Geoffrey Sampson: Writing Systems

[Readings] (01.19.09, 2:52 am)

This book is about the linguistics of writing. Generally, linguistics is centered around the language of speech, and neglects the characteristics of writing. I was interested in this book from two main perspectives. The first is the consideration of written text for analysis. The second is the purpose of developing some sort of writing system for character communication within a simulated world. An in-world language is arguably necessary, (as discussed in Crawford), but is an enormously risky venture, fraught with problems and difficulties. Sampson does not provide clear answers to these questions, but does provide a vocabulary and method for thinking about them cohesively.

Linguistics has classically ignored written language in favor of speech. This division comes from several philosophical perspectives. speech and langauge play an important part in the development of parts of the brain in evolution, and this evolutionary root underscores the importance of speech to language. Writing is a cultural development, and its influence becomes the strongest after the invention of print. Writing is still very important culturally. Sampson’s thesis question is to develop a linguistics of writing.

Three categories of study must be distinguished around writing: typology, history, and psychology. Typology deals with form: what types of written languages are there. The types of written languages, as played out in alphabets and such, are often determined by cultural differences. An example is the adoption of Roman versus Cyrillic alphabets in Eastern Europe. The spoken languages are similar, but the alphabets are divided along the line of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The history of writing examines how writing changes. The historical development of writing is different from the historical development of speech, as can be seen to play out in spelling, conventions, and the like. Sampson makes an interesting argument about the value of writing. The linguistics of speech avoids declarations of value to ways of speaking. It is inappropriate to argue that one spoken language is better than another, because value is determined within a culture, and cannot be asserted externally. However, writing does not face this problem. Writing is a tool like any other, and writing systems may have more or less value depending on the circumstances of their use.

Sampson introduces a vocabulary for discussing writing. “I shall use the terms script, writing-system, or orthography, to refer to a given set of written marks together with a a particular set of conventions for their use.” (p. 19) Orthography has much to do with conventions beyond the actual symbols themselves. A language and a script are often conflated, but they are different. Writing is not the same as the transcription of speech, and this is due to the conventions of use. Writing operates according to different grammatical rules and conventions. Multiple scripts may be used to write for one language, and one script may be used for multiple languages as well. The units of writing are graphs. Sampson argues against the use of the terms symbols, characters, letters, and the like, due to their inspecificity. Sampson defines writing itself is a system for communicating using “permanant, visible marks”.

There are to major kinds of writing systems: semasiographic and glottographic. The former uses images with conventions of reading and interpretation. This can be translated into a spoken language, but not read directly. Semasiographic scripts are not normally understood as writing, but are pervasive in communication. Visual illustrations to convey instructions are semasiographic. More poignantly, mathematics is a semasiographic system. These are generally passed over in favor of glottographic systems. There is a lot to be said for semasiographic systems in digital media, and Crawford’s early work using sentence construction belongs in this category. It is interesting to note that semasiographic symbols may have “names”, or translations, which convey how to read the individual icon, but the entire system is still semasiographic because even witht the names, the text cannot be simply read.

Sampson divides glottographic systems into logographic and phonographic subcategories. He notably eschews the term “ideographic” because it is unclear. Logographic systems are similar to semasiographic systems in that they are pictoral, but they are not meant to be interpreted or translated explicitly. Spoken language is “double articulated”, according to Andre Martinet: It articulates thoughts into units, and then provides vocal codes for these units. Thus, a written language that can be read may articulate either the vocal codes, or the units of thought themselves. A pictographic language uses images to designate words is logographic. Phonographic scripts represent the actual phonetic symbols in the words, and generally letters are used to denote vocal sounds.

Systems may be classified according to a couple more principles. Systems may be motivated (iconic) or arbitrary. This difference applies to both phonetic and logographic scripts. A motivated phonetic alphabet will have like-sounding characters resemble each other, while a motivated ideographic script might have graphs which resemble the things they are supposed to represent. Systems may also be complete or incomplete (defective). Completeness relies on the capacity of the written language to carry across the range of expression in the actual language. It is relatively straightforward to see how ideographic scripts may be incomplete, but phonographic languages may be incomplete in other respects as well. English writing is unable to carry through in script the various vocal intonations that might be associated with a sentence. In human speech, intonation can carry across much important data.

Having discussed these fundamental points, Sampson reviews many different written languages. Only a few of these were really noteworthy, so I will examine those here:

The first case study is of Sumerian writing. This was developed for the highly specialized purpose of recording transactions. It is composed of both motivated and arbitrary graphs: Many transactions were written with an image denoting the object being bought or sold, and a number, the components of which are arbitrary in comparison. Because writing was specialized and intended for this very specific purpose, it is difficult to consider it incomplete. Sampson makes a brilliant analogy to computer programming. One usually does not say that a programming language is incomplete because it cannot express Tennyson. The both programming languages and Sumerian cuneiform emerged to fill particular needs. Sampson also compares the transaction writing to a kind of mnemonic, like a note that one might jot down in a calendar, which is adistillation of a sentence into its salient elements.

Consonantal writing is phonographic orthography without vowels, as is the case in Hebrew script. Generally, context is sufficient for determining the meaning of ambiguous terms. However, the language has low redundancy. The term of redundancy is borrowed from Shannon and Weaver, and is a property of information theory. “A system possessing relatively high redundancy is one where, in an average signal, the identity fo any given part of the signal is relatively easy to predict given the rest of the signal. Suppose that a policeman telephones to give you details of a suspect who needs to be looked out for, but because the line is bad you hear only some of the letters and numbers as they are spelled out: you hear the suspect’s name is F*ANK DAW*ON and his car registration is OWY 9*8P.” The suspect’s name in this example is easy to determine because English names have high redundancy. Car registrations have low redundancy, so the missing digit is impossible to reconstruct. Redundancy is an important consideration in written text, as well as in the laanguage used to communicate itself.

In terms of alphabet and construction, Han’gul composes graphs according to phonetic differences and is clearly differentiated. Graphemes map to phonemes, and similar phonemes have similar graphemes and vice versa. Syllables are organized into larger structures through construction. The tying of these graphs together is powerful for phonetics, but for language construction, I need a semantic system for developing a composed language.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSampson, Geoffrey
TitleWriting Systems: A Linguistic Introduction
Tagsspecials, media traditions, narrative, linguistics
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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