Writing; The ABCs of Language

The History of Writing

  • Pictograms and Ideograms

    • Petroglyphs: rock drawings found in caves like Altamira Altamira pic
    • Pictograms: image of an object
    • Ideograms: pictogram that represents an idea
  • Cuneiform Writing

    • Old known form of writing, developed by the Sumerians
    • Wedge-shaped form of symbols

Logograms: symbols that represent words (used in word-writing systems like Chinese)
Emoticons: strings of text characters that represent emotions; used in email and electronic communication

  • Phonographic symbol: stands for a sound that represents a word.
  • not efficient for all words, but fun and popular for kids (in the example below, take away the letter sound after the dash)


  • Egyptians used pictographic system which the Greeks called Hieroglyphics
  • Pictograms  came to represent both the concept and the word for the concept
  • Through the Rebus Principle, Hieroglyphics became a syllabic writing system
  • Phoenicians developed the West Semitic Syllabary (most were symbols for consonants)
  • Greeks tried to borrow the Phoenician writing system – but Greek has a complex syllable structure; Greeks took the extra consonants and made them symbolize the Greek vowels. the result was Alphabetic writing (from the names of the first and last letters of the Greek alphabetalpha and beta
  • Etruscans knew the Greek system (probably because of Greek colonists in Italy) and the Romans learned it from them. (Etruscans lived in Etruria (Tuscany and Umbria) between about the 8th century BC and the 1st century AD


Modern Writing Systems

  • logographic: a written character represents both the meaning and pronunciation of each word or morpheme
  • Used in China and Japan
  • Why won’t it work with English or other Indo-European languages?
  • Chinese writing
    • Advantages of a word writing system for China: many of the spoken dialects are mutually unintelligible; writing allows for communication by literate Chinese worldwide
    • Simplified system: based on Traditional Chinese characters – developed in the P.R.C. to improve literacy rates in China
    • Romanized writing: Pinyin allows people who don’t know the characters to read and write Chinese words. Many systems have been developed to do this; Pinyin is the official P.R.C. version
    • Calligraphy: art form developed around Chinese and other Asian word writing systems

Syllabic Writing

  • Used in language with primarily CV syllable structure
  • Inefficient to apply to  language like English, which  has many consonant clusters in syllable structure


  • Two syllabaries, or kana:
    • Hiragana used for native Japanese words (in simplified writing for learners and children)
    • Katakanaused for loan words, special effects (onomatopoeia, sounds), and botanical names
  • Word writing system: Kanji – not completely suitable because Japanese is an inflected language; verbs can have 30 or more different forms. So Kanji is combined with Hiragana to show inflection.  Kanji can be used to disambiguate homographs
  • Romanization system: three systems for ローマ字. (Romaji) These are used for learners and non-Japanese-readers of Japanese words.

Cherokee and other Syllabic Scripts

  • Cherokee was not written until this script was developed in 1819 by George Guess, a.k.a. Chief Sequoyah
  • 18 syllabaries are listed on Omniglot as used for writing several Native American, Celtic, and African languages
  • Surprisingly, more than one of the creators of syllabaries was inspired by a dream: MendeVaiNdjuká

Consonantal Alphabetic Writing

  • Semitic Languages like Hebrew and Arabic are written with only consonants
  • Diacritic marks can express vowels
  • Must know the spoken language to read these alphabets

Alphabetic Writing

  • Sound writing  not totally so it’s more of a phonemic system
  • True phonetic system: IPA
  • Icelandic: “The First Grammarian”
  • Hangul (Korean) invented by King Seijong
  • Special characteristics of alphabetic languages
    • Diacritic Marks: accommodate individual characteristics of particular languages, such as tones,  palatalization
    • Digraphs: two letters written together
  • Cyrillic Alphabet
  • Arabic
  • Farsi  (Persian)

    • Western Farsi, or Persian is  spoken by about 22 million people in central and south central Iran. There  are a further 2 million speakers in many other countries including Australia,  Austria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, India,  Iraq, Israel, Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Sweden and Tajikistan.
    • Eastern Farsi or Dari is  spoken by about 7 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    • Tajiki is spoken by in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan,  Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan by about 4.4 million  people.
  • Urdu an Indo-Aryan language with about 104 million speakers; national language of Pakistan

Reading, Writing, and Speech

  • The purposes of punctuation
    • restrict clauses
    • reflect intonation or pauses
    • provide syntactic information
    • show stress
    • disambiguate
    • Which is more conservative – written or oral language? Why?
  • Reading
  • Spelling
    • The Shavian Alphabet, developed by Kingsley Read
    • Alternative Spelling and the International Phonetic Alphabet Headache Shaw (Or….what you would look like after a lifetime of dealing with English spelling reform)
    • Another superstar of spelling reform, Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain, wrote: The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet. It doesn’t know how to spell, and can’t be taught. In this it is like all other alphabets except one–the phonographic. This is the only competent alphabet in the world. It can spell and correctly pronounce any word in our language.
      Mark Twain
      That admirable alphabet, that brilliant alphabet, that inspired alphabet, can be learned in an hour or two. In a week the student can learn to write it with some little facility, and to read it with considerable ease. I know, for I saw it tried in a public school in Nevada forty-five years ago, and was so impressed by the incident that it has remained in my memory ever since.
    • Unigraf:
      • Unigraf, a name suggesting one and only one grapheme per sound, began as an attempt to find the most intuitive locations on the standard keyboard for 40 plus unique sound signs.  Such a phonascii or asciibet is needed to access the 40+ symbols on a phonetic font.  Others have made key assignments without paying too much attention to the consequences of their choices.  The first 25 phonogram assignments are easy and most developers of phonetic fonts have been in agreement on these. The aeiou keys are usually assigned to the short (checked) vowels and the shifted AEIOU keys are assigned to the most familiar long (free) vowels.  English has 12 pure vowels so positions for an additional two must be found.  This is where the disagreements begin.
    • Homographs: words with the samespelling but different pronunciation
    • Blame the printing press! (for weird English spellings being spread abroad)
    • Spelling reform: with corrections like these…who needs the Greek lesson?
    • Why doesn’t spelling reform work?
    • What is an argument against phonetic spelling in English?
  • Morphophonemic orthography; why English spelling reflects morphemic knowledge; see the plural -s, for example.

Spelling Pronunciations

    This explains the ‘herb’ pronunciation differences between American and British English; Which one is the more conservative?
And how do you pronounce Worcester, Mass? Or Berkeley?