in Arabic the root ktb refers to writing, and the vowel pattern -a-i- implies “one who does something”; thus, katib means “one who writes.” Other derivatives of the same root include kitab, “book”; maktub, “letter”; and kataba, “he wrote.” The close relationship of the Semitic languages to one another can be seen in the persistence of the same roots from one language to another (slm, for example, means “peace” in Assyro-Babylonian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and other languages). In Semitic languages, related consonants typically fall into three subtypes: voiced, unvoiced, and emphatic; an example is the series transliterated g, k, and q from Arabic and Hebrew (the q is pronounced farther back in the throat than k).

Except for two undeciphered scripts used by the ancient Canaanites, and the Latin alphabet as used for Maltese, Semitic languages have historically been written in three scripts. Assyro-Babylonian was written in cuneiform signs, and Ugaritic used a cuneiform alphabet. North Semitic, the early Semitic script, was an alphabetic script; one of its earliest examples is inscribed on the Moabite stone (9th century BC, discovered in 1868 and now in the Louvre, Paris). From the Aramaic variant of North Semitic, the modern Arabic and square Hebrew alphabets developed; North Semitic also gave rise to the Greek alphabet. Like ancient North Semitic, the Hebrew and Arabic scripts are alphabets of consonants only; special marks for vowels apparently came into use in about the 8th century AD. The third script, South Semitic or South Arabic, may or may not have been another variant of early North Semitic script. Also a consonantal alphabet, it was taken to Ethiopia in the 1st millennium BC and gave rise to the syllabic scripts used for modern Ethiopian languages.
See also ALPHABET.

"Semitic Languages," Microsoft (R) Encarta.

16.2.6. Alphabet (Encarta)

The Encarta definition of Alphabet differs from the one used in this study. In the strict definition, as used in the present study, the "North Semitic Alphabet" and "Arabic Alphabet" would have to mean Abjad.

Alphabet (from alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet), set of written symbols, each representing a given sound or sounds, which can be variously combined to form all the words of a language.
An alphabet attempts ideally to indicate each separate sound by a separate symbol, although this end is seldom attained, except in the Korean alphabet (the most perfect phonetic system known) and, to a lesser degree, in the Japanese syllabaries. Alphabets are distinguished from syllabaries and from pictographic and ideographic systems. A syllabary represents each separate syllable (usually a sequence of from one to four spoken sounds pronounced as an uninterrupted unit) by a single symbol. Japanese, for example, has two complete syllabaries—the hiragana and the katakana—devised to supplement the characters originally taken over from Chinese. A pictographic system represents picturable objects, for example, a drawing of the sun stands for the spoken word sun. An ideographic system combines various pictographs for the purpose of indicating nonpicturable ideas. Thus, the Chinese pictographs for sun and tree are combined to represent the Chinese spoken word for east.
Early systems of writing were of the pictographic-ideographic variety; among them are the cuneiform of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, Egyptian hieroglyphs, the written symbols still used by the Chinese and Japanese (see CHINESE LANGUAGE; JAPANESE LANGUAGE), and Mayan picture writing (see NATIVE AMERICAN LANGUAGES; MAYA). What converts such a system into an alphabet or syllabary is the use of a pictograph or ideograph to represent a sound rather than an object or an idea. The sound is usually the initial sound of the spoken word denoted by the original pictograph. Thus, in early Semitic, a pictograph representing a house, for which the Semitic spoken word was beth, eventually came to symbolize the initial b sound of beth. This Semitic symbol, standing originally for the entire word beth and later for the sound of b, ultimately became the b of the English alphabet.

