Utopian Writing Systems

In this blog, I tend to focus on new books, but an online article by the BBC this week reminded me of a great book of ours that’s been in print for over 30 years: Writing Systems of the World. The article Could a new phonetic alphabet promote world peace? is about a group that has developed and is promoting a “universal phonetic alphabet”, called saypU (Spell As You Pronounce Universal), for the purpose of “improving literacy rates and providing the right to education to everyone”.

“Providing the right to education”? Fine words, but here’s my two cents’ worth about spelling. English spelling rolls along like a thousand-year-old Rube Goldberg machine, a whirl of rules that stopped making sense a long time ago governing a body of mismatched gears, chains, and levers. The strength of this wheezing old contraption is not beauty or logic, but that when it rolls past another language of any shape (or spelling), English can attach to itself anything that will stick and keep going.

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I’m all for teaching kids phonics. It’s better than nothing, but let’s admit it: English spelling is beyond reform. Anyhow, is how to spell “orthography” really the problem, or is it that students don’t know what the word means? Moreover, my sense is that uniform spelling is like trying to make the value of pi equal 3. Not only is it a false simplicity; it destroys a natural complexity the mastery of which brings the student a little wisdom.

For those of us who accept writing in all its rich, messy diversity, Writing Systems of the World a great book. A 1980 translation of Akira Nakanishi’s 1975 book 世界の文字 (Sekai no Moji, “Alphabets of the World”), the book is a geographic survey of writing systems in Europe, West Asia (the Middle East), “in and around India”, SE Asia, East Asia, North and South America, and Oceania.

For each region, Nakanishi writes a comprehensive, 1-2 page overview of its major writing systems with illustrations or samples, often a page of newsprint. For East Asia, for example, Nakanishi covers Chinese characters, Tibetan script, the elegant vertical lines of Mongolian, Korean hangul, and Japanese kana. A supplemental section gives small examples of other scripts that may be pre-historic, past, from less-commonly spoken languages (like Uighur in China), and sometimes scripts that linguists have innovated for a non-written language.

The book has a few anachronistic sections, especially the one devoted to “Scripts of the USSR”. And yet I think these historic examples (like the masthead of a 1974 edition of “Pravda”) give the book more weight, not less. If you’d like to win this book, click here to email me and write “scripts” (or any alternative spelling you like) in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner on Monday morning.

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5 thoughts on “Utopian Writing Systems

  1. Agreed. While the standardization of spelling that began during the 16th century has spawned a sometimes difficult gap between the fixed way we write words and the ever-changing way we pronounce them, the practical benefits of standardization probably outweigh the disadvantages. In other words, if standardization were not inherently useful, it would not have become universal. (By the way, anybody who thinks the situation in English is bad should look no further than French to see just how far pronunciation can deviate from a rigid orthography.) Still, given the historical flexibility that has made English so strong and enduring, I think there should be some ongoing tolerance of spelling innovation. The sight of ‘thru’ instead of ‘through’ rather warms my heart in a 16th-century way.

    • I’m with you. No need to preserve English spelling forever in amber. Searching for a middle way between Stalinist standardization and, say, chaos, I’d like see people approach spelling innovations as conscious choices, just as you parsed out “thru” vs. “through”.

      More often, I think, we blunder into them as mistakes, and they become permanent after they’ve been repeated often enough or show up on product packages (“Delishus Lite Creme Cheez!”). I was more comfortable taking a highly “descriptive” point of view about spelling when US high-school students were better spellers.

      • While I am an evangelical descriptivist (thank you, OED), I know it sometimes takes a strong stomach to withhold judgment on, er, unintentional deviations from standard spelling or grammar, especially if they occur in a context of adolescent (or celebrity) inanity. However, in the natural way of things, today’s standard form is often yesterday’s mistake – if not just one of several dozen alternative spellings that are attested in written work over the centuries.

        As a shred of comfort to those who find English spelling impossible, I’ll note that some of our best writers were actually crummy spellers. I recently read the letters of Jane Austen and noted with interest that she consistently reversed ‘ie’ and ‘ei’ throughout her life. For example, she routinely wrote ‘beleive’ and ‘recieve’ in her letters, and presumably also in her novel manuscripts. Of course, Chaucer and Shakespeare worked before spelling standardization had taken hold, and their writings are among the most venerated in English. So there should be some hope for those who can’t spell.

      • I didn’t know that! It makes me smile that Jane Austen was a lousy speller. (Sorry, Jane.)

        I wonder if some future age will regard the drunken tweets of Lindsay Lohan as the apex of their medium.

  2. Yeah, as far as I’m concerned, anybody who writes a novel as good as Persuasion can spell however they like.

    As for anybody’s drunken tweets, let’s hope not. In the words of Alain de Botton, “Tweets are to literature as Lego is to architecture.”

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