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.