North Semitic Alphabet
The general supposition is that the first known alphabet developed along the eastern Mediterranean littoral between 1700 and 1500 BC. This alphabet, known as North Semitic, evolved from a combination of cuneiform and hieroglyphic symbols; some symbols might have been taken from kindred systems, such as the Cretan and Hittite. The North Semitic alphabet consisted exclusively of consonants. The vowel sounds of a word had to be supplied by the speaker or reader. The present-day Hebrew and Arabic alphabets still consist of consonantal letters only, the former having 22 and the latter 28. Some of these, however, may be used to represent long vowels, and vowels may also be indicated in writing by optional vowel points and dashes placed below, above, or to the side of the consonant. Writing is from the right to the left. See ARABIC LANGUAGE; SEMITIC LANGUAGES.
Many scholars believe that about 1000 BC four branches developed from the original Semitic alphabet: South Semitic, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Greek. (Other scholars, however, believe that South Semitic developed independently from North Semitic or that both developed from a common ancestor.) The South Semitic branch was the ancestor of the alphabets of extinct languages used in the Arabian Peninsula and in the modern languages of Ethiopia. Canaanite was subdivided into Early Hebrew and Phoenician, and the extremely important Aramaic branch became the basis of Semitic and non-Semitic scripts throughout western Asia. The non-Semitic group was the basis of the alphabets of nearly all Indian scripts; the Semitic subbranch includes Square Hebrew, which superseded Early Hebrew to become the prototype of modern Hebrew writing.

Greek and Roman Alphabets
The Greeks adapted the Phoenician variant of the Semitic alphabet, expanding its 22 consonant symbols to 24 (even more in some dialects), and setting apart some of the original consonant symbols to serve exclusively as vowels (see GREEK LANGUAGE). After about 500 BC, Greek was regularly written from left to right. The Greek alphabet spread throughout the Mediterranean world, giving rise to various modified forms, including the Etruscan, Oscan, Umbrian, and Roman alphabets. Because of Roman conquests and the spread of the Latin language, that language's Roman alphabet became the basic alphabet of all the languages of western Europe.

Cyrillic Alphabet
About AD 860 Greek missionaries from Constantinople converted the Slavs to Christianity and devised for them a system of writing known as Cyrillic (see CYRILLIC ALPHABET) from the name of one of its inventors, the apostle to the South Slavs, Saint Cyril. The Cyrillic alphabet, like the Roman, stems from the Greek; it is based on a 9th-century writing style. Additional characters, however, were devised to represent Slavic sounds that had no Greek equivalents. The Cyrillic alphabet, in various forms, is used currently in Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and Bulgarian, but not in Polish, Czech, Slovak, or Slovenian, which are written in modified Roman alphabets. An interesting division exists in the Balkans, where the Roman Catholic Croats use the Roman alphabet, but the Greek Orthodox Serbs employ Cyrillic for the same language.

Arabic Alphabet
The Arabic alphabet, another offshoot of the early Semitic one, probably originated about the 4th century AD. It has spread to such languages as Persian and Urdu and is generally used by the Islamic world: throughout the Near and Middle East, in parts of Asia and Africa, and in southern Europe. Arabic is written in either of two forms: Kufic, a heavy, bold, formal script, was devised at the end of the 7th century; Naskhi, a cursive form, is the parent of modern Arabic writing. The question arises whether the various alphabets of India and Southeast Asia are indigenous developments or offshoots of early Semitic. One of the most important Indian alphabets, the Devanagari alphabet used in the Sanskrit language (See also INDIAN LANGUAGES), is an ingenious combination of syllabic and true alphabetic principles. The progenitors, whether Semitic or Indian, of the Devanagari alphabet seem also to have given rise to the written alphabets of Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Sinhalese, Burmese, and Siamese, or Thai.

Artificial Alphabets
Most of the alphabets considered in this article evolved gradually or were adapted from older prototypes. Some alphabets, however, have been created artificially for peoples previously illiterate, or for nations hitherto using alphabets of foreign origin. An outstanding example is the Armenian alphabet invented by Saint Mesrob in 405 and still in use today. Also of great interest is the Mongolian hP'ags-Pa script (written from top to bottom), invented in China about 1269. In modern times, the Cherokee syllabary was invented soon after 1820 by the Native American leader Sequoya. Later in the 19th century, missionaries and others created syllabaries and alphabets for Native American languages, based on the Roman and, in the northwest, Russian Cyrillic scripts.

Alphabet Modifications
Any alphabet used by peoples speaking different languages undergoes modifications. Such is the case with respect both to the number and form of letters used and to the subscripts and superscripts, or diacritical marks (accents, cedillas, tildes, dots, and others), used with the basic symbols to indicate modifications of sound. The letter c with a cedilla, for instance, appears regularly in French, Portuguese, and Turkish, but rarely, except in borrowed words, in English. The value of ç in French, Portuguese, and English is that of s, but in Turkish it represents the ch sound in church. It used to represent ts in Spanish, but that sound no longer exists in standard Spanish. So, too, letters have different sound values in different languages. The letter j, for example, as in English jam, has a y sound in German.
Although alphabets develop as attempts to establish a correspondence between sound and symbol, most alphabetically written languages are highly unphonetic, largely because the system of writing remains static while the spoken language evolves. Thus, the spelling of the English word knight reflects the pronunciation of an earlier period of the language, when the initial k was pronounced and the gh represented a sound, since lost, similar to the German ch in Wacht. The divergence between the written and spoken forms of certain languages, particularly English, has prompted movements for spelling reform. See also LANGUAGE; RUNES; SHORTHAND; WRITING and articles on the individual letters and languages.

Contributed by: Mario Pei, David Marshall Lang, "Alphabet," Microsoft (R) Encarta.

16.2.7. Advantage factors of Chinese writing

The work of Leibniz on his Characteristica Universalis was influenced by the reports of the Jesuite missionaries on the Chinese writing system. Goppold (1994), Widmaier (1983, 1990). Although his information was rudimentary at best, he realized that the ideographic principle of the writing system made it suitable for unifying a multilingual territory.

Goppold (1994: 278-279), (transl. A.G.): In the present situation of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual Europe, an understanding of the relevance of Chinese writing for the unification of the Chinese empire is of prime importance. Chinese writing is an ideographic symbol system that is independent of the spoken language. Prior to the unification of the Chinese empire the number, variance, and spread of dialects and sublanguages was much higher than today [493]. Therefore a notation system which was based on an ideographic instead of a phonetic base, was advantageous for the formation of a central administrative structure. The writing system didn't put any of the spoken dialects into a preferred position, and avoided the ethnic domination of a particular language group. This was a decisive factor... why China didn't break apart into a patchwork of separate national-language states, as Europe did in the last 2000 years. The language-cultural-ideological dominance tendency lies at the root of european national [and regional] conflicts. And this is an ever-threatening obstacle for a further integration of Europe. Leibniz had recognized this factor in his attempts to overcome the cultural discrepancies in Europe and his Characteristica Universalis was a means for this end.

Goody (1987: 282) : Access to past literature and to other peoples was one positive aspect of the use of Latin... A similar advantage has been attributed to the Chinese logographic script; it holds a diverse country together precisely because it does not exclusively represent the sounds of any one specific local dialect or language.
Ong (1977: 33): Chinese is ... in fact a group of mutually unintelligible languages, each with its own subset of dialects... If two persons speaking "dialects" of "Chinese" so different that they cannot understand one another at all.. will only write in Chinese characters what they are saying, each will be able to understand what the writer means...
This situation is destined to be altered drastically when all the speakers of Chinese learn Mandarin Chinese, which is now being taught... as obligatory to everyone in the People's Republic of China...
But Mandarin is not Classical Chinese, wênyen, the learned language...
Ong (1977: 34): Once Mandarin is known to speakers of all varieties of Chinese, the step to alphabetization will be short and, ... inevitable and rapid, however sad and disastrous.

The independence from spoken language is one main advantage factors of Chinese writing over the Alphabet. Although Chinese writing is relatively more complicated than alphabetic writing, this language-independence has served China well for about 3000 years. (And countries like Japan and Korea for a shorter time). Another factor of advantage over the alphabet is the longevity of the cultural memory it conveys. Every contemporary literate person who was trained in classical Chinese could immediately understand Chinese texts that were written 2000 years ago. Coulmas (1981: 61, 80-108), and personal communication, Prof. Ye.
Prof. Ye, as one of the last members of the pre-war trained Chinese intellectual elite, could convey this essential insight by personal contact to the author. The depth of collective cultural memory that Chinese Writing thus conveys is also very hard to explain to non-Chinese people. The continuity of thought for the Chinese intellectual elite is similar to experiencing the sayings of Confucius in the way one remembers the words of the grandmother. The thinking of the Chinese elite is (or was) governed by this effect to a great extent. Today, the PR China writing reform simplified and therefore changed many signs, and the drive for alphabetization is under way. (See Ong, above)

16.3. Artificial Symbol Systems


16.3.1. The search for the "perfect symbol system" and the "perfect language"

A short desciption and references to this field are given by Noeth (1985: 299-319).

The search for the "perfect symbol system", or "perfect language" is a very old quest [494]. The main source referenced here is Eco (1993), all further references in this paragraph are to this work. This quest looks back to an immensely voluminous production of all sorts of alternatives to languages and writing systems in use and reaches far back into history (15-33). The origin of Christianity occurred in the cultural interchange between the alphabet-based Greek hellenistic world and the Jewish thought system based on the Aramaic / Hebrew language and writing. The Biblical accounts of the Adamic creation of language and the confusion of languages in the Tower of Babylon episod, and the focal emphasis on the logos (translated as the word ) in Joh. 1,1, [495] embedded the idea of an ideal language-/ writing system into Christian western european culture. It surfaced in various guises, for example under the name of Cabbala and considerations of Hebrew as ideal (Adamic) language (p. 38-46, 84-90, 127-134). The Ars Magna of Lullus (65-81) can be called a logical extension and systematization of the alphabetical principle as well as a continuation of the cabbalistic approach (135-142). Giordano Bruno extends the Lullian program by usage of visual images derived from ancient Greek mythology (142-152). A fundamental re-orientation toward non-alphabetical principles was attempted in a revival movement of the Renaissance based on phantastic imaginations of the Egyptian hieroglyphic principle (153-163) that were derived from a manuscript called Hieroglypica of Horapollo (154). This claimed to derive from ancient Egyptian orign, but is now thought to be late hellenistic (154). The Renaissance humanists (among them) Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, derived from this that the hieroglyphs had been a system of polysemic initiatic symbols, wich refer to an occult, unknown, secret, mysterious knowledge of the ancients (162-163). An extension and elaboration of this work was done by Athanasius Kircher (163-167) who also developed an equally phantastic scheme of the principles of Chinese writing, of which some scant details had just become known in Europe through the Jesuite missionaries at the court of the Chinese emperor (167-174). Later he developed a character system, called Polygraphia (206-210). Comenius worked at pictorial principles for understanding and learning (221-224), and between Dalgarno and Wilkins, an English effort was made to develop universal categorical schemata with special notation systems (236-266). The work of Leibniz on the Characteristica Universalis is partially based on his projections into Chinese writing and the I Ching with the rudimentary data material he obtained from the Jesuite missionaries in China (276-298). This issue will be dealt with in more depth in the next section. After 1700, the quest for "perfect languages" (and writing systems) largely subsided, and what developments were made, had the aim of creating international lingua franca systems that were alphabet based, like Volapük and Esperanto, (313-341). The Andean language Aymara had been investigated for its potential as interlanguage for computerized translation by Guzman (351).

16.3.2. Bliss symbols

A recent comprehensive approach to the development of a graphical and iconic Artificial Symbol Systems is the Bliss system (also called semantography by the author), that is not mentioned by Eco. All further references in this subsection are to Bliss (1978). This edition is a reproduction of the original typewritten manuscript of the author from the first edition 1949, with a preface of 62 pages, and the original work starting on page 63. In total, the 1978 edition has 881 pages. In his work, the author makes an attempt at re-drawing, and re-working the whole development of human symbolization with the intent of remediating the deficiencies of spoken natural languages in general, and the course taken by civilizations, the principle of phonetic writing in special. In this he makes a thorough comparison and analysis of the basic differences between verbal, linear, concept organized thought, as is the main intellectual operating mode for the literate people of our civilizations, and he contrasts it with the visual and spatial modes of thinking that are engendered when one uses a graphical and iconic system. He draws heavily on his own experience of living in China to discuss the advantages of Chinese writing in this respect [496]. He presents some popular ideas on the possible origins of speech, a description of the origins of visual symbols in the cave drawings of Altamira, and Lascaux, in France and Spain via the development of writing up to the present (749-777). The ambitiousness of the Bliss project is evidenced in the citations that are given on the cover and on the opening pages of the book (unfortunately without bibliographical references):
(Cover page): I think these thoughts will some day be carried out, so agreeable and natural appears to me this writing for rendering our conceptions more real. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz (1679) [497]
"Bliss' heroic work ... realized the ambition of the great mathematician Leibniz," said Prof. O.L. Reiser (Pittsburgh) in 1951 to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
(p. 2): "Ideographic writing will surely achieve the final victory over phonetic writing." Prof. Basil Hall Chamberlain (1950)

The Bliss system presents a comprehensive effort at creating a new non-phonetic symbol-system. It consists of a set of base symbols (p. 100-120), and a grammar to construct compound symbols. One main problem of graphical symbol sets is the issue of technical production with tools available in the private household. Since this approach was developed before the advent of computer technology, Bliss had to devise a typewriter method to construct the symbols from graphic elements, which is described on p. 139-141, and 226-229. The high aim and scope of this work nonwithstanding, it seems to have remained unknown except in insider circles. With present-day computer tools, there are many possibilities that Bliss couldn't use, and many of his approaches have been taken up (independently?) in new form with new technology by other workers.

16.3.3. Artificial languages with computer support tools

The availability of computers has given new impulses for creating new languages and notation systems. One of those is Loglan which was originally developed to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Brown 1989: 31). The main distinction from prior attempts at language construction is the usage of formal grammar principles that make any sentence expressed in that language unambiguously computer parsable (Brown 1989: 42). A principal problem of artificial language design, discussed at length by Bodmer (1985: 409-518), could not be solved by Brown. The obstacle that Loglan shares with all prior approaches for new artificial languages, is that it requires the prospective user to first learn a new vocabulary that bears little resemblance to her original native language. This is the chicken-egg problem of any artificial language, because its practical value is not only determined by how good and logical it is by some abstract criteria, but it depends more on the language community, how many other people speak it. If one can gain an only slightly inferior conversation effect, using plain English, but reaching approximately half the world population, the learning of the new language is too much of an investment in time and energy to justify the effort, and for this reason, most artificially designed languages never gain enough following to create a language community.

But, as outlined in Goppold (1994: 279-282), [498] a computerized language system has properties and potentials that earlier writing technology didn't have: it goes beyond the alphabet, because the symbols used can be names or command sequences of executable programs. Thus the symbols are not silent any more as Platon had remarked in Phaidros, [499] but they can "speak" and "act" for themselves. Computerized systems allow mixed mode text with a separate, artificially designed logic structure for grammar, but using the native vocabularies of the users, thus reducing the learning investment of the user considerably. They can provide on-line grammar disambiguation and automatic translation support for the user. Such computer supported systems are feasible for written communication . One such approach for on-line computer support of an artificial grammar is described in Goppold ( 1994: 282). Recent advances in computer multimedia tools foster new approaches to implement multimedial notation systems. One example of these is the computer visualization / MUSLI project (Lennon 1994, 1995, Maurer 1992).

16.3.4. The multimedia and information revolution

The present "multimedia and information revolution" is an important factor that will decisively influence all future cultural medialities of humanity. Goppold (1984b), (1984c), (1995c), (1996b), Lévy (1996), Shenk (1997), Stoll (1996), Veltman (1997), (1998). But it will not solve one of the main problems: While the Internet allows us to channel multi-megabytes of data into our computers, our reading facilities to process that data deluge remain at the biblical speed of 50 char/sec. Not much can be done to increase the basic reading speed. So our main problem with the "information revolution" may be that comparable to starving next to a banquet with many tables hugely stacked with the most delicious food. [500] We know it is there, and we can even get it, but our human reading speed will forever lag far behind the ever swelling data deluge. As Stoll (110-119, 227-311) notes, a hasty conversion of card catalogs to computer databases aggravates the problem, since the new databases loose essential information retrieval facilities that the manual methods had. But the new computerized multimedial forms of information representation may be the only means that our civilizations have as a chance to stem against that flood. Veltman (1986, 1997, 1998).

[490] ->:BEDNARIK, p. 195
[491] ->:PRELIMINARY_DEF, p. 103
[492] Barthel, Gimbutas, Haarmann.
[493] See Bodmer (1978: 430-446)
[494] Eco (1993) uses the term "perfect language" in the title in a rather loose sense, such as to include symbol systems of all sorts.
[495] ->:LOGOS, p. 197
[496] Although present-day chinese writing has a strong morphemic element. ->:CHINESE_WRT, p. 178
[497] p. 2. This applies to the Characteristica Universalis. The misspelling of the name of Leibniz is left as in the original quotation.
[498] ->:GOPPOLD_CODES, p. 111
[499] ->:PLATO_PHAIDROS, p. 201
[500] In the scholastic tradition also known as the problem of "Buridan's ass". (Hoffmeister 1955: 133).

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